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A FESTIVAL OF CONTEMPORARY ASIAN DANCE IN NEW YORK CITY.

NEW YORK CITY--A new generation of dance companies from Asia and the Pacific brings fresh images to New York City this month. The fifth Asia-Pacific Contemporary Dance Festival runs July 5 to 17 at the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse and includes companies from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, and Korea. Since its 1993 premiere at La MaMa E.T.C., the festival's goal has remained the same: to present unique and diverse approaches to dance in Asia. The founders, Hong Kong--based producer Daryl Ries and renowned Korean choreographer Sun Ock Lee, were inspired to start the festival by the wealth of recent developments in Far Eastern contemporary dance.

"When I arrived in Hong Kong twenty years ago," says festival coproducer Ries, "social and political changes were already having great effects. Chinese culture was fusing with Western culture, and [the influences] went both ways. Broadway musicals were partly Canto/pop, Peking Opera movements meshed with modern dance, kung fu moved to Hollywood, and an amalgam of Graham technique, Luigi-style [jazz], and disco-rap transformed dance even for local television."

Ries began the Modern Dance Theatre of Hong Kong in 1978. The company became the catalyst for expanded government funding as well as for interest in the arts. Local choreographers were also buoyed by an increased exposure to visiting ballet and contemporary dance companies from the West. In 1990 Ries presented the company of Martha Graham, who was already an iconic figure known for her Asian influences. "[Audiences] took to her work like it was a contemporary Chinese Opera," says Ries. "That raised interest from even conservative people in Hong Kong."

Hong Kong's cosmopolitan blend of East and West plays a prominent part in the Asia-Pacific festival. The West is personified by New York choreographer Rosalind Newman, whose newly established, Hong Kong-based Dance HK/NY performs at the festival. The company combines the fastmoving, colorful style of Newman with the lithe energy of the young Chinese dancers. The company was described by a South China Morning Post critic as "the conjuring up of notions and metaphors, of links, meetings, intersections, directions and--optimistically--the evaporation of boundaries."

Expressions Dance Company, established in 1985 in Brisbane, and thus a latecomer to Australia's modern dance movement, has already established a unique identity as a company. The works performed by Maggi Sietsma's troupe of twelve dancers reflect not only the restlessness in modern Australia but also the country's struggle for a new image aligned with Asia. EDC has performed in Japan, Germany, and Papua New Guinea and has collaborated with a number of Asian companies.

The Korean peninsula presents Asia's most extreme attitude to contemporary dance. Once known as the "hermit kingdom," Korea resisted outside influences for centuries. After the Second World War, the northern half of the country retreated into its socialist shell. But in the Republic of South Korea dance has leapt into the modern age, with choreographers fusing contemporary dance with unselfconscious mysticism as well as creating works based on shaman and Zen mysteries.

The festival performances of Son Mu Ga: Zen Dance Company reflect the interest of Lee--the founder, choreographer, and lead performer of the group--in Zen Buddhism. Known for her dance creations that combine Buddhist traditions and dance theater, Lee is also the author of Zen Dance: Meditation in Movements I and II. She is a multifaceted artist who has garnered praise for her depiction of Zen Buddhist ideas on enlightenment.

With its percussive score and slow-motion dance, Son Mu Ga requires concentration from audiences. This esoteric art, honed to a new form by Lee, is created within the confines of a Buddhist monastery near Seoul, the frequent home of the devout choreographer. Monks often participate in her performances abroad.

Taipei Crossover Dance Company is situated in the territory that has considered itself the only "true" repository for Chinese classical dance. After the distinguished choreographer Lin Hwai-min had studied with and then brought back the techniques of Graham, Taiwan became one of the earliest exponents of modern dance. Lin's Cloud Gate Dance Theatre perfected this alloy of contemporary and Chinese dance theater. Crossover Dance Company, whose founders are former Cloud Gate dancers, has since parted with the Sino-Asian influence, adopting a more international outlook.

The company's name refers to the "crossing over" of dance to a more theatrical presentation as well as to the merging of Orient and Occident. Performances combine modern dance, Chinese opera techniques, and multimedia effects. The company works with local avant-garde theater directors, new wave musicians, and contemporary artists and designers.

Crossover was founded by seasoned performers who wanted to perform again. According to artistic director and choreographer Lo Man-fei, company members are "returning to the stage as established professionals. None of us ever expected that, after reaching our forties, we would again achieve some measure of international fame." The performers are not just dancers; they also act, sing, and speak onstage. All are respected dance educators in Taiwan.

The festival plans to tour the U.S., Canada, and Europe in the future as well as present the New York City showcases at the Kaye. "It's one of the highlights of our season," says Joseph LoSchiavo, director of the Kaye Playhouse. "This festival brings us a well-curated selection of really fine Asian companies and choreographers." The Kaye has become a permanent home for the festival--the theater is contracted to present the festival every two years with an interim symposium in alternate years.

Reviewers of the festival have questioned the concept of polarizing the perceptions of "contemporary" and "Asian." "We tackle those questions with open discussions," says Ries. "We link a choreographer's panel to an open critical discussion that is organized this year by the Kaye and headed by [New York Times dance critic] Jennifer Dunning. [The discussion will cover the issue of] whether Asian modern dance stands alone or is in the mainstream--whether there is such a thing as `Asian dance' or whether it varies by choreographer, country, or tradition.

"In many ways, it resembles the most exciting dance of America or Europe," says Ries. "But when you look more closely, you can see that unique fusion of Buddhism, jazz, tai chi, and the always astonishing Asian inspiration."

New York-born Harry Rolnick lived in Asia for more than 20 years as a writer. He is now in Manhattan working on his next book, Wagner's Bagels.
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Author:Rolnick, Harry
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Jul 1, 1999
Words:1056
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