Mei-Yin Ng, above, is also performing excerpts of Cinderalla Toe Jam II at Dance New Amsterdam, Feb. 16-17, as part of its Urban Citizen program (212-279-4200, dnadance.org).
By Harry Newman
The dancers face upstage, their backs to the theater. They begin to bend forward slowly as the score starts, a strangely melodic amalgam of sighs, gasps, cats meowing, the ticking of metronomes, and a haunting cello line. Then on eight, they push their right knees out and shift their hips to the side in unison. Or thats the plan at least.
How are you counting that? the choreographer Mei-Yin Ng asks, stopping the dancers and turning to the composer hunched over his Mac laptop at the front of the stage. Its the first time theyve had the music in rehearsal and theyre having trouble figuring it out. Is one the cat or the sigh?
Ng is working on her latest piece, Cinderella Toe Jam II: Royal Pink, as part of the Artists-in-Residence program at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, where it will be presented with the work of the other resident artists in the programs annual Work & Show Festival the last two weeks of March. An excerpt of the work will also be performed this weekend in Dance New Amsterdams Urban Citizen program, a showcase of work by international choreographers living in New York.
While the composer plays and replays the first bars of the score on his computer so Ng can listen for the downbeat, the two dancers performing with her begin to roll plastic wrap around their waists over their dance clothes to form tight makeshift mini-dresses, which press their thighs together and make their upper torsos rigid. These are the costumes for this section of the dance. In performance theyll have microphones attached and the sounds they make in movement will be heard.
The whole idea comes from the concept of restriction and the concept of beauty, Ng explains after the rehearsal. The dress gives you a visually beautiful [image] of an evening gown, but at the same time the sound lets us know how restricted we are when we put the dress on to create this beautiful image. How these restrictions of dress exaggerate and in some ways determine feminine movement is what interests her. When we have to run in that plastic wrap we have to have pigeon toes. And you cant bend forward. To bend forward to grab something is impossible. To do that you need to stick your butt out first, then you can bend forward... The restriction of the [material] makes you do that.
The piece began as a solo dance that Ng created for herself to perform at The Flea theater in October 2005. Inspired by Chinese foot binding, the solo was her attempt to interpret restriction and beauty through her identity as a Malaysian-born Chinese woman. When you bind the foot together, it makes you walk differently. It makes you swing your hips much more to balance... People think it was the small feet that [created the attraction], but the man never saw the natural feet, they were always wrapped in fabric. What got men excited was the way the women moved. It was exaggerated. Like a willow tree in the wind was the Chinese way of describing it.
Trained from a young age in traditional Chinese dance, Ng moved to New York in 1993 to continue her education in modern dance, studying at the Merce Cunningham Studios. New York was the place to go for modern dance, she says. But there was a more personal reason as well. Growing up Chinese in Malaysia, thinking of herself as Chinese, it shocked her not to be seen as Chinese in China, which she visited at 18 on tour with the traditional dance company she danced in. This led to a kind of identity crisis, which ultimately led her to New York. I realized in this city, everyone is from a different country, she says. And shes remained here since.
Her new dance incorporates the solo but extends the idea of restriction from feet to restrictive clothing generally and beyond that to social restrictions. In a combination of set choreography and improvisation, the three dancers move through variations of iconic feminine imagery from traditional dance positions to gestures of demureness and submission to poses from martial arts and bodybuilding. The movement itself is precise and hyper-articulated, every turn of a limb, every motion punctuated. It is characterized by abrupt stops and changes in balance. Contrast and opposition is a big part of the work: dancers tensing for a moment then releasing, falling into themselves then recovering, stutter steps followed by fluid motions.
This piece is all about the female. Its my first piece using only female dancers. I really wanted to go deeper [into] female beauty, the female body, the female psychology. Why we make our body do the things we do either a female performing body or just a regular female body... Things are planted in our minds growing up from our parents, from the media that make us do certain stuff [and] shape our body.
Ng is known largely for innovative multimedia works that combine dance and technology, and the body its fragility and endurance is often her subject. Double Vision, inspired by the idea of surveillance included miniature video cameras in the bras of the dancers that constantly projected images of the audience looking at them onto screens during the performance. Wear + Tear, a solo she has toured widely in Europe and the U.S., explores the body as machine and involves cameras attached to her limbs that project images of parts of her body as she moves. In it she puts herself through elaborate series of repetitive motions the way a machine would be in product testing or the way a dancer does in rehearsal for as long as possible until she breaks down. Cinderella Toe Jam II is the fourth work shes created since forming her MEI-BE Whatever Company in 2002 and come March, her first full-evening work since 2004.
Were not able to progress as much as I want. [But] thats part of the restriction of working in New York, Ng says with a laugh. Dancers have such crazy schedules, everybody has three or four different jobs as usual... Group movement-wise I need [more] time to shape them and make things strong. So, thats the challenge. I have a lot of ideas I can work with still as a group.
The Artists-in-Residence program was started ten years ago at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center to give artists a whole season to explore creative possibilities without the anxieties of production. The Work & Show Festival is an opportunity to get a response from an audience to the work in progress before continuing with it for the rest of the residency.
Though I like to do full-evening work, for the last couple of years all my pieces have been between twenty minutes to ten minutes long. The residency gives her the space and time to explore, she says, something thats been harder to come by as it becomes harder to find affordable rehearsal space in the city. Its been a luxury to work this way, she adds.