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Peiling Kao Dances: One Body, Five Dances, Six Perspectives
Sima Belmar, Ph.D., Life As a Modern Dancer
© © 2019
June 4, 2019


Photo © Marley Aiu

Peiling Kao Dances

One Body, Five Dances, Six Perspectives

May 25, 2019

Dance Mission Theater

Peiling Kao’s program note: “One Body, Five Dances, Six Perspectives is the first phase in my research on the postcolonial body in postmodern dance.”

Pithy program note. And dense. A program note that says, “I’m not gonna be ignored, Dan.”

I couldn’t ignore it if I tried because, you know, a PhD in performance studies cannot ignore the words “postcolonial” and “postmodern.” Nor the word “research.”

So while I make sure not to ignore the program note so my bunny doesn’t get boiled, I am also avoiding writing this as I write it because Jill asked me for a review and I don’t write reviews anymore.

But this is Jill we’re talking about. And this is Life as a Modern Dancer blog, best dance blog in the blogosphere. And this is Peiling Kao, one of the greatest dancers in the Western tradition I’ve ever seen.

[Skids to a screeching halt.]

I’ve been listening to a lot of John O’Donohue lately, the late Irish Catholic poet mystic. He says “the Catholic tradition,” “the Christian tradition,” “the Celtic tradition,” a lot and I know he knows that every tradition holds history and multiplicity and yet there’s that “the” all the time. So “the Western tradition” can mean a lot of things but I use it here (and then slam on the brakes) because Peiling is from Taiwan and trained in Chinese and Taiwanese dance along with Euro-American ballet, modern, and postmodern dance, so I guess we have “the Eastern tradition” too. But since there’s no one tradition in any cardinal direction, all I can say is Peiling’s the genuine article blasting through the definitiveness of the definite article.

To review: This is a review that fact checks the reviewer’s experience with the artist. If I’d had more time, I’d have talked with the five choreographers as well. But, alas, deadlines.

So—“the postcolonial body.” What does that mean beyond, perhaps, the body that comes into being after colonialism? In a pinch, I recommend turning to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) to define terms such as “postcolonial” because there’s not always time to snuggle up with Foucault, Said, and Spivak when writing 1000 words about a dance performance, even one that uses the term “postcolonial” in its program note.

And then—“postmodern dance.” Please refer to the Sally Banes/Susan Manning debate about this term that circulated in the academic journal TDR in the late 80s.[1] You will not find a definitive definition of postmodern in the dance context there, but you might enjoy the duke-it-out dance between dance scholars.

In conversation with my compANNion at the performance, I tried to explain my understanding of “the postcolonial body in postmodern dance” in the context of Kao’s performance. I made a lot of sense and sounded very smart. I said things like, “As a person from Taiwan, Kao is a (post)colonial subject because Taiwan has been colonized multiple times—by the Dutch, the Chinese, the Japanese—and is currently a contested state: PRC? ROC?”

[Lying through my teeth.]

I actually muttered something about Taiwan and then did some research on its history after speaking with Kao. I did say to my friend that Kao is trained in multiple dance traditions and several dancers of color are asking whether dance techniques that emerged in Europe and among European Americans in the US are particularly colonial in their impact on their bodies. I might have waxed on about how postcolonial theory contends that to know something in an epistemology grounded in imperialism is to have power over it and drily mused that Kao is clearly questioning postmodern dance’s discursive claims to a certain neutrality. Note how “post” doesn’t operate in the same way here: postmodern dance, especially of the Fenley, “analytic” (Banes) variety, loves concepts of purity, universality, and neutrality, whereas postcolonial theory claims there can be no neutral, every discourse comes from a position and has an agenda. Is Kao making a decolonizing move?

[Fucking grad school.]

I had to talk to Peiling because what does my body know about the postcolonial body? My body might know something about postmodern dance but as a white woman, I haven’t had to spend a moment thinking about whether my body has been colonized by it.

Over the phone after the show, Kao back in Honolulu, Kao told me that she has been thinking a lot about a question Gerald Casel has asked about whether a dancer’s body can be colonized by choreographic intention. “There are different ways to examine whether or not choreography is a colonizing force,” she said. “I don’t think of dance training and technique as colonizing forces necessarily—it’s a process of learning. We have to deal with power, as Gerald and I discussed post-show. If the commission comes from me, can we say I’ve been colonized? During the process, I felt like I was giving the power to those choreographers. I bow myself down, you tell me what I need to do and I will do my best, I’ll try again and again. In a collaborative process, a choreographer might see me as an equal power in the process—I’m giving you power and you’re also giving the power back to me.”

