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The Margaret Jenkins Dance Company and the Guangdong Modern Dance Company

'Other Suns (A Trilogy)'

by Carmel Morgan

October 30, 2009 -- The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland

In 2007, the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company (“MJDC”) and the Tanusree Shankar Dance Company from India combined forces to present the evening-length collaborative piece, “A Slipping Glimpse,” at the University of Maryland’s College Park campus.  In 2009, the MJDC retuned to the Maryland campus with another international collaborative work, “Other Suns (A Trilogy),” which was choreographed by Jenkins and Liu Qi of the Guangdong Modern Dance Company (“GMDC”), with collaboration from dancers from each company.  Both “A Slipping Glimpse” and “Other Suns” riveted the audience and brought to the forefront the challenges and joys of working with dancers from other cultures. 

What Jenkins is doing in the dance world lately is beyond remarkable; it’s truly unparalleled.  I’m incredibly thankful to have been able to witness the works that resulted from her interactions with dancers from India and now China.  In “A Slipping Glimpse,” the Indian dancers maintained their unique movement style throughout the work, but in “Other Suns,” something different happened.  The Chinese dancers, although their movement was largely distinguishable from the Americans’, blended more smoothly into the batter.  In the final section of the work, in which all of the dancers danced together, an astounding synergy took place.  Although I searched hard to find the Chinese and American dancers, they were not easy to pick out from a distance.  Pairs of Chinese and American dancers moved as units rather than individuals simply dancing in tandem.  

I learned in a pre-performance lecture by University of Maryland Department of Dance alumna Ling Tang that modern dance in China had its beginnings with a Chinese dancer who studied under Isadora Duncan in Paris.  It was not until 1992, however, when Shen Wei helped to found the GMDC, that modern dance finally took hold in China.  Thus, modern dance as an art form in China is still in its infancy.  In a post-performance discussion, I was moved by the Chinese performers’ newfound enthusiasm for modern dance.  One explained that ballet is like a frame with nothing in the middle.  He pursued modern dance, he explained, because it offers more possibilities for self-expression. 

The “Other Suns” trilogy was dived into three sections.  The visual design, by Alexander V. Nichols, was electrifying.  It included a series of somewhat low-hanging triangular-shaped light bulbs (sort of like heat lamps for fast food fries) that made it appear as if the dancers were enclosed in a box, or perhaps dancing on a planet that rotated around a sun separate from our own.  In addition, a sculpture of crooked hanging pipes hung like a hovering thunderstorm from the ceiling. 

First, the MJDC performed “Other Suns I.”  Music by Paul Dresher, with additional music by Bun-Ching Lam, accompanied this piece.  A recurring motif, encountered throughout the trilogy, began in this first section when dancers standing side by side formed a human wall against which Amy Foley, a guest artist replacing Heidi Schweiker, propelled herself.  “Other Suns I” also introduced spatial relationships that recurred throughout the trilogy.  Groups of dancers huddled together in various clumps, while others danced alone. This set up a theme of insider versus outsider or individuality versus the group that continued during the duration of “Other Suns.”     

“Other Suns I” was not sunny and warm like the sun, as one might expect.  Instead, the work had a colder, meditative feeling.  One’s eyes kept scanning the busy stage catching quickly developing and disappearing clusters.  Dancers stretched their arms like archers.  Others resembled martial artists as they made sharp angles with their bodies.  When the music became livelier, there was a wonderful sequence in which heads titled and arms flapped, rippling like birds shaking off water.  Here, the work reminded me of spring, with new buds popping up everywhere.  Twice that I counted, a single dancer, lifted toward the ceiling, gently tapped one of the hanging bulbs.  At the close of “Other Suns I” a dancer took several basketball dunk swats at a bulb, finally causing the lights to snap out dramatically.

In “Other Suns II (Voice After),” the GMDC took the stage in silvery outfits.  Somehow everything shimmered, including the liquid dancing.  Much of the movement involved sweeping limbs across the floor.  Legs and arms opened softly like tentacles of a sea anemone as dancers rolled, folding into fetal curls, all in gorgeous precision.  One couldn’t help but be reminded of Shen Wei’s signature floor-grazing movement.  A human wall appeared in this section as well.  The Chinese dancers wrapped their arms around each other, however, as one dancer tried to push through the line.  An almost mythic strength emerged.  Compared to “Other Suns I,” there was much more unison among the dancers, although there were a number of breakout solos, too. 

The final section of the trilogy, “Other Suns III (Crossings),” brought both troupes together.  The full stage offered more partnering options.  Jenkins and her dancer-collaborators choreographed a tremendous amount of daring duets and trios.  The American and Chinese dancers seemed to borrow from each other, and they did so beautifully.  The dancers pushed and pulled and lifted and leaned and, above all, trusted each other.  Using no hands, a dancer transported another dancer bent over one shoulder.  When their bodies joined, they achieved shocking intimacy.  Moving as a group they were also especially powerful.  Dancers walked forward (and backward) together with incredible self-possession.  The group chemistry was not only palpable, but deeply affecting.

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