H.T. Chen & Dancers
at the Dance Center of Columbia College, February 18-20
By Terry Brennan
Art and politics are frequent bedfellows. The most obvious of political dances tend to advocate specific agendas. Liz Lerman’s company of senior citizens promotes respect for the elderly. Most folk dance ensembles advocate ethnic pride and respect for tradition. Sometimes a dance’s politics are as controversial as motherhood and apple pie, and then art is usually the dominant partner.
When the politics are controversial, they dominate. A typical strategy, particularly among gay and lesbian artists, is to “subvert the dominant paradigm,” showing a subculture in the broad caricature that mainstream culture supposedly imposes on it. Pedro Alejandro’s gay striptease, Gaze, during last summer’s Movable Beast festival comes to mind. Bill T. Jones’s Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land is more complex: politics is dominant, but it’s a strange politics that successively denies liberalism, feminism, black nationalism, and black religion; that piece was the wild scream of a bereaved man, denying God and nation. You could say that it advocated AIDS awareness, but that would be like saying a hurricane brings a little rain.
If politics is the dominant element in a work of art, then the work should be judged on its politics. But art with a political agenda makes a better case when it’s aesthetically pleasing, emotionally stirring, or both.
H.T. Chen’s Transparent Hinges is undoubtedly advocacy art: this New York choreographer is trying to raise awareness of the discrimination Chinese-Americans have faced. And undoubtedly his case has merit. Chinese-Americans have frequently been denied basic rights in America, including citizenship. In the 1840s the Supreme Court ruled that only freeborn whites and African natives could be citizens; no Chinese became citizens until the 14th Amendment was passed, after the Civil War. Still, Congress passed miscegenation laws in 1924 saying that any U.S. citizen marrying a nonnaturalized alien from China lost his or her citizenship; that legislation also made it illegal for Chinese women to immigrate. A series of California laws made it illegal for nonnaturalized Chinese to own land or to run businesses. Other legislation–mainly the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882 and renewed ten years later–restricted immigration.
Transparent Hinges has an excellent case, and a story that’s little known, but argues it badly. Chen’s dance is based on the Chinese experience at Angel Island, a detention center in San Francisco Bay where immigrant Chinese were held while their applications for entry were decided under the Chinese Exclusion Act. Some Chinese were held at Angel Island for years, under conditions that more closely resemble jail than the Gold Mountain immigrants imagined. The set offers a dream vision of an abandoned Angel Island barrack, with poles floating in the air. Haunting traditional-sounding music is undergirded by an electronic score, both composed for the dance by Zhou Long. Chen’s ten dancers, most of them Asian, are enthusiastic and skilled.
Transparent Hinges alternates predictable images of oppression at Angel Island with sections of flag-waving militancy. In the Angel Island choreography, arms tend to be thrown wide open, then thrown back over the head in shame; there are lots of crouches and torturous back bends. These sections have the most dancing, but Chen’s choreography is rather mechanical, with symmetrical floor patterns and little movement invention or sense of wonder. The militant sections have masses of dancers moving in unison to rhythmic percussion, as if marching. A handsome young man waves a large yellow flag. Although the flag’s meaning is clear–Asian power–I kept imagining the young man in a Mao cap and jacket waving a flag with a red star, because he so closely resembled the socialist realist cliche.
Other images are more specific–and sometimes more resonant. A man draws a Chinese character on the floor in chalk, then scuffs it with his feet to erase it. A woman carries sticks of incense to each dancer. A man and woman strip to black trunks and are showered with small pellets that burst from one of the hovering poles; this image clearly refers to the inoculation and showers that entrants to Angel Island had to endure, which offended the Chinese sense of modesty. But the dance doesn’t build to these images or develop from them.
Despite its reasonable political aims, Transparent Hinges fails to persuade. First, the piece is abstract, a collage of images. A photo essay in the lobby is required to give viewers enough background to begin to interpret Chen’s images; nonetheless, most remain unclear. Second, the dance is too flat emotionally to convey the anguish of detention on Angel Island–though such anguish continues elsewhere in the world. Just last month a young Algerian in a detention center in Germany was killed by skinheads; articles described the atmosphere at the German detention center in almost the same way that Chen describes Angel Island.
Yet Chen’s starting point still doesn’t necessarily engender sympathy. Detention centers have historically been a fact of life, and although the Chinese Exclusion Act was unfair and racist, it was the law of the land. Like other immigrants, the Chinese were clearly motivated by the desperate circumstances in their own country, and their desperation drove them to take a gamble that failed. The subject matter of Transparent Hinges will undoubtedly appeal to anyone whose sensibilities automatically side with the oppressed. Chinese-Americans, in particular, may find special meaning because they’re familiar with the stories of Angel Island. But Chen misses an opportunity to teach others, so the work creates a sort of political impasse. Its argument is too poor to elicit a sympathetic response from the dominant culture, and thus it feeds directly into the pattern of balkanization that’s paralyzed so much of American politics.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Transparent Hinges photo by Carol Rosegg.