Lang Theater, Atlas Performing Arts Center, Washington, DC; October 25, 2014
Looking carefully through the program notes, I discovered the meaning behind the “Gin” in “Gin Dance Company” (GDC), founded by Taiwanese-born Shu-Chen Cuff in 2011. I figured it was not the drink! Indeed, the name comes from the true translation of Shu-Chen’s name, which ought to have been “Shu-Gin,” but for a mistake in her paperwork when she immigrated to the United States in 1994 to pursue her dancing dreams. In founding her own dance company, she decided to reclaim “Gin,” a name meaning ‘real’, ‘truthful’, and ‘sincere’. Cuff’s company, appropriately given its name, conveys human truths through movement.
What struck me most about GDC’s performance was the hopefulness that the four works presented exuded. Act I, “East Meets West,” consisted of “The Teller”, a five-part piece choreographed by Cuff. In many ways it reminded me of Asian-themed ones I watched Cuff perform when she was a member of the DC-based Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company. I doubt Cuff would dispute that Dana Tai Soon Burgess’s choreography has strongly influenced her.
In “The Teller”, Cuff portrayed a fortune teller, who wore a conical straw hat and sat on a wooden bench above which hung a paper lantern in an upper corner of the stage. Usually, Cuff’s head was tilted downward so that the hat obscured her face. The rest of the dancers, a group of seven, wore wide-legged black pants and a white blouse. Much of the telling in “The Teller” was related through gesture, and the dancers effectively used their hands and upper bodies in beautiful precision to make the work come alive. The movement was carefully orchestrated and yet it also seemed to flow organically. What worked less well was the use of video footage on a screen behind the dancers. Dark tree limbs against a bright sky whizzed by like a view from the window of a moving car. The effect was dizzying, and sometimes I completely lost the shape of the dancers among the tangle of trees in front of which they danced. Other video clips, like a close-up of the palm of a hand, did not induce as much dizziness, but the visuals did not seem necessary, and for me, they did not enhance the work.
Act II consisted of three short pieces, each of which had a lighter, more playful air. “Face to Face” and “That’s Mozart”, both choreographed by Cuff, offered many comic elements. In “Face to Face”, five dancers in brightly colored tops and leggings posed and mimed taking selfies to the sounds of cell phones buzzing and pinging. Silly photos of the dancers then popped up on the screen behind them. The dancers exaggeratedly titled their heads, stared at and manipulated invisible smart phones, and froze in various forms, seemingly experiencing difficulty with actual face-to-face conversation. The work was clownish and cute, but less imaginative and certainly less intense than “The Teller”.
“That’s Mozart”, not surprisingly danced to the music of Mozart, featured ten dancers, including Cuff, in a fun assortment of costumes with a bold black and white stripe theme. Large cutouts of musical notes dangled above the stage. Here, the dancing most resembled classical ballet, and yet the piece also mocked ballet’s formality and tossed many of the rules out of the window. The dancers had purposely plastic grins. Their arms flourished dramatically along with the trills of the music. At one point, a male dancer chose to leave the woman he’d been partnering flat on the floor.
The only work on the program not choreographed by Cuff was “Just One” by new company member Elizabeth Lucrezio. It centered on a message of hopefulness and giving, and reminded me of the Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Lucrezio, in a voiceover narrative adapted from “The Starfish Story”, told a tale of a girl, undeterred by the fact that she could not save all of the starfish along a beach, who insisted on tossing some endangered starfish back into the ocean because her efforts made a difference to the ones she saved. In the work’s touching last moments, in dim lights, one saw the dark outlines of all of the six dancers with their backs toward the audience, their arms throwing unseen starfish back into the sea. The cleverly woven structure of “Just One,” which showed off a series of strong duets, reflected real choreographic talent.
Overall, GDC’s young dancers were extremely well rehearsed, and their hard work shined. Cuff definitely has the astute eye of a good choreographer and director, and she knows how to achieve a vision. What a shame that the East Meets West” program was one night only.
I also feel the need to compliment whoever was responsible for the lighting design. I assume that the lighting, as it went uncredited in the program, was taken care of by the house production team at the Atlas. Whoever was responsible did a very fine job, and it added to the enjoyment of the evening.
A final nod has to go the house staff of the Atlas Performing Arts Center, who handled a mid-performance emergency with the utmost professionalism. Someone from the audience collapsed, but rather than bringing up the house lights and interrupting the performance (which would have been justified under the circumstances), somehow the emergency personnel who were called to the scene, through staff guidance, were able to carry out their duties in such a way that other than a few bits of whispered conversation, I hardly noticed anything was amiss until I left the theater at intermission, and I saw emergency medical technicians hovered over a patient just outside the main entrance. That incident exemplifies the phrase “the show must go on.”