Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Pearl Buck's Story, Told Through Dance

Stephanie Kim and Isaac Huerta. Photo: Elizabeth Hinlein
Pearl, a dance/theater spectacular performed at the Koch last week, tells you more than you thought you wanted to know about Pearl Buck, the writer who bridged China and the US. The biographical show, directed and choreographed by Daniel Ezralow, is a fine excuse to build a scale model of the Yangtze River onstage, although if you're sitting in the orchestra, this key element is barely visible. Nonetheless, there are many other design elements (production design by Michael Colten), including some well-conceived projections, that are visually stunning. It's akin to a Broadway show, albeit with dance movements propelling the drama forward instead of songs, plus an occasional voiceover. (I'd love to show you some of the striking set images, but the company did not make any available.)

The prologue features various dancers portraying Pearl at different ages, alternating with their facsimiles projected on the numerous banner screens. We watch Pearl the girl as she observes daily life in China including workers in fields. It's the first big dance number, and it shows Ezralow's skill at describing a narrative picture with many dancers. We learn of her childhood, including three brothers who died young; their deaths are artfully depicted as human silhouettes dissolving into bubbles (creative video design by Mirada).

Pearl bonds with her nanny, is tutored in calligraphy and confucianism, and then joins the fold at Randolph-Macon College in the US; her slow acceptance is signified by hopping at first off rhythm, and then in sync with her fellow students. She meets her first husband, but their marriage falters as relations between China and the US undergo friction. The river symbolizes the respective rifts, and Pearl balances on a raft as it floats downstream. At times, the divide becomes isolating, but bridges are laid down, and borders and relations become fluid. Jun Miyake supplied the broad-ranging music, which incorporated traditional instruments into fluid, plangent, propulsive melodies and rhythms. 

At the beginning of the second act, several lines horizontally cross the proscenium space. These are taut yet stretchy straps from which dancers hang and swing from like acrobats as Pearl furiously mimes typing, representing her most fertile writing period. The lines, one by one, release with a bang from one side of the armature, unsubtle metaphors for the failure of stability. Receiving hasty treatment is her second marriage and her husband's passing. In the exuberant finale, all of the dancers, clad in Oana Botez's white costumes (just one set of numerous changes), circle around Pearl like a source of energy, and then repeatedly line up on the stage's apron, engaging our gaze, turn, run, and leap over the river, which is no longer a barrier.

Ezralow, who once danced with Paul Taylor, seems to give that man a nod with a few Esplanade-like motifs. But he primarily creates a blend of modern, gymnastics, tai chi, and "contemporary" styles to keep things moving, and at times create some fetching tableaus performed by crack dancers. Renowned modern dancer Margie Gillis roots the last part as the older Pearl, moving her upper half with great enthusiasm and expressiveness.

It's entertaining and modestly educational, if you have a hankering to learn about Pearl Buck and while away a couple of pleasant hours in the theater. 

No comments: