Ritual de lo non-habitual

Pub date October 22, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionDance

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REVIEW Since rituals necessitate a community of believers, presenting one for an audience in a theater runs the risk of becoming a mere item of cultural consumption. Yet, on Oct. 16, master drummer-vocalist-dancer Dohee Lee went beyond expectations. Her oddly named Flux succeeded best in its most ritualistic elements — the moments when it called up soul-wrenching memory, pain, and reconciliation.

The title refers to the ever-changing aspects of all creation. That’s a cliché and doesn’t tell us much about the nature of this, at times, powerful work of dance theater created by the Korean-born Lee and a slew of excellent collaborators. Foremost among them are the musicians of Asian Improv Arts: Francis Wong; Tatsu Aoki, who also created one of Flux‘s films; Jason Lewis; and Jonathan Chen. They are master performers. And as a result of their efforts — along with Lee’s — Flux‘s seamless unity of dance and music made for an exceedingly rare experience. The only other dancer besides Lee was the very capable Sherwood Chen. Relegated for the most part to subsidiary roles, he was, however, underused.

Using the I-Ching as a shaping device and philosophical tool, Lee divided the evocative Flux into nine sections, helpfully explained in the program insert. The work started on a dreamy note and moved through historical sequences to the climactic dramatization focusing on the memory of Lee’s grandmother. The piece wound down to a peaceful, even joyously embracing close with the traditional passing of the Banyayoungsun, the ship that connects the living with ancestors.

Deann Borshay Liem’s excellent appropriations of historic Korean films included sepia-colored portraits of ordinary men and women in addition to haunting sequences of refugees, corpses, and iconic symbols. Combined with Aoki’s more abstract images — water, fire, wind, a ravine — which set the context for the individual sections, Flux captured the experiences of a specific people while placing them in a universal context of human experience. Less effectively, the program notes to the "Fire=Trade" sequence seemed a little naïve in the way it commemorated only the unequal trade treaties "between the US and Korea from 1850 to the present." It’s not as if Asian nations and European powers were entirely innocent when it came to Korea’s woes.

As a performer, Lee is a wonder of versatility and strength. In "Water," she commenced the refugee’s journey by stepping gingerly into the sea, her feet floating and blindly attempting to find firmer ground — her only guide a fan-shaped wooden rattle. In "Thunder," she played a battery of Korean drums with an increasingly furious intensity as we stared at those all-too-familiar images of terrorized faces and rows of bodies, victims of war. In the somewhat prolonged finale, a bouncy, almost jazz-like freedom propelled Lee into a rollicking celebration of hope.

Lee’s duets and the choreography for Chen, in contrast, looked uncertain. They spoke of what may be inexperience choreographing for other dancers. Yet as a soloist, Lee is outstanding. The "Mountain" section was an astounding tour de force that started on a rather low-key interchange between a child and her grandmother, then swelled into something approaching the demonic. The program notes explained that the old woman was recalling her experience during the Korean War, and that the style evokes Korean opera.

The moment was as dramatically powerful as anything in Puccini — and those vocalists don’t dance. Though performed in Korean and therefore verbally unintelligible to many in the audience, the trajectory of this tale of pain and fury was crystal clear. Bent over and dragging a drum behind her, Lee gradually straightened and then whipped herself into shamanistic ecstasy. In the end, standing on her drum, she returned to her guise as a fragile human being. It was the closest thing to a ritual that you are likely to see onstage. *