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More drought than rain

Company Ea Sola's performance is only occasionally affecting; the work fails to match its deep theme.

January 28, 2008|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Ea Sola left Vietnam as an adolescent war refugee in 1974 and returned 15 years later as an experienced European choreographer. She defines herself as French and Vietnamese, and her plotless hourlong essay in movement theater, "Drought and Rain Vol. 2" (2005), seemed torn between those two cultures in its performance Friday on the UCLA Live series in Royce Hall.

Sola's stated intention was to depict the lingering effect of the war on a generation of Vietnamese born afterward. And she used a Vietnamese singer and a cadre of percussionists to give her piece a powerful musical impetus. But her choreographic style remained so dominated by the worn-out strategies of European postmodernism -- a way of dancing about as old as she is -- that the piece came alive only fitfully even when executed with skill and dedication by eight members of the National Opera Ballet of Hanoi. (Volume 1 reportedly enlisted older village dancers.)

On a stage empty except for a row of small framed portraits of war victims, various walking exercises evolved through the changes initiated by Quach Hoang Diep into group stretches and, eventually, outbursts of violent flailing. Spare musical accents, shifts in lighting, a few projections (the words of a song lyric, a pair of eyes) and the wanderings of singer Doan Thanh Binh punctuated these actions.

Later, the dancers briefly donned Buddha masks, Sola varied the corps-patterning with undeveloped partnering experiments, and composer Nguyen Xuan Son introduced intense drumrolls and crashing metallics. But the growing musical and choreographic frenzy barely masked a profound sense of disconnection between the arid, outmoded structuralist formulas that Sola relied upon and the towering challenge of her subject.

All the women dressed in black and mostly functioned as a mournful corps, while the men were given individual statements in their dancing and casual wear. The peak of female suffering may have been Nguyen Thi Quynh's agonized solo to a humming chorus, while the explosive energy bursts and star quality of Trinh Tuan Anh gave him pride of place among the males. However, a sequence abstracting all kinds of killing -- including suicide -- involved everyone equally in repetitive pantomimic mayhem, and the finale also aimed for a focused ensemble effect.

Here the dancers recited the names of war victims while those names appeared as projections on the back wall, growing so numerous that they quickly obliterated one another. But seconds later, before this suggestion of the enormity of war and its human cost could sink in, the dancers were standing in a curtain-call lineup, waiting for applause. So the sequence read as emotional blackmail: Not to applaud would have been dishonoring the dead.

Alas, even this ploy didn't give "Drought and Rain" much distinction. In the best sections of his "Nine Songs" (1993), Taiwanese choreographer Lin Hwai-min found far more sensitive and original ways to evoke cataclysmic events in his nation's history as well as to link the young member of his Cloud Gate Dance Theatre with long-dead casualties of war. Across the UCLA campus, the World Arts and Cultures Department regularly showcases Asian artists with the freshest possible conceptions of contemporary dance and its relevance to traditional homeland cultures. What's more, genuinely innovative American choreographers such as Bill T. Jones keep searching for new forms of expression to convey our changing perspectives on our collective experiences.

Perhaps Sola's generation of Vietnamese expatriates, and those born in her country after the war, need to be jolted into genuine empathy with the past. And perhaps Company Ea Sola makes that happen back home. But its international exposure is premature. Great themes demand great artistry, and Sola needs to be working in the studio to make the latter begin to match the former.


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