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Dance Review

Lily Cai Troupe Blends Modern Sense With Chinese Lyricism

April 30, 2001|JENNIFER FISHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Shanghai dancer-choreographer Lily Cai first came to the United States, she was advised to give up her profession, she told the audience between her company's dances on Friday night at the Marsee Auditorium of El Camino College. That was back in the 1980s, and it was assumed that Chinese dance couldn't thrive in a country where Michael Jackson was the most famous dancer.

Oddly enough, there is some semblance of an MTV sensibility in much of Cai's hybrid choreography--not the frantic beat or wandering attention span; Cai is too steeped in the smooth curves and careful lyricism of Asian aesthetics for that. Based in San Francisco, the Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company has more of a remote, high-fashion sense of cool, along with an emphasis on eye-catching designs.

In pieces such as "Begin From Here" (1996) and the "Dance From Qing" and "Straw Hat Girl" sections of her "Dynasty Suite" (1993), Cai's seven lithe female dancers shifted into curving postures or glided across the stage with the self-contained languor of models who seem to have secrets. The fusion of Cai's traditional Chinese dance background with more contemporary Western forms was always present. There were remnants of coy maidens of old--tiny steps, a sweet settling into S-curves, gently wreathing arms. But there were also jutting hips, shoulder isolations and knowing gazes.

Whether the women (joined occasionally by Cai) were in gold and red satin robes or loose crimson jumpsuits, their smooth surfaces were on display. To breathy electronic music (on tape, composed by Gang Situ and Gary Schwantes), dancers drifted into poses elegantly, sometimes breaking into brief bursts of leaping and, very occasionally, flailing in anguish. Some scrubbing imagery in "Begin From Here" started to have an impact separate from the purely decorative. But mostly, the program was pretty in a static way. The dancing body seemed contained, molded in the name of shape and colorful design and not motivated by active impulses.

* Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company performs the same program at Campbell Hall, UC Santa Barbara, Tuesday, 8 p.m. $19-25. (805) 893-3535.

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