Origins and Adopted Cultures: Da-On Dance presents ROOT

Doron Perk (red pants) in ROOT.

Da-On Dance in ROOT.

New York, N.Y. With ROOT, which was at the Salvatore Capezio Theater at Peridance Center October 15 and 16, Da-On Dance artistic director and choreographer Jin Ju Song-Begin made her dancers’ biographies not only impossible to ignore, but also key to the entire work. All five performers, including the choreographer herself, are internationals, hailing from South Korea, India, Mexico, Serbia and Israel. Pulling on the dancers’ experiences of immigrating to the United States, ROOT investigates the their shifting relationships to their own origins upon adopting a new culture. Technically rigorous and often surprising, Da-On Dance has in ROOT a charming, thought-provoking showcase for the brilliant humans who populate the company.

The opening of the work positions the audience within the strange journeys that are about to unfold. Upon entering the space, Jerome Begin (the work’s composer and Song-Begin’s husband) asks each person their last name and arbitrarily moves them to one side or the other based on their response. He then begins posing questions to the group, asking for answers in the form of standing on the appropriate “side.”  Queries about citizenship, travel abroad, and employment status predominate. Throughout these instructions, he directed the group through simple gestures, until several questions later the two sides were formed into parallel lines and led to the center of the space.

With a clever lighting change (which the evening had in abundance, courtesy of designer Tuce Yasak), the two lines of audience members become a corridor through which the performers enter. First comes violinist Jennifer Choi, followed by each dancer in turn. Some focus on their destination, while others make eye contact with the people who form walls, but their movements are a simplified abstraction of going through security and immigration at an airport—I see body scans, fingerprinting. Once they emerge at the other end, they begin to speak in their native languages, moving through the two lines, displacing the audience into small clusters in the center. They take seats at the side of the stage and stare, an unsettling moment in dim light. When they gesture to the empty seats next to them, it takes the audience a moment to realize that they’re to sit now. Back to normal roles, the dancers take the space and the audience once again becomes spectators.

Da-On Dance in ROOT

Da-On Dance in ROOT

After that prologue, the dancing begins in earnest. Rohan Bhargava starts a solo at the center, falling to the ground and lurching upright. The other four dancers each take a corner, sprinting to replace each other and barely avoiding collisions with Bhargava; the subtly frantic tones of this moment call to mind one’s first experience of the nonstop sensory overload that is Times Square on a Saturday. In a formula that repeats throughout the rest of the work with varying degrees of effectiveness, other dancers take turns replacing Bhargava in the center for increasingly brief moments, individual movement quirks emerging cautiously, before an accumulation of phrases and dancers brings the whole ensemble first into canon, then unison. The phrasework expands, eating space and allowing for some spatial counterpoint to develop, building to a climax before dissolving and allowing an individual to introduce the next section. Though it began to feel a touch predictable as the work progressed, particularly given that Song-Begin built this piece out of impressively few movement phrases, the ebbs and flows this formula created were clearly born out of the correct instinct to give the audience time to digest, as well as served to illustrate the sound technical chops of the cast.

Next, Bhargava is left alone, falling. He adds level changes to already-familiar gestures, shakes with effort between flowing through extensions and melting to the floor. He grips his elbows with opposite hands, curled protectively over his center as he steps slowly backwards to stand upstage. The other four join him, forming a line across the back of the stage. Perk begins to sing, and slowly each of the others join him, the different songs in different languages weaving an eerie soundscape of homesickness. It is far too short for such an effective moment; or perhaps I simply found the transition (a rhythmic, stamping fall forward, the dancers hunched over as the sound of their feet builds and builds) too abrupt from such a moving interlude.

Doron Perk in ROOT.

Doron Perk in ROOT.

The five find themselves in isolated rectangles of light. Marija Obradovic begins a new phrase that feels precarious in the studied care with which it is danced, careful balance syncopated with toe jabs and quick jumps. Soon the work expands across the space again, the dancers variously spiraling, swaying, sliding, falling. They return to the phrase that began the section, and Obradovic is left alone in a box of light as the others roll into the dark. “My name is Marija,” she says, calmly etching patterns in space as she tells us of Serbia, of her twin sister who still lives there. In the meantime, the rest of the ensemble brings rolls of wax paper and markers onto the stage. They scribble, repeatedly, their names, ages, hometowns (I think, since there were many languages and alphabets being used), the rolls forming a box around the edges of the space as they’re unspooled. They take it in turns to stand and speak, often overlapping—“I didn’t want to change my last name,” declares Song-Begin; “I came here to dance,” Perk says.

Beautiful snippets of phrasework emerge here. The subtle but powerful Maira Duarte picks up a repeated motif, sweeping her arms forward to land on her face, sinking to the floor as she cradles her head—her eyes closed, it seems like a memory that washes further away the more it is handled, or something familiar that resolves to strangeness when more closely examined. Perk borrows the movement as it speeds up, then dances with an almost reckless daring, at turns percussive and sweeping, as the rolls of paper are lifted and become streams of individual pasts. He leaps over them as they swirl around him, speaking as he does it. He catches the end of one and begins to read, crumples it toward him as he gathers it in and, cradling it, walks slowly offstage.

Rohan Bhargava lifts Maira Duarte in ROOT.

Rohan Bhargava lifts Maira Duarte in ROOT.

Bhargava, alone, seems as though he’ll follow, but he backtracks to center. His fingertips lead him into a lunge; the courtly unfurling of a wrist pulls him into a penché that melts to the floor; he kneels and arches so his back touches the ground—a beat, and he arches his neck to look, upside-down, toward the corner. Duarte and Obradovic flow almost conversationally to meet him, legs bursting outward, fingertips seeking heart center. After Bhargava repeats the phrase for everyone, the tone shifts—buoyant, unexpected lifts, the dancers easily supportive. Perk and Obradovic make a particularly charming pairing here. The cast convenes upstage again, but instead of isolated homesickness they seem to find camaraderie, playing a game with each other involving the words ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ (naturally, in many languages) and jumping forward and back—a race, of sorts, eliciting laughter.

It is from here that the exuberantly danced final movement erupts, recognizable phrases from the entirety of the piece re-contextualized as celebratory. Perk and Bhargava fly through an athletic duet; the women get a brief trio full of small, delicate steps. The group unison was sadly less clean than the moment deserved on the evening I saw it, but this was more than made up for by the enthusiasm applied to the final moment. Bhargava runs to meet the other four, who catch him overhead in an image repeated from earlier. The group eats space with increasingly sporadic lifts, until they make a final pass with a leggy, exciting traveling phrase, launching themselves through the air and into an upstage wing as the lights disappear.


All images by David Gonsier, Courtesy Song-Begin.

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Courtney Escoyne is an associate editor at Dance Magazine. A graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts Department of Dance, her writing can also be read in Pointe and Dance Teacher, and on her blog, Thoughts From a Ballet Nerd.

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