Shit! I forgot to mention that the concert was a solo show of five dances commissioned by Kao from five female choreographers: Betsy Fisher, Ming-Shen Ku, Molissa Fenley, Hope Mohr, and Christy Funsch. The postcolonial body in postmodern dance became a frame for the concert that Kao hung around the evening with resistance: “Presenting a solo show my intention can very easily be a showcase, just to see five dance pieces. Why does it have to be connected to an academic concept as a selling point?” I could hear her blush when I said she is a selling point all by herself.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but what was Kao doing on stage? What did the dances look like?

Molissa Fenley’s “Artifact” appeared to operate as the navel center or origin story for the evening, though the two dances that preceded it, Betsy Fisher’s “Synapse” and Ming-Shen Ku’s “Liminal Turnings,” seemed to point towards an earlier era in modern dance when…

[Zzzzzzzz.]

Sorry, I dozed off because I’m so tired of making sense and being fair and giving enough information. If this were a real review and you, reader, had a chance to decide whether or not see this performance, if it had more than a two-night run, this is all you need to know: Kao’s dancing is flawless. There was neither a stumble nor a stutter. Every line was clear, every landing quiet, every balance rooted to the earth. In every piece but Fenley’s, Kao seemed to breeze through; even in Mohr’s at times Charles Atlas-strength-based choreography, Kao didn’t seem to break a sweat. In Fenley’s piece, she begins to glisten. The Cunninghamesque choreography is unforgiving—there’s no momentum to rely on, no music, no swirling costume. But this doesn’t make it neutral. Its geometries are geographies, space-times of another era. A white female—Fenley, Rainer, Brown—investigation of movement. And Kao dances in full mastery.

Mastery. The postcolonial question returns.

About midway through the evening, after having seen Kao run in circles several times I thought, “I could watch her run on a treadmill and be content.” Happily, Funsch provided a section in her work “California” that looked like treadmill running. In a square of light, Kao runs in profile. Her running is occasionally punctuated by missteps, jagged hiccups that looked almost like digital glitches. Moments of “California” were bathed in orange light and Kao, in her bear-hugging-the-state-of-California t-shirt, looked like a teenager. When she started talking about Asian American culture and the withering death of a bonsai tree, I wanted Funsch to have more time with Kao so a more fleshed-out version could make less tenuous the connections between California, Asianness/Asian-Americanness, and postmodern dance.

So, Yeats: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Despite the zillion times this line has been quoted in the context of dance writing, I’d never read the whole poem. Did you know this line is the last line of the EIGHT STANZA poem, Among School Children? And that the poem has next to nothing to do with dance? Bear with me as I offer a quick and dirty analysis of the last stanza:

Labour is blossoming or dancing where

The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,

Nor beauty born out of its own despair,

Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Yeats doesn’t appear to be talking about dancing labor in the Marxist sense (though tables dance in Marx, labor, it seems, does not) nor in the postcolonial or technical sense. Here, to be dancing is to be whole. If the labor discussed in this poem were the labor of dancing, then the dancer would not question the dance. There is no way the dancing labor of the dancer would glisten because to glisten is to betray the labor that it seems we shouldn’t see because all we would see is soul. If the dancer is hurting or even just visibly taxing her body she is not in fact, according to Yeats, it seems, dancing.

And yet, back to O’Donohue: “Your body is, in essence, a crowd of different members who work in harmony to make your belonging in the world possible.” Kao’s dancing labor and dancing knowledge do not make a seamless whole. Kao is a dancing crowd and she belongs. When you can, go see her dance; sit back, and just (g)listen.

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[1] Manning responded to Banes’ Terpsichore in Sneakers with “Modernist Dogma and Post-modern rhetoric.” Then TDR published Banes’ response to Manning and Manning’s response to Banes’ response and called the dialogue “Terpsichore in Combat Boots.”

 

Sima Belmar, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Oakland Tribune, Dance Magazine, TDR, Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices, Performance Matters, Contemporary Theatre Review, and The Oxford Handbook of Screendance Studies. Her writing on living in Naples can be found at undertheneapolitanson.blogspot.com. To keep up with Sima’s writing please subscribe to tinyletter.com/simabelmar.

https://blog.lifeasamoderndancer.com/2019/06/peiling-kao-dances-one-body-five-dances-six-perspectives.html

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