Arts Reviewing, Dance Review

Lenora Lee – NOT Lost in Translation

I’m in Dance Mission Theater, thumbing through the dually English/Traditional Cantonese program of Lenora Lee Dance’s 7th Anniversary Season show and flashing back to a recent psychology class. The topic: How can you reasonably trust that a translator can express, from patient to therapist and back, the intricacies of human experience? Stress? Heartache?

I’m oversimplifying the question here (sorry Dr. Chun), but it’s a good place to start when viewing Lee’s hour and 45-minute long, 4-piece dance show.

At the core of it all is the idea of movement as expression– “Our first language,” as Lee explained during a preview* of her upcoming show –and the innate communication our bodies themselves translate. This idea unfolds via martial arts-tinged dance, and vis-a-vis the history and culture of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco. It’s consistently tense, electric, emotionally engaging, challenging even– and completely fitting of the tumultuous times Lee’s ancestors have seen in a city that consistently forsook them.

Do you spend your days wondering about Chinatown gang-life, or do you brush the notion of troubled youngsters who should’ve known better aside? How about young Chinese girls in the 1900s promised golden tickets to America, good jobs and financial security only to be left with no immigration status, none of the legal protections U.S. citizens like you or I take for granted, and constant threat of deportation? It’s heavy stuff, and it’s all explored in the two longest portions (and, unsurprisingly, most successful) of Lee’s show: “Reflections” and “The Escape.”

The best part of the aforementioned performances is that you hardly need a dance background to appreciate them. Other facets of the show (namely “The Detached,” where the audience is divided into groups and shuffled between separate rooms to watch what i’m assuming is contemporary dance unfold) might play more smoothly to a dance-familiar eye able to appreciate their intricacies, but both “Reflections” and “The Escape” entail enough electric physicality to captivate even passive dance fans.

Take the opening of “Reflections” as proof: a small gang of men stalk towards an unsuspecting audience member who showed up to his seat a bit late. Confrontation. Attack. “No relief from dying on Chinatown streets” says a voiceover, flooding into ears as punches rain from man to man. It’s a shocking entrance, and who cares if its quickly tempered by the realization that said audience member was an undercover performer planted into the audience? It propelled me onto the proverbial edge of my seat, and only got better from there, an emotional maelstrom meant to reflect and “address the struggle for … dominance and survival, the pursuit of wisdom … and ultimately the quest for peace.”

Also of note is the multimedia brilliance of “The Escape,” where action plays out jointly onstage, with dancers acting out the story of a young trafficked girl (possibly forced into prostitution or something else unsavoury and now seeking solace in a country she does not legally reside in) hiding from the police, and projected onto a large screen backdropping the stage. The video is essentially the same narrative, with extra actors, an actual building in which to film and multiple cameras filming from multiple angles. With the action divided between screen and stage– flashing from angle to angle, live performer to video performer, footage intentionally skipping back and forth to replay several seconds of the same scene soundtracked by a skittering breakbeat score –there’s little time to process the action. It’s an almost breathless whirlwind of action, all forward thrust mirroring the urgency of the young protagonist’s escape.

Lee’s show didn’t particularly shine during my front seat to the action. I liked it well enough, there were no serious missteps or anything that soured my first real taste of a dance performance, but I walked out of the theater without a second glance towards tickets for the next week’s three day reprisal of shows. The true beauty of Lenora Lee’s works, now that i’ve had time to ruminate upon what I witnessed, is in their slow simmer– the eventual transformation from “good show” to nuanced, layered performance that still plays vividly within my memory whenever I will myself to recall it.

There are flashes of a tall male performer’s chest heaving, muscles in his torso flexing and rippling with each labored breath. Exertion. There’s a lone female dancer dancing and spiralling- one minute the physical manifestation of expelled tension as she spirals around stage recklessly, the next collapsing into herself to the tune of operatic crying pumped from theater speakers. Coil/uncoil, erratic movement around the stage. Claustrophobia. Two Chinese lion costumes embodied by male dancers- intricate, beautiful, dangerous -attacking a woman. Attacking each other? Struggle.

Lenora Lee is every bit as fluent in the language of movement as she presents herself to be. Of this, I am convinced by the flashes of physicality and resulting emotions I’ve just described. I can still feel myself, however faintly, calling to mind the emotions I felt while witnessing various portions of Lee’s plays unfolding initially. What’s the point of performance art if not to speak to you physically, to take hold of you the way that paintings cannot and words can only abstractly?

“We don’t realise how much is communicated [through movement and body language],” said Lee during her earlier show preview. “You can tell a lot about people through by how they move.”

Lee’s statements belie a knack for translating emotion, story, and history into movements, and a deft hand (slash clever team, given the team of other choreographers and directors credited in her show’s program) at relaying said movements in a performance setting. The average audience member is in for a treat, so long as they allow their prejudices about performance art as an art with all style/no substance/lots of unfathomable dance moves beyond comprehension. I may have been treated to a preview about Lee’s intentions of a “holistic, integrated” experience of multiple art disciplines before viewing, but I entered with a heavy dose of skepticism that could only have been shaken by the electric performance I was provided. Shaken I was, and shaken I hope to be again.

If only I’d have realised this in time to buy tickets to last night’s final show.

*Lenora Lee graced the University of San Francisco’s Arts Reporting and Reviewing class with a preview of her upcoming 7th Anniversary Season run and a Q&A session regarding her materials. All quotes from Lee provided in the preceding article have been taken from her appearance at this preview.

Lenora Lee Dance 7th Anniversary Season
(with Kei Lun Martial Arts & Enshin Karate, San Mateo Dojo)
ran from 09/26-10/05/14 at Dance Mission Theater

in conjunction with Asian Improv aRts, API Cultural Center,
and Chinese Historical Society of America

For more information on Lenora Lee Dance –


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