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Asian Voices

Choreographers Caili Quan, Phil Chan, Zhong-Jing Fang, and Edwaard Liang are grateful to share the bill for Ballet West’s sixth choreographic festival, but hope that events like these will soon be rendered obsolete.

Performance

Ballet West’s Choreographic Fest VI: Caili Quan’s “Play on Impulse,” Phil Chan’s “Amber Waves,” Zhong-Jing Fang’s “Somewhere in Time,” and Edwaard Liang’s “Seasons”

Place

Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, Salt Lake City, UT, June 6, 2024

Words

Sophie Bress

Katlyn Addison in “Somewhere in Time” by Zhong-Jing Fang. Photograph by Beau Pearson

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This iteration of the festival, which ran at Salt Lake City’s Rose Wagner Center for the Performing Arts from June 5-8, was dedicated to fostering the voices of Asian and Asian-American dancemakers. In a pre-performance panel with the four choreographers on June 4, Chan called the event a stepping stone, one towards a future where Asian choreographers are enmeshed in programming more holistically, without the necessity of a separate program to spotlight them.

I can only agree—Not only am I looking forward to a time when programming reaches a less tokenizing state of diversity, I’d be happy to see more of these choreographers on any program, at any time.

The evening opened with the world premiere of Caili Quan’s “Play on Impulse,” a youthful and downright cool montage of romance and relationships. It had a playful innocence, like the first butterflies of first love, and a vintage feel, enhanced by costumes designed by Jason Hadley and a score including Bjork, The Cardigans, Deee-Lite, The Velvet Underground and Elvis Presley. The work highlighted the vacillation between confidence and insecurity that is encapsulated in adolescents—dancing alone in your room at full force, to the more restrained approach taken when you know someone is looking, and returning to full force when you feel invisible in a crowd. As comfortable and familiar as a worn sweater, “Play on Impulse” was reminiscent of Kyle Abraham’s “An Untitled Love” in its tone and approachability.

A former BalletX dancer, Quan seems to innately understand how to play to each dancer’s strengths. Ballet West principal Jenna Rae Herrera was a standout, particularly in a pas de deux with demi-soloist Vinicus Lima. With her aptitude for facial expressions and naturally, delightfully twee demeanor, Quan’s choreography was made for Herrera. Corps artist Rylee Ann Rogers, too, emerged as a force, with her effortless cool girl factor. She was simultaneously the popular girl at the dance, all eyes on her, and the above-it-all loner, smoking a cigarette behind the bleachers.

Rylle Ann Rogers and Vinicius Lima in “Play on Impulse” by Caili Quan. Photograph by Beau Pearson

Next was Phil Chan’s “Amber Waves,” a bite-sized pas de deux about the American Dream and the realities faced by immigrants, set to Huang Ruo’s improvisation-based take on “America the Beautiful.” Moving to the sounds of live piano music, Ballet West principals Emily Adams and Hadriel Diniz embodied a strong sense of seeking and yearning, while also providing unwavering support to one another physically and, seemingly, emotionally.

The costumes, designed by Jason Hadley, rendered the dancers both ethereal and serpentine, wrapping them in shiny, amber flecks. Chan chose a particularly apt title—as Diniz tossed Adams and gently caught her, again and again, the dancers felt like the sea, gentle in surrender and turbulent to resist.

Emily Adams and Nicholas Maughan in “Amber Waves” by Phil Chan. Photograph by Beau Pearson

The world premiere of Zhong-Jing Fang’s “Somewhere in Time,” which followed, shared many themes with “Play on Impulse,” albeit through a different lens. Relationships were showcased, but instead of focusing on beginnings, Fang captured the passage of time. Images of the moon in various phases served as the backdrop, making change seem not heartbreaking, but wholly and radically accepted.

Fang, a soloist at American Ballet Theatre, is still an emerging choreographic voice, but she’s a strong one. She showed an incredible aptitude for arranging the nineteen dancers that made up the work, organizing them into captivating, Balanchine-esque patterns, particularly during corps sections. Fang’s movement hardly ever stopped, flowing and morphing like one continuous thought. When it did come to a pause, there were sections that broached conversationality, using pedestrian gestures as an entry point.

Fang’s choice of steps felt genuinely new and exciting. Consistently surprising were both the details—like a hand on the back of the head as a support—and the larger movement creations—a dancer bent over backwards, supported as she walked on pointe, looking something like a spider.

The program closed with guest company BalletMet in Edwaard Liang’s “Seasons,” an undeniably gorgeous work set to a recomposition of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” by Max Richter. As spring morphed to summer, summer to autumn, and autumn to winter, it became hard, at times, to differentiate the particular season being portrayed. Paired with “Somewhere in Time,” this felt like a natural continuation on the theme of acceptance. But when the season did change obviously—like when BalletMet dancers Grace-Anne Powers and Austin Powers commanded the stage for the winter pas de deux—autumn knew it was time to go, giving way without a fight. 

Sophie Bress


Sophie Bress is an arts and culture journalist and dance critic. She regularly contributes to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review, and has also written for The New York Times, NPR, Observer, Pointe, and more. 

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