at the Dance Center of Columbia College

December 5-7

Muna Tseng’s dances recall the subtle eroticism of Chinese portraits of women, which expose in minute detail such small, personal moments of everyday life as grooming and solitary eating. Both these portraits and Tseng’s dances sometimes give the impression we’re observing something not really meant for public consumption, and that voyeuristic tinge both titillates and repels.

Tseng is an American of Chinese descent who was born in Hong Kong and lived there until she was 13, when her family moved to Canada. She danced with choreographer Jean Erdman, the wife of mythologist Joseph Campbell, for seven years, and has been showing her own work in New York for the last ten. Though her technical training has been exclusively Western, she has always, as she said in an interview, “drawn unconsciously from the Asian part of my psyche.” Certainly the three dances she and her group performed at the Dance Center last weekend looked Asian to me, though in a modern-dance idiom, with the same calm, unemotional, and almost impenetrable surface of a Chinese landscape. But it may be that Tseng’s works are somewhat inaccessible simply because her imagery is so personal and her manner of performance so self-involved.

In Spirit Ruins, a premiere, two women (Tseng and singer/dancer Victoria Boomsma) come together and part via small feminine rituals. First Boomsma, then Tseng opens a small red box, blows powder off a puff, and dusts her neck, cheeks, and arms. (It’s a sign of the delicacy and subtlety of the dancing that, unlike Boomsma, Tseng powders her cheek warily, as if the puff might burn her.) While Tseng powders, Boomsma stands in an upstage corner uttering small noises–the little moans and hums and clicks we might make when we’re by ourselves–to accompany the recorded music (by Ari Frankel). Then Tseng begins to move about the stage in circular, fluid, rather monotonic choreography that’s exquisitely performed but otherwise unremarkable.

Spirit Ruins does include some striking gestural and movement motifs. Tseng makes kissing sounds into her own palm; later one dancer rests her cheek on the other’s palm, then kisses it. Still later the same gestures are repeated but the sounds are less like kissing than eating. In one phrase the dancers stand side by side in identical poses and their left arms glide upward slowly, like plants growing; the dancers’ arms end up linked. Spirit Ruins suggests a symbiotic relationship, a relationship cemented by the final sequence in which one woman appears to prepare the other for the grave, partially disrobing and powdering her, then mourning in a voice that rises eerily from a sob to a shriek.

Many images in Spirit Ruins seem to come from a train of thought so personal and specific that it excludes the viewer. Consider the enigmatic program note for this dance: “Spirit Ruins (a Chinese acupuncture point) represents the region where the spirit resides and thus reminds us that the point is near the heart.” Shattered: Hymns for Mortal Creatures is also rather obscure. Press materials informed me that this solo, danced by Tseng, was inspired by the “tragedy in the Persian Gulf” and expresses “shades of loss and suffering that reached beyond borders, nationalities and species.”

Yet on its face Shattered is almost as inward and collected as Spirit Ruins. I would never have known it was a dance about suffering if I hadn’t been told. I would never have known that a repeated sequence of stepping in place with the hands and arms swirling downward to the floor, then brought up behind Tseng like Odette’s entrapped and fluttering wings in Swan Lake was meant to recall the media images of “birds caught in the oil slick, struggling to be free” that Tseng described in an interview. In the final sequence, performed under a spotlight, Tseng is almost stationary, moving very musically to the piano score and song in French (also by Frankel); but once again the power comes from the lyrical idiosyncrasy of her dancing, suggesting that Tseng may be essentially a solo artist, not a choreographer.

The final work on this program, Water Mysteries, took shape over a four-year period, and its loose, associative structure may be the result of that long evolution. Bruce Tovsky’s music ties the different sections together; its natural sounds–whirring insects, running water, rain, and thunder–are appropriate to the dance but come perilously close to cliche. Some of the visual effects are stunning, however, particularly the way candles are placed near glass blocks to create rippling, wavelike shadows on the dancers hovering over them.

Water Mysteries is a dance for four women (Tseng, Boomsma, Winnie Chin, and Kaela Lee) filled with shadows. The candles and the often dark stage (lighting by Susanne Poulin) have something to do with that. A candle held under an upraised chin creates a stark white curve and obliterates the face. A dancer suspended in a high arabesque over one of the lit glass blocks, her head almost to the floor, throws shadows over her leg so that her ankle and pointed foot seem to float by themselves in the dark. The solo in which Tseng impersonates a mermaid is also shadowy–though she’s brightly lit when we see her, blackouts separate the short movement sequences and allow Tseng to move about the stage under cover of darkness.

Tseng can’t move much, though, because her legs are bound tightly together by a long gauzy skirt. She manages some freedom of movement nevertheless, and by the end she’s shed her cocoon in a tub of water, sponging her bare shoulders and walking in a cloud of sheer wet fabric across several glass blocks.

Tseng has chosen peekaboo costumes of one sort or another for all three dances. In Spirit Ruins the women are well covered, but in fabric so sheer it’s nearly transparent. In Shattered Tseng wears what appears to be a bathing suit slashed almost into ribbons (she’s also danced it in just a loincloth). And in Water Mysteries Chin and Lee wear muslin dresses with spaghetti straps and long skirts slit up the back almost to the buttocks. The duet Tseng has choreographed for them features a ritualistic walk in profile in which the hind leg is dragged, splitting the skirt to reveal the inside of the upstage leg.

Dance costumes are often revealing, but Tseng’s rely so consistently on partial nudity that nudity seems a concern, almost a preoccupation. Perhaps Tseng associates throwing off clothes with throwing off shackles, associates nudity with liberation–not a new or unusual idea. But it’s the way clothing is doffed or undermined that made me squirm: the alternate concealment and exposure, the seductive pretense that we’re not looking.

The duet in Water Mysteries made me particularly uncomfortable. It’s essentially a ritual hair washing: Chin’s and Lee’s long hair, worn loose, is first tossed here and there in teasing clouds around their heads, then combed with their hands, dunked in tubs of water, flung in great arcs to create pattering rainstorms, dragged like mops in wet streams across the floor. Kneeling and bending to immerse their heads, the women reveal the napes of their necks–the epitome of faceless, helpless souls, ready for the guillotine or whatever else comes next. I think the source of these images is male fantasies about women’s passivity and vulnerability, male voyeuristic thrills at seeing women undress, powder themselves, or wash their hair, (maybe) believing themselves unseen. Though Tseng is a talented dancer and creates stage pictures that are often beautiful, she seems stuck in cultural attitudes and images defined by men.

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