UW-Madison dance program chair Jin-Wen Yu celebrates his 50th birthday with his company's Meta-50, an evening of works presented in Lathrop Hall's Margaret H'Doubler Performance Space. Thursday night's opening performance, which included four premieres from Yu, was crowded.
"Two Times" was a solo for dancer Yun-Chen Liu in white pants and crimson sweater. At first she skittered between rectangles of light like a sandpiper. In a satisfying section, her movements began with a flexed foot drawing her leg up, and then later, hand placed on knee, she deliberately pushed her leg down in reverse. Yu, a very exacting technician, was able to imbue a subtle, dreamy quality to this choreography.
The lovely "Facings" was an east-meets-east collaboration between Yu and Ananya Chatterjea, director of dance at the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis. Influences of classical Indian and martial arts permeated the modern work. With saxophonist Nick Zoulek and percussionist/composer Tim Russell on stage, Chatterjea and Yu both reaped the benefit of their maturity as performers with their well-oiled technique.
At first they barely grazed hands as they danced separately, but in close proximity. The calm was punctuated by Chatterjea's percussive outbursts as her strong, grounded legs beat out a rhythm while her supple upper body twisted and her sinewy, graceful hands curved into striking gestures. Yu glided peacefully before bursting into a leap, dropping to the floor or frantically windmilling his arms. They came together in a series of undulating lifts, and she languidly draped her leg across his torso. It's pleasing to see choreographers performing their own steps, fully inhabiting the movement with their style.
In "Excursion," a trio of dancers (Liu, Ryan Dean and Collette Stewart, all in white tunics and loose cropped pants) began by ambling in place with their backs to the audience. They returned to this exaggerated walk throughout the piece, changing directions and slowly making progress as they worked generously together. With a sprig of hair bobbing from his closely cropped head, Dean was an interesting dancer, sometimes raw, but then gentle as he partnered Liu. She leaned into him as the two slowly descended to the floor at an angle. At one point she stood on his back, gingerly stepping, as the talented Stewart smoothly wound her way around the stage.
For a few pretty moments, Liu log-rolled forward toward the audience and then back again as Dean pulled slowly away from her, his hand seeming to dictate her pattern. In another striking phrase, Stewart assisted Liu as she leapt over Dean's back, this time making only a brief landing.
Closing the evening was Yu's birthday solo for himself, "50/50." Yu's composed over 50 dance works, and I found this one mesmerizing. The piece, set to a Taiwanese song, opened with the surprise of the projected image of a younger Yu performing, and then Yu himself appeared in a corridor of sheer scrims. I marveled over Yu's precise physicality and controlled power in the film images, and then again at his still-formidable technique, strength and stage presence at his current age, which in dancer years is quite a feat.
In a nod to a signature piece, he perched precariously on a large rock. After a spray of water seemed to hover in the air when he swished his hand in a partially filled aquarium, he popped up into a handstand. There was a surprising element to this contemplative piece, which while jarring at first was quite beautiful. I don't want to reveal it.
Also on the bill: the blandly pretty "Drifting," which might be showing its age. It featured capable UW dance students in unflattering tops who often waved in a melancholy fashion as they scooted across the stage by turning their feet in and out. Carlyn Pitterle and Mary Patterson stood out from the ensemble with their clean, uncluttered technique and self-assured performances. "Double Feature," with childlike, playful movement (nudging heads and flexed feet ending up in nooks and crannies made by bent knees and elbows) and bouncy French music found chemistry with the dancers Stewart and Liu, but went on a bit too long and became more cloying than cute. "Baazaar, the market place" from Chatterjea was powerful until it became indulgent. Yu's "Transmuting," performed by UW dance students, mostly made me nervous about the possibility of the strapless costumes drooping.