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Storytelling

At Kaatsbaan, the 153-acre cultural park in New York’s Hudson Valley, Emily Coates and Emmanuèle Phuon performed the intriguing program “We.” The evening-length work, a very loosely linked collaboration between the two choreographers, was a provocative meditation on the earth (Phuon) and the stars (Coates) and made imaginative use of the center’s indoor and outdoor settings.

Performance

Emily Coates and Emmanuèle Phuon: “We”

Place

Kaatsbaan, Tivoli, NY, June 17, 2023

Words

Karen Greenspan

Emily Coates and Charles Burnham in “We.” Photograph by Quinn Wharton

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Both choreographer-dancers have histories that span a wide disciplinary divide. Both have a strong command of classical dance forms: Coates as a former dancer with New York City Ballet, Phuon as a young student of Cambodian classical dance at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh before she and her mother fled Cambodia for France to escape the Pol Pot regime. Thus, they each possess the skills of storytelling predominant in those forms. But they also have spent many years working with a long list of classical, contemporary, and postmodern choreographers—most notably Yvonne Rainier. They are currently dance studies scholars in the academic milieu and bring a nuanced range of possibilities to their dancemaking. It is interesting to observe their attraction to narrative and the inventive freedom with which they pull it off. This work uses movement, words, and projected images to tell stories that reflect on ritual, nature, cultural identity, history, and science. The artists created two separate programs that were thematically linked. Here, I write only about program A.

Phuon’s work began in Kaatsbaan’s black-box theater, with dancer Amelia Dawe Sanders in a chair off to one side reading aloud from a book. She addresses the trees as knowing beings rooted for centuries in place. Phuon enters in gardening attire and reads off an inventory of trees. The list is endless. She speaks the names faster and faster until the words become a torrent of Khmer (the language of Cambodia). Then she narrates:

“In the past, in Cambodia, when confronted with a natural catastrophe—a severe draught, an epidemic—a delegation of peasants could go to the king to request a ceremony, the Robam Buong Suong. The ceremony starts with dancers entering the throne-room, each raising a silver tray of offerings to the four cardinal points.”

Phuon begins to walk formally as if performing the ceremony herself. She extends the pages of her script as if they were trays of offerings. Explaining how the dance summons the rain that causes the rice to grow, she raises the pages up like rain clouds and lets them fall where they will. Phuon slips easily into the classical dance steps and ritual that are her lineage, then slips out of them to explain things to the audience.

Emmanuèle Phuon performs with a projection of a Cambodian court dancer in “We.” Photograph by Chris Randall

Magically the stage lights dim, classical Cambodian music is piped in, and on a large white screen in the center, a video projection displays two silhouetted Cambodian court dancers with their sinuous, flowery hand gestures and pagoda-shaped crowns playing the two deities in the rain ritual. Phuon respectfully bows to their silhouettes as she explains that the dancer who is playing both roles in the film had twelve siblings, all of whom died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Indeed, the father Phuon never knew, a doctor, was also arrested and killed by the Khmer Rouge. This is also part of Phuon’s formative lineage. 

Phuon now discusses a Cambodian railroad development project that involved cutting down a very old tree. The construction workers performed a ritual to appease the tree spirit. At first, Phuon paces back and forth using a tree branch as a walking stick. Suddenly she slips behind the screen and dances her own choreography to appease the tree spirit. In Cambodian culture, dancers are the intercessors between the human world and the spirit realm, which is often found in the natural landscape. That places the dancer in direct communion with nature—not just for herself but for the entire community’s benefit.

The music changes to the rhythmic pulsations of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Phuon’s ritual changes character as well. She spins in front of the screen performing a full-bodied modern dance interpretation of the music, with turns, spirals, and thrusts to projections of reimagined Cambodian nature spirits. The work is brimming with Phuon’s unique signature—a straddling of Eastern and Western dance vocabularies and sensibilities.

Emily Coates and Brent Edwards performing in “We.” Photograph by Quinn Wharton

The audience is invited by musician Charles Burnham to move outdoors and into Kaatsbaan’s nearby barn. He leads us like a Pied Piper on violin. As we take our seats in the rustic barn, Emily Coates is dancing in circles outside on the grass in black yoga pants, a t-shirt, and sneakers. We see her neatly framed through the open barn doors. Meanwhile, actor Derek Lucci appears on the barn balcony, expounding on geometry. Coates continues her circling dance indoors as she speaks into a handheld microphone about her research on “cosmic dance.” She muses on the relationship between dance and the stars as well as cosmic dances across time and geography while tracing spiral patterns with her feet. She and Lucci talk over one another in a complex overlay of information. Occasionally one of them pauses, allowing for the words of the other to sink in. 

Bernham is now visible outside the barn doors, pacing while shaking rattles, ringing temple bells, and playing a wooden flute. With her one free arm, Coates repeats specific gestures that correlate with key words in her narration. Coates deduces, “Cosmic dance must form interrelationships—always using the materials and forms of the moment to mimic the patterns of the stars.” She seems to be doing just that.

Coates continues her fluid spiraling patterns—with a finger or an arm or her pelvis or her entire body—and brings in yet another element to the cosmic concoction: an extemporaneous discussion with scholar and philosopher Brent Hayes Edwards. The thought-provoking questions, moments of humor, and conversational give-and-take color the implications of her simple grapevine steps. Edwards questions how one could create a cosmic dance as just a solo: it should have a cast of thousands. Coates repeats a new pattern of kneeling to the floor followed by reaching to the sky. Edwards speculates that if she danced out the barn door all the way to Acapulco and back in two months, that would be a cosmic dance.

They discuss transitions—specifically parataxis, sentences without any coordinating connectors so that the mind must make the connecting leap. (I am wondering how this will play out choreographically.) With that, their conversation ends and Coates hands Edwards her microphone so she can freely dance out the door. Burnham, still outside, wends his way around her with flute and bells while she continues bowing and reaching, applauding toward the heavens, and dancing back-and-forth grapevines with fingers snapping in exultation. They continue the cosmic celebration . . . right out of sight.

Karen Greenspan


Karen Greenspan is a New York City-based dance journalist and frequent contributor to Natural History Magazine, Dance Tabs, Ballet Review, and Tricycle among other publications. She is also the author of Footfalls from the Land of Happiness: A Journey into the Dances of Bhutan, published in 2019.

comments

Mindy Aloff

This review not only helped me to visualize the performance but also to understand the motivation for it. Brava, Karen!

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