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Rituals for the '80s : The Unusual Performances of Choreographer Yen Lu Wong

January 12, 1986|BEVIS HILLIER | Bevis Hillier is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine

Meeting Yen Lu Wong makes you feel that you are living life on too shallow a level. The Los Angeles dancer and choreographer seems to read profound symbolism into everything and to juggle space and time with Einstein-like dexterity. William Blake wrote of seeing the world in a grain of sand. Wong perceives the universe in a grain of rice. Rice is the theme of the latest . . . dance? . . . happening? What should one call it? . . . that she is planning to stage with Moebius, the performance ensemble she and her husband, Herbert Shore, founded in 1972.

For the production, artist Francoise Gilot (the mother of Picasso's children, Claude and Paloma, and now the wife of Jonas Salk, discoverer of the polio vaccine), has designed a pressed-paper mask--a white, gaping face of holy vacancy.

When I look at one of Wong's dance events, I am struck by the artistic tableau: melodramatic posings of figures flaming with colored robes, swathed in bandages or poised in combat with bamboo staffs. But when Wong talks about her latest work and what it means, we are soon in the realm of symbolism.

"The work is about transformation," she says. "Rice is eaten by more than three quarters of the population of the world, and it is the oldest grain cultivated. The technology and the wisdom that it took to harness the grain are, I think, a kind of psalm to man's potential."

Something else that interests Yen Lu Wong--and here we get into deeper water still--is the spiral. Or, rather, the helix. "The spiral and helix have basically one difference," she explains. "The spiral presumes a point, but the helix is open. And I feel that for humankind to enter the 21st Century, we need to come to a different level of consciousness. If we are to go up in a holocaust, some of us want to go with at least some beauty and with a sense of joy, of celebration."

She's lost me, by now. I am conscious that I am talking to a person of high intelligence and great sincerity. But I'm a fellow who lives rather on the surface of things. I don't often think about how I intend to comport myself in a holocaust. And I'm not quite sure how that fits in with rice and helixes, either. I ask Wong:

"How can you go up with joy and celebration when a hydrogen bomb drops on you?"

"We have to live day by day," she replies with Delphic concision.

"Do you mean that the very moment it drops, we should be living in a good way?"

"Uh-huh. And that, actually, is not contrary to Buddhist thought--that the way you die is the way you live, and that life and death are, after all, not diametrically opposed, because the opposite of death is not life; it is birth, and in between is life."

What are her own religious views?

"I don't belong to any institutionalized religion, but I grew up with Buddhism as a major part of my role-consciousness." She was born in Kunming, Yunnan province, in southwest China, near Tibet, the daughter of a manager of the Bank of China.

Wong's father was kind to the poor; he encouraged her to give them half of the money placed under her pillow at the Chinese New Year. But as a capitalist, he had a rough time from 1946 to 1949, the time of the Chinese Revolution. In 1950 the family moved to Hong Kong, where Yen Lu Wong had her basic schooling. She came to the United States in 1958 to study medicine at Tufts University. In the summers, she studied at Columbia Medical School. And at Columbia, her career was changed when she met Martha Graham, who had founded the Center for Contemporary Dance there. Wong was impressed that Asians, blacks and whites were dancing together at the Graham Center.

For Wong, as a comparatively rich girl in China, a career in theater or dancing had been out. It was not socially acceptable to join the Peking Theater. And when she studied ballet in Hong Kong, most of the students were English, and the English dancing teacher told her: "We can't have one of the swans (in 'Swan Lake') a different color." After training with Graham and at the Laban Institute, New York, Wong became an independent choreographer and an American citizen; but 10 years after taking citizenship, she was still irked by references to her as "the China-born choreographer" or "the Chinese-American choreographer." When she traveled, it was always her passport that was requested on the bus at the Mexican border. She decided to confront the problem in her work.

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