Review: Reveling in Live Dance at Japan Society

Japan Society’s contemporary dance festival, an annual event that samples recent works from several East Asian countries, skipped last year, with the assumption that surely by 2022 everything would be back to normal. Oh well.

Even as the latest virus variant and surge have forced more cancellations and postponements in New York theaters, the show at the society’s Midtown home did go on this weekend, nearly as planned, with four North American premieres, a reduced capacity audience and extra-strict rules on masks (N95 or KN95 required). The vicissitudes of the pandemic forced one group from Japan to appear by video, which helped make the program not just a welcome window onto faraway scenes but another demonstration of the differences between live and filmed dance.

The preshow was wonderfully live. As part of the Taiwanese choreographer Wei-Chia Su’s FreeSteps project, the exceptionally agile dancer NiNi (also known as Yu-Ting Fang) performed on a stage island in the lobby of Japan Society. Twisting her body to the edge of contortion, she spiraled sensuously. Occasionally pausing to stretch skyward before slipping back into her floating groove, she looked like someone continually embracing and escaping herself. This was dance as moving sculpture, a three-dimensional study best appreciated in person.

By contrast, the first selection in the theater was flat — and not only because it was onscreen. “A Hum San Sui,” by Kentaro Kujirai and Barabbas Okuyama, the Japanese choreographers and performers, seemed ill-served by film. The close-ups magnified the mugging quality of these Butoh performers; the framing exacerbated the aimlessness of their mutual circling. At least in an endearing coda, the artists made fun of themselves.

From left, Jinan Kang, Taegyeong Kim and Minsun Choi in “Complement.” Credit…Maria Baranova

“Complement,” by the Korean duo of Minsun Choi and Jinan Kang, was partially about the gap between recorded and live performance. Throughout the piece, the video director Taegyeong Kim was onstage with a camera, filming the dance, sometimes hooking up her equipment to laptops attached to two flat-screen monitors. But the footage of Choi and Kang on those screens was not a live recording. Their movements onscreen differed from what the dancers were doing onstage: a slyly exaggerated reminder that every live performance is unique.

The effect was droll, as was the choreography. The two dancers, accompanied by metronomic clicks and clangs, oscillated like parts of a machine built to do a pendular, hip-wagging dance like the floss. This deadpan feat was periodically altered by the addition of props (balls, tape) and the slapstick humiliation of Kang (pants dropping to ankles). But this apparent randomness sometimes synced with the divergent video: timing that would be impressive (and funny) only, as here, live.

For mind-bending paradoxes, it’s hard to beat quantum physics, the subject of the final selection, “Touchdown,” a solo by the Taiwanese mathematician-turned-choreographer Hao Cheng. Projected text explained some of the physicist Niels Bohr’s epochal discoveries about the fixed orbits of electrons, and then Cheng came onstage and collapsed.

The rest of the work suggested but never clearly explained a personal prompt for that collapse — something about how our paths in life might seem set but are actually uncertain.

Hao Cheng, the Taiwanese mathematician-turned-choreographer, in “Touchdown.”Credit…Maria Baranova

Yet as Kang drew concentric circles on the floor with chalk and flopped around in a pastel version of action painting, he expressed plenty of frustration with uncertainty. How can something be a wave and a particle?, he asked. How can we find gain in loss?

Or, to extend the feeling into our current predicament, how long will this pandemic go on?

We can’t know, but we can pay attention to moments like the final image in “Touchdown” — floating lights representing how electrons “glow when they fall.” And we can remember not to take for granted visits from abroad.

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