by Kat Richter for The Dance Journal | photo credit RobLi Photography
Between Koresh, Project Moshen, and Shut Up and Dance, the annual MANNA fundraiser presented by the dancers of Pennsylvania Ballet, there was no shortage of great dance to be had in Philadelphia this past weekend. I found myself at The Prince Theater, for Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers’ Sanctuary, a split bill featuring a world premiere of the eponymous Santuario and ONE-Immortal Game, which I had the pleasure of seeing when it debuted in 2013.
Inspired by the game of chess (but expertly avoiding the overly gestural choreography this might suggest) ONE pits two players against one another, perched atop two cubes, hands whirring above an imagery board. Their “moves” become movements, gaining speed and losing their patient, measured quality as the dancers refuse to wait their turns any longer.
The curtain opens to reveal a white grid on the stage. Two “teams” of dancers vie for space, walking, pivoting, slicing their limbs through the through the air. The true inspiration for the piece becomes clear: not just chess, but the frustrating stagnation of the political climate in 2012, when choreographer Kun-Yang Lin first became an American citizen. The dancing is exquisite, and returning guest artist Shaness Kemp provides a grounded counterpoint to the coiled energy of veteran dancer Liu Mo, but the players are political parties, and for every inch of ground they seem to gain, the game ends in a stalemate.
We could wring our hands and say little has changed in Congress, but to do so would be to ignore, as Lin rightly points out in his program note, “We are living in a time when it feels as if our very humanity is under siege. There are aggressions against the environment, health care, immigrants and other marginalized people, even the arts. Our SANCTUARIES no longer seem safe. There is an air of oppression. So many unknowns.”
Lin’s work, or at least what I’ve seen of it, always has a spiritual component. There’s usually something political too, but here the oft-used term “offering” is more apt than usual: Lin and his dancers are giving their audiences something, and on Thursday night, that something was hope.
Before the premiere of Santuario, Executive Director Ken Metzner explained that the work’s “impulse” comprised the tragic shootings at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. “It was Latin night,” he explained, not sugarcoating the “normalization of hatred” and “demonization of others” that took the lives of nearly 50 young people that night. And yet amidst the paintings, sculptures, poems and photographs left at the site to honor the victims are blank sheets of poster board, markers, and ribbon, urging visitors to create something beautiful as their tribute. This, precisely, is what Lin has done.
A campy club scene begins the work, with the company of dancers dressed in black and ready for a good time. They vogue and vamp, and we almost want to laugh because it’s so much fun but something happens; the dancers freeze and begin to bob their heads like chickens.
Lighting designer Stephen Petrilli is to be commended for the bright diagonals he carves into the space, their steep, funnel-like shapes piercing the darkness. We know what’s happening without exactly seeing it happen as the dancers begin to fall, slow motion, hinting at unspeakable carnage without explicitly rendering it onstage. A series of duets, the first performed by Liu Mo and Nikolai McKenzie, are tender as arms twine in “V” shapes. We’re reminded not just of the people but of the relationships that died that night.
Company veteran Jessica Warchal-King, visibly pregnant, brings another layer to the work. She screams repeatedly, forcing us to think of the parents who lost children and continue to do so, not just at Pulse but at traffic stops, parks, storefronts, and, most recently, leaving a house party.
The dancers conclude by kneeling down to face the audience, reminiscent somehow of Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. They remove their black tops to reveal bare chests or flesh colored bras and we no longer see them as men or as women but simply as human, stripped of the costumes that would have us peg them in one box or another.
The catchy refrain of Safe and Sound by Capital Cities comes as a welcome relief as the company bows and I can’t help but feel a little better about the state of the world. Love will triumph with artists like Kun-Yang Lin adding dance to the arsenal of the resistance.
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