Muna Tseng Dance Projects

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, November 10-12

A crumpled pile of waxy white paper lying upstage begins rising slowly, rustling, almost crackling, a complicated luminescent mass brought to life. Perhaps it’s the brittle covering for some animal, the exoskeleton of some soft, pulpy being. We glimpse small bare feet. Then, like a pupa pushing out of a cocoon, a nude woman emerges, stretches, and plays in the paper as if in surf or snow. Or bedclothes.

The opening section of Muna Tseng’s evening-length The Pink: A Paper Ritual of Eros, based on a 16th-century Chinese erotic novel, contains many hints of what’s to come. Nudity. Foot fetishism, especially in the highly developed form fostered by foot binding. The essential vulnerability of human beings, and the equivocal nature of coverings. The paper that dominates the piece–there are paper costumes, paper musical instruments, and a paper set–was described by a dancer during a discussion afterward as a sort of conduit; press materials said Tseng uses paper “as the symbol for erotic tension.” But the women’s paper breastplates are almost military, spiky and stiff, and to me paper came to represent the protective but often corrupt cultural guises human sexuality often assumes.

You could see the end of The Pink coming a mile away. The final section is called “You and Me, the Pink,” and sure enough, all 13 dancers get naked in a sequence that suggests the passage to death just as surely as the opening section suggests birth. The penultimate section parodies the sexual posturing of fashion models: the dancers adopt modern dress–silky baby-doll pajamas for most of the women, military-style jackets (and, except for jockstraps, only jackets) for the men. They strut upstage and down as if on a runway; one man even moons us. The section ends with a shrieking woman on stilts who has a very loud orgasm after a man sticks his head between her legs. The patent obscenity of this circuslike section–which suggests that covering the body, as the fashion world does so obsessively, is itself corrupt–sets us up for the dancers’ final nakedness. In a trope that isn’t exactly new, Tseng makes nudity the equivalent of innocence.

Yet I couldn’t help being moved by the brief final section, in which the dancers simply doff their clothes and file offstage. For one thing, nudity inevitably arouses complicated feelings–titillation, pity, gratitude. And I think that at heart Tseng’s project is honorable: to examine the mystery of sexuality, its essential innocence and corruption. On the continuum of sexual practices, where does innocence end and corruption begin? Is foot fetishism wrong? Is foot binding wrong? Is foot binding wrong if a woman consents? What if her consent is the result of cultural coercion, primarily from other women?

Despite Tseng’s next-to-last section, most of her images are beautiful, luminous and serene. The lighting is delicate but dramatic, the costumes are simple, suggestive, and suited to moving, and the set–three glowing lanterns suspended like ghosts above the stage–is elegantly spare. Tan Dun’s score for paper instruments and voice is remarkably versatile: skittery and breathy, it erases the sense we often have in Western orchestral music that the instruments are a barrier between the musicians and the audience. Bruce Gremo (who made a paper flute for these performances), Dina Emerson, and Lisa Karrer play and sing their parts with technical and emotional finesse. In short, The Pink is exceptionally well crafted. And unlike the evening of Tseng dances I saw three years ago at the Dance Center, it communicates quite clearly. Nevertheless, in the end it isn’t completely satisfying.

Part of the problem may be the very beauty of Tseng’s images, which tends to obliterate any moral distinctions. It’s not that Tseng should necessarily take a stand against foot binding, arguably an excellent example of the way male domination of women can become codified. Tseng said in a Reader calendar-page interview that this is not a political work. But does she have no point of view whatsoever on this and related issues?

The piece is filled with strange juxtapositions and changes in tone. The focal point of a section in which a woman is carried and swooped about, Gerald Arpino-style, by five men is her pitiable halting stagger across the stage: with her feet mutilated by the culture, she’s the victim of her own beauty, entirely helpless and dependent on men. Yet Tseng follows up this rather bitter commentary with a lighthearted duet for a man and a woman who create little bumps in an unrolled carpet of paper and blow them back and forth at each other like waves–as evocative an image as I’ve seen of the fragile, playful, slightly competitive nature of sexual arousal. A section in which a man (Gremo) appears to have a conversation with a woman’s legs, or actually with her toes, is accompanied by a shadowy image behind an upstage screen of a man kissing a woman’s feet; then the downstage woman clasps the man about the waist with her legs in what looks like a death grip, and he raises his flute as if to stab her; this is followed by a section for several seated couples who essentially use their legs and feet to flirt.

Most disturbing and contradictory of all is a “pillow book” section near the end. In China pillow books were erotic stories printed on a long sheet of paper folded fanlike. Downstage we see a seated woman playing with one, running it between her hands, and upstage a man reading one behind a screen. Coming out, he approaches her and places a proprietary hand on her head. He puts his mouth to her ear, but she turns away. He picks up the paper with his toes, she picks it up with her teeth. After more erotic play (in which the paper does indeed act as a conduit), she kneels and he wraps her in a long sheet of it. Finally, when she’s entirely bound, he tucks the end in between her breasts, thrusting his hand deep between the paper and her body.

By this point they’re surrounded by a group of people making music. And suddenly, as the man stands before the kneeling woman raising his arm as if to strike her, he begins conducting them in their barking, cheeping sounds as if they were a Western orchestra. Of course this sudden strange image makes the audience laugh. Then the man proceeds to unwrap the woman and wrap himself–but his wrapped figure has a completely different effect from hers, perhaps because he stands and she kneels: where she looks bound and subservient, he’s lordly and swaggering. He walks behind while she crawls in front of him on her hands and knees, nearly naked from the waist up, a beast before its master.

As horrifying as this image is, it’s also beautiful, because Marika Blossfeldt makes it beautiful. This wonderful dancer, who has an uncommon physical, sexual, and emotional fluidity, undulates her back in remarkable, distinctly human, musically sinuous motions: no donkey or cow could move like this. We’re made aware simultaneously of the beauty of the female figure in this bowed, subjugated position and the horror of one human being so thoroughly dominating another.

Finally, The Pink made me wonder whether a work can be both erotic and critical of pornography. Tseng apparently wants to have it both ways, and the result is a fascinating but somewhat confused performance. The fact is, her work often relies for its erotic power on the same images of domination and subjugation she also criticizes. Are these archetypes or stereotypes? The answer is crucial, because one type of image can and should be changed and the other is timeless, inborn, immutable. Too often what we get here are only stereotypes, though they’re so beautifully rendered they approach the archetypal, and the brave new erotic world Tseng is pursuing eludes her.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Mundy.