A Tribute to Remy Charlip – H.T. Chen and Dancers

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H.T. Chen & Dancers
A Tribute to Remy Charlip
Friday, March 1, 2013
Chen Dance Center

H.T. Chen & Dancers presented a combined celebration of the life and work of Remy Charlip, along with ceremonies for the Chinese New Year.  The Chen Dance Center theater was made to take on the atmosphere of a Chinese Tea House, with servings of tea and cookies provided alongside the seats.   Associate Director Dian Dong described the Tea House as a gathering center for the village, where people came to hear news, but also to socialize, drink tea, and enjoy art together.  I was grateful for the background and context that Ms. Dong provided for the dances.  Some of the stories behind them were every bit as interesting and beautiful as the dances themselves.

The evening opened with a Lantern Procession — based on a traditional procession intended to bring the villagers good luck in the New Year.  Each dancer carried her own unique lantern and moved to music played on traditional Chinese instruments.  There was a strong feeling of community in the dance, especially so when the dancers were joined by three elementary school children in traditional dress, who carried celestial images created by Remy Charlip.

This was followed by H.T. Chen’s 39 Chinese Attitudes, which springs from one of Remy Charlip’s “Airmail Dances”.  Charlip explained, “”I started to do these figures on a page and then give them to dancers, to soloists and groups of dancers, and have them figure out how to get from one position to another – so they worked on the transitions and they thereby made the dance – it’s their dance and it is also my dance.”

For 39 Chinese Attitudes, set to music by Louis Armstrong and Irving Berlin, Chen worked with a combination of Chinese images and images of athletes.  The dance focuses on three movements: jumps, falls and attitudes.  It opens with a sweet little narrative, in which a dancer delights in the fortune she just received in her oversized cookie.  She swoons with happiness and shows it off to the others.  Throughout the dance Chen used the falls to show drama and emotion, but he also used them to great comic effect, sometimes as the dancers deliberately struggled with their balances in attitude.  Other vignettes include an adorable pas de deux between a moonstruck woman and the man who hopes to win her affections — danced by Eva Chan and Juan Michael Porter II.  She swoons from happiness and she gives her partner the classic “come closer” and “leave me alone” gestures.  Their endearing struggle is represented in a lift in which the woman deliberately cannot hold herself up or find her balance.

The dance has a lovely ending in which the women have a comic one-ups-manship struggle over who has more or bigger fortune cookies, until one woman arrives with a tray overflowing with cookies.  This prompts the dancers to serve the cookies and plum wine to the audience.  I felt that this also helped maintain the strong sense of community that I felt from Chen’s dances.  Not only was the company especially hospitable from the beginning to the end of the performance, in doing so they seemed to be acknowledging the importance of the relationship between the dancers and the audience.

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David Vaughn delivered a beautiful reading of Charlip’s humourous Ten Imaginary Dances, in which scenarios were suggested for different dances in the hands of various companies.  This was followed by a wonderful performance by Stephanie Chun and Marlon Feliz who danced Charlip’s Twelve Contra Dances.  This piece really showcased the charm and elegance of Charlip’s work.  Stripped of pretense and technical fireworks, the dance uses deceptively simple movement to create lovely formations.  As with so much of Charlip’s work, it’s sweet without ever being cloying, and it’s humourous without ever going over the top.  I felt that there was beautiful chemistry between the dancers, equal parts from the spirit of the choreography and the spirit of the dancers themselves.

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As the evening closed, we were shown a fascinating collection of photos of a Chinese community among the cotton fields of Cleveland, Mississippi, which will be the inspiration for a new piece that H.T. Chen will be creating.  The closing dance, Between Heaven and Earth culminated with the dancers performing under a shower of beautiful multi-colored confetti, used to great effect.

I thoroughly enjoyed this program and my visit to the Chen Dance Center in Chinatown.  It was wonderful to have this glimpse into the culture and history of the Chinese, as well as to revisit Remy Charlip’s wonderful books, artwork and dances.

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