Unseasonable dances for unsuspecting audiences
<<Spectators at LMCC’s Sitelines performances of H.T. Chen and Dancers and Sharon Estacio in Columbus Park can physically follow the shifting focus of the performance or stay put in hopes it will come nearer at some point.
What would the great critic and poet Edwin Denby have thought of H.T. Chen’s “Oasis” and Sharon Estacio’s “eat, sleep, swim…fly…crawl?” The choreographers’ collaboration in Chinatown’s recently reopened Columbus Park tests Denby’s creed—that everything is potentially worth observing—when groups of dancers are on level ground with unsuspecting folks enjoying an unseasonably beautiful evening in the park.
Mahjong, soccer, and deli dinners on park benches fade away as music “collages,” at just the right decibel, call the ersatz audience to attention. Sound design is attributed to the choreographers and includes instrumental music and some Chinese words. August 9 was opening night of this Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Sitelines pairing.
The dance begins quietly, unobtrusively, like “Afternoon of the Faun.” Maria Garvey, Mackenzie Hagan, Kayan Lam, Kyrie Oda, Kimberly Prosa, and Despina Stamos lounge on large boulders in a central garden. They rise as if awakening and dance on the rocks alone or in duet while Enrique Guzman walks calmly to a wicker birdcage hanging from a tree and stands with his head inside. The prospective audience—settled into firmly entrenched daily or weekly rituals of relaxation and play—turn to watch Chen’s dancers, who flutter away along the curved asphalt paths like birds in flight trailing brightly colored towel capes.
“Oasis” alternates with “eat, sleep” and occurs in different places. Spectators can physically follow the shifting focus of the performance or stay put in hopes it will come nearer at some point—it’s like watching a Chinese dragon. Indeed, Chen’s women look segmented running with linked arms in bright orange, purple, green tank tops with strokes of sequins.
The stated intent of each choreographer is a bit different with Chen’s a celebration of the park’s role in his Chinatown community, and Estacio’s a reflection on the behavior of park patrons—how they “lose themselves in the space.” The two sensibilities and movement vocabularies are unified with the excellent sound, the decision to have bright chemical colors in the costumes, the bird theme, and the way in which the audience is guided by the dancers movement into focusing on one or the other sequence. Both achieve an artificial presence that is dramatically hyper real in the natural setting.
Estacio, Will Rawls, and Rebecca Mehan sit at a picnic table each with an orange stuffed in their mouth and bed pillows tied to their backs like puffy angel wings. The spectacle balloons as the circle of onlookers widens around this game—the trio calmly soaks it in. Later this group dances in the park’s huge fenced in Astroturf field with stilted, tortured birdlike moves.
A vague story develops around Mehan’s solo and Estacio and Rawls tumbling over one another. Rawls places the women on the tall wire fence where they cling and climb. Meanwhile Chen’s group hangs from a soccer goal like a row of dead birds. As if in an afterlife they duet with paper parasols. Guzman, the seer, walks with a parasol striped of its paper covering—visually cycling back to the beginning image of the wicker cage.
The different working processes are evident. Where Chen’s dancers follow his set choreography, “eat, sleep” is a collaboration within a collaboration. Rawls, and Mehan are credited as having a hand.
Each vision is compelling in its own way. Chen has been on the scene for a long time and “Oasis” is subtly sophisticated. You always know what Chen’s dancers are doing and why, even if sometimes their movement is too forced, too innocent. Chen’s beginning scene is frontal, as if he’s creating a stage in the park.
Both seem to strive for abandonment, but up and coming Estacio and her crew lose some purpose while losing themselves. The trio are excellent movers who connect as if their dance grew out of improvisation in the natural setting. A sense of trouble in paradise is embedded in their play, which ends inconclusively.