Jin-Wen Yu Dance

at Link’s Hall, October 22-23

By Terry Brennan

In Drumming Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker emphasizes multiplicity over individuality–the viewer is presented with multiple visions. Classical modern dance has a more traditional humanist orientation, focusing on the experience of the individual, an emphasis well illustrated in a concert by Jin-Wen Yu Dance at Link’s Hall.

In dance, the path to technical mastery has frequently been used as a metaphor for an individual’s experience–for the hero’s journey. In classical ballet, technical skill is also used to justify social hierarchies: different levels of skill are manifested very concretely in the division of dancers into principals, soloists, featured dancers, and corps. In ballet it’s self-evident that hierarchy is a natural structure for human society: princes and nobles are usually played by principal dancers, and the corps de ballet are often peasants. When ballet recognizes democracy, as in the swans of Swan Lake, a prima dancer is still distinguished by her skill, and the corps functions as the setting for this jewel. A well-danced Swan Lake makes it abundantly clear that such skill requires intense discipline and love of the art form; pursuing this level of artistry is the hero’s journey.

Modern dance, on the other hand, is oriented toward democracy even though it’s inherited the tradition of the soloist as hero. In early works Martha Graham depicted herself as an individual pitted against a faceless mass. As modern dance aged, the soloist became a mythic hero facing the darkness within herself–Graham spent most of the 1950s pursuing this theme.

Yu updates this tradition in his solo Divining Rod. The story is quite simple–a man finds a stick on the ground–but the fable behind it reveals the artist as hero, trying to master a technique. He’s able to pick up the divining rod with his toes and manipulate it without ever using his hands, and his artistry allows him to participate in the divine.

Yu’s solo is stirring rather than cloying because throughout the concert he demonstrates that he’s achieved mastery. He performs pieces by his teachers and heroes–Jan Erkert’s Love Poems and Sean Curran’s Lazy Man’s Load. Lori Dillon and Yunchen Liu dance his Terpsichores of Wind, a nicely composed dance on a rather stilted subject. His solo for Dillon, Still Lighting, sensitively explores a woman’s neurotic search for love when she’s surrounded by those who need love; in a splendid visual metaphor, bicycle flashers represent the pulsing of need and desire. His best work is a medium-tempo comic duet he performs with Liu, Hi, Listen! Life Is Short and Vital, Be Easy…. Its comedy is warm rather than frantic, with a number of well-choreographed sequences that fit Bobby McFerrin’s mellow, yet enlivening music perfectly.

Especially pleasing is the moral perspective expressed in the title and in Yu’s choreography. His mastery, achieved through the rigors of a hero’s journey, give him the right to propose a moral vision. The dancers in De Keersmaeker’s company have also achieved mastery but are outside the modern-dance humanist tradition, so their mastery doesn’t have the resonant meaning that Yu’s does. They’re collaborators and he’s a leader–and at this time, when traditional leadership has been challenged on so many fronts and so many visions have proved false, leaders providing moral vision are all too scarce.