An Abstract Year of the Snake Slithers onto the Stage

Categories: Dance

Photo by Terry Lin

If you have ever felt a snake coil around your fingers, you know that they feel cool, smooth, and muscular as they ripple over the comparatively simple structure of your joints. By western convention, it is difficult not to see something fiendish in their forked tongues and uncanny eyes and, in Chinese lore, those born in the year of the snake are considered elegant, clever, and perhaps a little wily. However, those expecting reptilian imagery at Year of the Snake, a multimedia work combining the talents of dancer/choreographer Peiling Kao, writer/visual artist Karl Jensen, and musician/composer Jason Hoopes at CounterPULSE November 15-18 would have been disappointed.

The piece is abstract, grounded in the text by Jensen that served as the basis for the movement and music. The writing, as Hoopes confessed, is "dense," and filled with choreographic suggestion, according to Kao. The first rendition of the piece, a seventeen-minute solo, was premiered in Kao's native Taiwan this July. But in keeping with the theme of transition and transformation, they dismantled the solo, breaking the music and the steps into two sections that occupied peripheral units in a seven-part score for four dancers.

Kao began and ended the piece alone upstage right, spinning with her arms pulling and pushing against an unseen skin, always dancing alone to Hoopes's luminous music. She performed her solos like invocations, making the simple into the eloquent in the way she spread her fingers, shivered, joined her palms, swung her arms like pendulums, appeared to push aside a door or a past, drew her first finger carefully across her opposite forearm. That the movement originated in her own body was evident. She danced with sleek articulation, moving sequentially through her skeleton or gathering an impressive stillness about her.

The three women who entered after her, Kristin Damrow, Janet Das, and Nadia Oka, were well-matched but clearly of a different, more ponderous nature. They danced in twos and threes, occasionally repeating a gesture from Kao's solo, occasionally brushing each other with the palms of their hands in a gesture that might have been caring or aggressive but did not come across as emphatically either. Sometimes the brushing was directed at the self, in the tight small strokes of the obsessive, the hand on the upper quadrant of the thigh, as if to rid the body of an undefined itch.

detail of visual art by Karl Jensen, photo by Irene Hsiao

All were clad in white costumes by Keriann Egeland with black stripes sketched across them, echoing the bars running across Jensen's artwork in the lobby and the projection that occupied the central section of the piece that produced a blurred or obscured vision of the natural. The effect of the costumes on the bare black stage, edged along the back and house right with white walls and house left with a black curtain, was such that the dancers alternately appeared in sharp relief against the background or receded into it. The lighting scheme, by Delayne Medoff, repeatedly plunged the stage into darkness, constantly presenting a midnight and a dawn, a protracted blink of the eye.

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Peiling is one of the most hypnotic performers in the Bay Area.  I look forward to seeing and reading more about her work.


Very descriptive and visceral writing!  Made the abstract seem quite tangible.

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