Lost and Found: Dance in Translation with Other Sunsposted on October 16th, 2009 by Pamela Vachon
This thought was marinating as I went to see the culturally collaborative, contemporary dance trilogy Other Suns on Thursday night: “Music is not an international language. It consists of a whole series of equally logical but different systems.” This nugget was drilled into me by an ethnomusicologist professor and seemed apropos given what I’d learned about the creation period for this piece. What about dance, then? Is movement truly an international language, or does it too consist of different systems, steeped in the cultures from which diverse styles are born?
Choreographer Margaret Jenkins curated notions of communication and balance with her company of San Francisco-based dancers, then took her dancers to China to further develop these ideas in collaboration with the Guangdong Modern Dance Company (GMDC), following which the GMDC developed its own conjugation of the material. (Notably, the collaboration between both companies was used as the finale of the trilogy.)
The highest note for me was the dancers’ apparent commitment—to the high-octane energy in the movement and to each other. Instead of some East-meets-West hybrid that I admittedly was expecting, I felt in the dancers’ ease that perhaps movement is an international language, though language barriers still played their part. I felt “trust” was also an idea that was necessarily explored, witnessing some daredevil partnering and knowing that the partners involved wouldn’t have had the benefit of spoken language to negotiate their stunts. It came down to the human experience—if I leap, you will catch me. The most successful moments occurred when all dancers onstage moved as a unit—not in unison nor with uniformity necessarily but as equal parts of a whole, functioning systematically, with each turn, breath, or leap both a reaction to and a preparation for the movement happening around it. The scenic detail, while highly evocative of “suns” with dozens of single bulbs suspended above the dancers’ heads, was nonetheless understated in its lovely atmospheric effect: we’re all on this planet together.
Jenkins maintained a blog during her time in China. She speaks with equal parts affection and frustration about having hers and her dancers’ ideas translated for the Chinese dancers, and having their responses translated back, both in movement and in dialogue. “Wonderful accidents” occurred, she remarks. As a PS she transcribes a note left in her hotel: “In order to make you feel convenient… we hope our service does not have anything culpable… we endeavor to create happiness like with family.”
Watching Other Suns, this haphazard but loveable translation struck me as more than just a postscript. Sometimes the dance meandered while exploring its ideas, but the meaning was clear enough. As in the hotel note above, sometimes meandering around the point makes for moments of wonderful accidental poetry.
Pamela Vachon works for Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in New York City, and is an emerging freelance writer.