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“Twelve Contra Dances”

Remy Charlip (1929-2012) was one of the dance world’s best-loved artists. Known for his wit, Charlip lived a rich artistic life as a choreographer, dancer, and children’s book author/illustrator. His dances explored even the most everyday things—like taking a shower— and his methods for dance making were highly innovative. As I hurried into the Chen Dance Center at 70 Mulberry Street, I looked forward to celebrating his life as an audience member for the closing night of H.T. Chen and Dancer’s Lantern Festival Performances: A Tribute to Remy Charlip.

The sound of children’s voices greeted me as I entered the lobby of the space. Some sat with family, snacking on the dumplings and tangerines that were set out for guests to enjoy. Others huddled in a corner of the room, practicing writing Chinese characters with paintbrushes and black ink. Members of H.T. Chen Dance Company were interspersed within the crowd, serving refreshments and chatting with patrons. It was a sweet scene at the Chen Dance Center, warm and with a feeling of family.

Guests moved over to a sliding door that opened to the postage stamp sized blackbox theater. Dian Dong, Associate Director of H.T. Chen Dance Company, called each guest by name, then seated them personally. Once all guests were seated, Dong gave a short talk on the biographical and artistic history of Mr. Remy Charlip. Then, she joined the audience to enjoy the evening of dance.

First up was Lantern Procession. Six dancers entered the stage holding colorful, globe-shaped, paper lanterns. They weaved around one another, following curved paths across the floor and tracing similar patterns in the air with their lanterns. Three small children held cartoonish images of stars and clouds as they ran out to center stage. Bouncing and jumping to the music, the children were obviously having fun. Watching their joy was fun in itself.

Next was H.T. Chen’s 39 Chinese Attitudes. Inspired by Charlip’s Air Mail Dances, the piece was composed exclusively of variations upon three movements—fall, jump, and attitude. Chen’s tall and long-limbed dancers’ movements remained expansive and expressive regardless of the performance space’s limited dimensions. The piece ended with a thought-provoking change of roles. All of Chen’s female dancers came out into the audience to offer guests fortune cookies and plum wine, while Dong stepped up again to explain traditional customs in Chinese teahouses.

Dong returned to join the audience as guest artist David Vaughan rose out from his seat in the house and walked to the center of the stage. A music stand was in front of him, a cool, blue, light surrounded him, and so began Charlip’s Ten Imaginary Dances. Vaughan read aloud ten vignettes envisioned and written by Charlip, all of them witty, silly, and likely impossible. As I imagined the fantastic dance possibilities that Charlip suggested, I found myself smiling. Ten Imaginary Dances may be the most engaging work I saw that evening. Instead of putting someone’s creativity on display for others to admire, this piece expected and required audience members to be creative themselves.

The fourth piece, also choreographed by Charlip, was Twelve Contra Dances. A duet originally choreographed on two spools of thread, this dance was a simple—but not simplistic—, cheerful, and clear expression of the many ways that two moving bodies can relate in the same space. The piece and its origins brought to mind a question that merits serious consideration—are human beings the only beings that can dance? Or, is dancing something that thread, bees, or even robots can do?

Chen’s Between Heaven and Earth closed the evening. A colorful series of shifting images performed by the full company and set to a powerful score by Chinese composers Zhou Long and Chen Yi, this piece also incorporated visually stunning elements of spectacle. The rainbow colored confetti was particularly beautiful to watch. After having so many new ideas presented to me tonight, I find myself wondering if the specks of colorful paper that floated before me might be dancing too.

I left the Chen Dance Center having realized three, important truths.

1) The dance world and the world in generally are lucky to have housed Remy Charlip’s creative spirit for 83 years.

2) When we acknowledge our dance ancestors, we not only honor their lives and contributions to art, but also allow ourselves an opportunity to meaningfully reflect on what we have inherited from them.

3) Adult theatergoers often take themselves too seriously and often forget that theater, even dance, can be filled with moments of silliness, surprise, and anticipation. Watching theater with children is a great way to remember this.

Written by Alejandra Iannone

Alejandra Iannone is an interdisciplinary artist who relocated to the Twin Cities after a decade in New York City. Her writing has been published by DIYdancer, Dancer’s Turn, and the International Journal of Technoethics. She has performed at venues like the Josie Robertson Plaza at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Jacob’s Pillow, the Ailey Citigroup Theater, and the Versace Mansion. Alejandra’s choreography has been presented in New York City and throughout the Twin Cities Metro Area. She is the Creative Director of Sparkle Theatricals, an American Ballet Theatre® Certified Teacher, and a Balanced Body® Certified Pilates Instructor. Alejandra graduated with high honors from the Ailey School Fordham University B.F.A. Program and holds an M.A. in Philosophy from Temple University. She is a citizen of Argentina and the U.S.A.