States of waiting
This evening’s double bill spans two dots on the timeline of Donna Uchizono’s remarkable career, fourteen years apart. A protagonist of New York contemporary dance scene for over two decades, Uchizono brings us dances culled from deeply felt personal connections with the subject matter she investigates, imbuing the resulting works with the sense of urgency, immediacy and connectedness. And yet, her approach is anything but literal – in creating visuals and movement, her pieces navigate a poetically charged terrain of incisive, evocative visual abstractions.
Uchizono’s State of Heads is a homage to the sense of disconnectedness and anxiety that was heavily felt in the final year of the 20th century. While considering her new creation in 1999, Uchizono was motivated by a pervasive sense of anticipation for the arrival on the new century (including the Y2K controversy, and impending possibility of a change in political administration), which somehow, she felt, locked people in a state of hiatus. The major impetus came from her observation of the widespread political phenomenon whereby the proverbial “heads” of state were disconnected from their “bodies”: their countries and their people. Zeroing in on this notion in rehearsal context as a springboard for her choreographic research, she generated movement with her dancers, their heads subsequently being taken out of the equation, which created an uncanny sense of disembodiment. As the New York Times observed: “Long-frozen bodies moved oddly, mechanically, like wobbly figures in a cuckoo clock, impelled by forces other than their own will.”
The piece went on to become a signature work for Uchizono’s company, most recently revived here at the New York Live Arts earlier this year. It could be said that for the choreographer herself, State of Heads represents a pivotal point in her career. Uchizono challenged herself to work outside of her comfort zone: it was the first time she decided to work not with her peers, but with a new generation of dancers; her first-time collaborating with the composer James Lo (now a longtime collaborator); a whole new approach to lighting she encouraged the lighting designer Stan Pressner to take on. Also, State of Heads was to be the last of her works in which Uchizono would also perform – until now – having decided to shift her focus entirely towards her choreographic efforts from that point in time.
Unbeknownst to the choreographer, the beginning of the 21st century would also mark the beginning of another, deeply personal journey beset by an extended period of, once again, uncertainty and waiting. Intent on adopting a child in Nepal, Uchizono could not have imagined from the outset that she would enter a maze of a political crises that would, ultimately, take over a decade to resolve. Caused by the claims of fraudulent international adoptions and trafficking, as well as by the governmental inefficacies both stateside and abroad, thousands of children where abandoned and unable to obtain visas that would permit them to enter the United States and as many families’ effort to adopt were thwarted in the process. Though, twelve years of relentless legal battles later, Uchizono’s personal plight was positively resolved, the struggles she experienced along with dozens of other families that were caught in the same predicament profoundly affected her, ultimately becoming the seed of her brand new creation, Fire Underground. Uchizono’s idea was to address, as she said, “the uncertainty and very unstable grounds that have very severe human consequences.”
This new work saw its early origins in a seven-minute solo Uchizono was asked to create for CATCH performance series in May 2012. While imagining ways in which she could translate this highly personal material into a dance work, the choreographer came up with a sparse visual metaphor: negotiating the stage space while holding two small rice-filled balls, she engaged in a narrative that drew parallels between events that made the headlines in the mainstream media on certain key dates of her own adoption crisis, which had, for the most part, remained invisible to the world at large. The work ended up profoundly affecting the first audience, prompting Uchizono to develop it into a full-length performance. “I feel like there was this fire that had been pushed underneath, “ Uchizono said, “below everyone’s radar.”
In Uchizono’s characteristically poetic approach, this new work is infused with metaphors: the waiting, the flame, powerful forces that remain out of sight are leitmotifs in this performance. As she continued working on Fire Underground in a recent rehearsal, Uchizono kept stripping it down. The resulting work is powerfully sparse, and, considering the subject matter that inspired it, aptly negotiates in exacting repetitions and extended duration.
– Ivan Talijancic
Note: This writing, including the quotes, is largely based on my interview with Donna Uchizono, which took place in New York on October 29, 2013. I wish to express my appreciation to the choreographer for sharing her intimate thoughts and insights for the purpose of this article. The New York Times quote is excerpted from a review by Brian Sebert, published on April 23, 2013.
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