There are dozens and dozens of fuchsia feathered arrows in Yin Mei's 80-minute dance poem, "/Asunder," at UCLA's Macgowan Little Theater on Wednesday night. At first, only a few of them arc across the stage at intervals, in silence, landing with a plastic clatter on the other side. You think, "Cupid, love, fate. Chances flying by and crashing."
Then after a long parade of minimalist solos and duets that speak of yearning, menace and emotional fragility, the four-person cast starts throwing fists full of arrows at two white strips of cloth that bisect the stage. Thanks to Velcro tips and very receptive fabric, the arrows (designed by Cai Guo-Qiang) hang from a banner like dying bougainvillea or sprout crazily from the floor like trampled tulips. Either way, it doesn't look like good news for love.
In the rhapsodic scenes that come before, though, it's clear that romantic love is not the topic (the dance is nominally based on the tale of a monk who falls in love). Longing for something and feeling lost is more like it. And perhaps the meditative goal of searching calmly, with no mandate to make sense of it all.
Choreographically, that adds up to a lot of picturesque slow motion, with non-sequitur gesture combined with a lyrical carving of space that seems borne on delicate breath. The slash that precedes the title, Yin Mei has said, stands for a breath taken before plunging in.
Born in China and now based in New York, Yin Mei has a strong sense of design and is a dancer of luminous clarity. She retains a few head tilts and sashaying from her early folk dance training, but they are couched in postmodern phrasing. In the strongly evocative solo that begins "/Asunder," her movement hallmarks emerge: a combination of delicacy and strong intention, and firmly rooted feet that support swooning explorations of arms and torso. Her hands careen, grab, flutter and cup the air tenderly; a hip juts suddenly like a puppet's joint, and a shimmer of shaking takes over. In her face there is deep-rooted wariness as she seems to work out inner thoughts.
A series of danced or mimed segments unfolds, sometimes in silk and draperies, with masks and fans covering faces. Yin is often paired with Nyoman Catra, a Balinese dancer whose deft weight-shifting and outstretched, wavering fingers look menacing in this context, as if he's a stalking shadow or seducer. He enfolds Yin at one point, and their arms intertwine as if they're weaving a spell. Alone, he collapses in sobs that turn to demonic laughter, followed quickly by pain and calm stillness.
A duet early on sets up Polyxeni Argyriou and Will Orzo in opposition to their more stylized and weightless fellow dancers. Wearing slim pants and T-shirts, they twist and turn as Orzo manipulates Argyriou so that she never touches the ground.
Later, the couple provides the only swerve into comedy, after a pose-driven solo in which Argyriou clutches a French horn to her bare chest. She faces us, still holding the French horn, when Orzo, coming up behind her, reaches the mouthpiece and keys well enough to play, "Are You Lonely Tonight?" This tone shift sticks out, resulting perhaps from the fact that the original cast collaborated with Yin on the choreography--Argyriou and Catra are new to the work.
What colors these various segments most vividly is Robert Een's score, played by the composer and musicians who sit in the darkened upstage left corner. Een's cello swells with the warm fullness of loss at some points, or combines with Toby Newman's wordless singing to create the feeling of a cool, sharp wind. Bill Ruyle's hammer dulcimer ties together emotional hues like a pointillist painting; and Jeff Berman bends a chord or strums his Appalachian dulcimer straightforwardly to stunning effect.
At the climax of "/Asunder," you look for resonance--elements coming together or falling apart. There is Yin, crawling and picking her way through the arrows, her face suddenly aglow (Amanda K. Ringger's lighting is dramatically effective throughout). There are the four dancers, spaced equally across the stage, coming forward very slowly, their hands drifting in space. Three wear placid-faced white masks, one, the face of a devil. There is a blackout.
The purpose of the beautifully soaring pink arrows never becomes clear; they appear to have fallen without piercing impact. The debut appearance of Yin Mei Dance in Los Angeles produced a faint afterglow, just not the miracle of revelation it aspired to at the start.
"/Asunder," Yin Mei Dance, Macgowan Little Theater, UCLA. Tonight and Saturday, 8 p.m. $35.(310) 825-2101.