Our Bare Truths at the Conwell Theater

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

The dance concert Our Bare Truths was comprised of MFA Thesis work by choreographer-dancers Chenyu Xiong, Alissa Elegant and Qijundai Liu performed at The Conwell Theater on the Temple University Campus. It showcased three distinctly different choreographic voices, polished multi-media elements, and dancers who were making the most of long-form, substantive dance pieces.

Electronic static soundtrack flooded the theater at the opening of The Body Constrained by Chenyu Xiong, who portrays an arresting figure in a white shroud and a red ropy fabric covering her face, and ceremoniously makes her way over the stage, as seven women cluster in on the floor. The dancers perform mechanical moves and then swarm around her, their hands wrap around her torso, palms seem to be breathing as they palpitate out of her torso. The dancers break out in a lot of running on and off stage or interspersed with kneeling configurations during which they execute unison, decidedly rote gestures, laced with rhythmic torso contractions.

Ying Yu, also in the red hooded shroud and Xiong are prostrate on the floor, in convulsive motion, perhaps expressing the physiology of being constrained, as the sound field becomes oppressive.  Later, Yu and Xiong perform a duet in which one dancer starts to pull the red thread with sinuous precision of body line in counterpoint to the geometrics of the thread being unspooled.  Even though the dancers’ faces are concealed, their psychological contact is dramatic.  The male-female duet entre act is infused with tender body interlocks and lyrical dance phrases and beautifully controlled pacing and chemistry as danced by Wangbo Zhu and Ying Yu.  Save for the choreographic ponderings in the front scenes, this was evocative and engaging work.

Alissa Elegant’s Harbin, My Refuge was set in 1930’s political upheaval in Harbin, Manchuria and told the harrowing story of Eva Krongouz, her family displaced victims of Joseph Stalin’s political purges.  The family tries to hold together even as her father becomes ill, only to be broken apart when the Japanese seized Manchuria.

Eva was sent to a Catholic boarding school run by missionaries, where she converted to Catholicism, but still remembers scenes of her mother, father, sister, and brother holding Jewish traditions through dance and music. Her cultural turmoil is symbolized through dance as she navigates through ballet training that is juxtaposed with Asian traditions of music and dance. Elegant depicts the family scenes on one side of the stage. Simultaneously playing out on the other side of the stage is Eva with her school classmates in waves of balletic and Asian dance stylizations.  Elegant is a strong narrative choreographer who is not afraid to be dance literal in movement and character.  This piece could easily be expanded into a longer work, but the split staging divides scene focus.

Colin Murray delivers a terrific character performance dancing the effects of a progressively debilitating illness. Murray and Elegant’s poignant duet of tremulous rotating arabesques is beautifully done.  Eva becomes a drifter in the too lengthy hallucinatory denouement. Images of her family float in film projections behind the stage, as a live video feed of her performance, fade in on screen as she has a complete emotional breakdown. As performed, there were problems in the strength of transitional and ensemble tightness, but this cast danced with conviction, led by Elegant who danced the part of Eva in both performances after another dancer had to bow out due to illness.

Oijundai Liu’s Masks is a stunner from start to finish. The lights come up on a lurching mound of opaque fabric, limbs and masked heads press against this membrane The cast is in semi-glittery nylon tops and black togs. The masks on the backs of their heads creates a spellbinding effect of movement. The illusion of inverse body movement is created. It is a classic technique in ancient Chinese Opera to skewer the viewer’s hard-wired perception of how the body works.

A central duet is performed by Emma Valeria and Peyton Bellman, each with two masks on their heads and dressed in black rubber tops and silk saris. First seated opposite each other at a large table, then on the table in an intimate Kama Sutra position, they perform a series of dispassionate, body wave isometrics (neo-degage) that morph into stunning bodyscapes.  As the scene progresses, they get more acrobatic. Valeria’s mask flies off as they express both tender and emotionally conflicted movement. They end up splayed on the table unmasked. A mesmerizing solo by Liu follows, as she is masked and moves across the stage creating grotesquely beautiful shapes in a skin of sheer fabric, then sheds that skin, and has a few moments of liberated dance before she is sucked back into that amorphous mass that has just remolded on the stage.

The film and music elements work very well in Masks, from the original acoustic/electronica soundtrack by Darryl Justin Padilla to the b&w film projected of two masked dancers, masks in place as they dance backward on a barren mudflat with mountains in the distance.  It is no surprise that after seeing this work that Liu has won a full scholarship at the American Dance Festival.

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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