Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers, one of Philadelphia’s leading modern dance companies, embodies the “zen-inspired practice of dance” of its founder and Artistic Director, Kun-Yang Lin—whose approach to choreography and performance is informed by his deep connection to both traditional Eastern arts and Western contemporary dance. Lin first studied dance in his native Taiwan, and then studied and danced professionally in London and New York City. He formed KYL/D in 1998 in New York before moving the company to Philadelphia in 2008.
Celebrating its 25th year as a performing ensemble, the company presented a concert series over the past weekend (March 10-11) at the Mandell Theater. The program featured works ranging from 2022 all the way back to the company’s origins in 1997. Alternating casts performed in many of the pieces over the course of the series, highlighting the ongoing process of passing the company’s repertoire on to new dancers.
Kylin’s Garden, performed by Evalina Carbonell on Friday and Keila Pérez-Vega on Saturday, is an early solo that Lin first choreographed for himself in 1997. A spoken word text by Steve Craig explains the role of the Kylin, or Unicorn, in Chinese mythology; and the gorgeous and strange solo illustrates the contrasting qualities of the fabled creature. On Saturday afternoon (when I attended the performance), Pérez-Vega appeared in a shimmering gold costume (designed by Jill Peterson) and masterfully conjured the image of the Kylin—seeming to marvel at the self-discoveries she made as she transformed into an “active dreamer.”
Another early work, Love Song (1998), was danced with an honesty of expression by Robert Burden and Campbell Tosney (alternating with Sophie Malin). The piece originally featured two male dancers but was reworked in 2023 as a male and female duet. The pair are together from the beginning, keeping in touch with each other until the very end. They wear flesh-colored leotards which emphasize their elemental essence; floating through partnered lifts and side-by-side turns to lyrical music by Arvo Part.
The Wind 2 (2022) is the most recent solo Lin choreographed, originally for himself, and was alternately performed by Carbonell and Weiwei Ma—with support from the KYL/D ensemble and community participants who stood up in their seats in the audience to perform the closing steps with the dancers on stage. The piece is set to the haunting “I am Lost to the World” by Gustav Mahler with vocals by Dame Janet Baker. Draped in a simple white gown, Carbonell reminded me of Isadora Duncan on Saturday afternoon, seeming to hold the music inside herself as she expressively stretched out her open arms or turned and arched back toward the audience.
Lin’s group dance, Traces of Brush, generated the strongest impact on the retrospective program. Choreographed by Lin in 2004, the rousing piece brings the ancient art of Chinese calligraphy to life in the form of dancing bodies (clothed in loose black pants and shirts designed by Peterson and Lin). Introducing the action to come, special guest Kenneth Metzner appeared onstage to recite a poem by Myrna Patterson. The splendid Ma, billed as KYL/D’s “Lead Chinese Dancer,” weaves in and out of Brush as a solo figure—waving a black scarf like flowing ink or gesticulating with wagging fingers, her face hidden by an open fan.
Animated by an original score by Andy Teirstein, KYL/D’s full ensemble moves from the basic building blocks of letters and words to the fluid expression of language. At times the dancers operate individually or in pairs to create complex shapes with their bodies, evoking characters on the page; other times they join together in unison, controlling and directing their energy as if practicing a martial art form; eventually, they let loose, reaching a new level of intensity and deploying all of their body parts—shoulders, fingers, feet, and heads—with fluent precision as Brush reaches a climax of pure, swirling energy.
The program also included premieres by two of KYL/D’s senior company members, Carbonell and Wa. Both were inspired by the sculpture, “Dragon’s Shrill in the Cosmic Void” by Yuyu Yang; and both succeeded in using the dancers to build a strong sense of sculptural shape. The two small-group pieces provided an interesting contrast as well, with Carbonell’s Shrill a study of cooperation, and Ma’s Dragon a study of oppositional energies and rhythms. Stephen Petrilli’s lighting design for both pieces cast shadowy patterns on the floor of the stage, adding to the mysterious atmosphere.
The retrospective program offered a stirring look back on a fruitful quarter-century of dancing. Captivated audiences will look forward to seeing where KYL/D goes next.
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