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Kylin’s Garden

Some years ago, I wrote, “Dance has the power to stir the viewer's innermost longings and outermost visceral reactions. Few choreographers reach into those sensibilities as effectively as Kun-Yang Lin. With quiet power, he arrives at the essence of an emotion—humor, spirituality, anguish, ecstasy—extracts it raw, and then, with quicksilver speed, subtly refines it.”*

Performance

Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers' 25th anniversary performance of Kylin’s Garden

Place

Mandell Theater, Philadelphia, PA, March, 2023

Words

Merilyn Jackson

Campbell Tosney, Keila Perez-Vega, Sophie Malin, Takashi Kunai in “Shrill” by Evalina Carbonell. Photograph by Rob Li

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Lin founded his company, Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers, (KYL/D) in New York City as Kylin’s Garden in 1998. Shortly after they moved to Philadelphia 15 years ago I wrote the above description and I stand by it today. After Covid the company resumed its stage presence, and it was a gift to reacquaint with them at the Mandell Theater this month.

Two familiar figures, Evalina Carbonell and Weiwei Ma, have danced in KYL/D for a decade. Each choreographed world premieres were animated by Taiwanese artist Yuyu Yang’s upwards curving steel sculpture "Dragon's Shrill in the Cosmic Void," in New Jersey’s Grounds for Sculpture. Carbonell led Ma, Sophie Malin, Takashi Kanai and Campbell Tosney in her “Shrill,” the show’s opening work. In flowing teals and violets by Sonja Griesemer, and with an aqueous lighting backdrop by Stephen Petrilli (who designed the lighting throughout the show) the cast seemed a school of fish at times, reflecting the undulating steel of Yang’s sculpture. The five kneel in prayerful postures, clutch hands as they dip in a circle like waves, lift Ma like a fish, and end en masse, striving towards a light downstage right. A poetic and wistful work to musical selections from Kelsey Lu, Sylvain Chaveau and Hilary Hahn, it set the tone for the pensive first half of the evening.

Evalina Carbonell in “Kylian's Garden” by Kun-Yang Lin. Photograph by Rob Li

Lin’s “Kylin’s Garden,” which had its Philadelphia premiere during this late winter run, premiered at Merce Cunningham Studio Theatre 1997 as one of his inimitable solos. But the steely fluidity of Keila Pérez-Vega took our breath away as she took the role in the matinee, shimmering in a cone of light that made her seem a gold-sheathed goddess. She knelt in the fifth position of prostration towards the audience, but, once vertically upswept, there was nothing submissive about her power as a mover—balletic and athletic, ethereal and mysterious. From one leg fluttering towards the fly to dropping to a wide-legged squat, and although she was alone on the stage, she filled it. Jill Peterson created her stunning iridescent top, with one arm and her legs bare, drawing on “the KyLin (the Unicorn which) embodies the Yin-Yang balance,” as the program notes state. Music and Text from Steve Craig (Stavo Mustang Craft.)

Lin revised his 1998 solo, “Love Song,” as a male and female duet for the first time for this 2023 run. Part of a larger piece, “Poem of Arbos,” it was commissioned by the Taipei Theatre at Rockefeller Center in NYC. Robert Burden made his stage debut partnering Campbell Tosney with a maturity beyond his 21 years. Not surprising, since he comes from a family of Philly dancers. His father, Robert Burden was a founder of Tap Team Two, and his brother, William Burden, Jr. who made his stage debut as a small child with his dad in 1999, is a star dancer with Philadanco. Here, Robert swoops under Tosney’s uplifted arms to Arvo Pärt’s music—a lover ready to match her every move.

Weiwei Ma in “The Wind 2” by Kun-Yang Lin. Photograph by Rob Li

During the pandemic, Lin developed a solo on himself called “The Wind 2” as a reflection of his artistic journey and livestreamed on April 22, 2021 at Penn Live Arts to Mahler lieder. Carbonell and Ma re-envisioned it in 2022. Carbonell performed this very Duncanesque dance in the theater with the Ellen Forman Memorial Dance Studio in the lobby. Forman was one of the great Duncan interpreters, strong and forceful. She was a good friend of mine until her untimely death in 1991. Watching Carbonell’s softer and more tender study reminded me of a flickering filament inside a dying lightbulb. Still incandescent, but fading as memories do.

Sophie Malin, Takashi Kanai, Keila Perez-Vega, Campbell Tosney, Sophie Malin in ”Dragon” by Weiwei Ma. Photograph by Rob Li

Ma’s “Dragon” to Keiichi Suzuki music Carbonell, Keila Pérez-Vega, Sophie Malin, Campbell Tosney, Takashi Kanai was a different take Yuyu Yang’s sculpture’s “expression of symbols from Chinese philosophy.” reflects the viewer when close, and thus the viewer slowly becomes part of “the dragon.” Ma, as a Chinese dance artist, says she “utilizes the mythological creature to explore the relationship between individuals and the collective, as well as integrating contemporary dance with Chinese cultural concepts.”

“Traces of Brush” transported me back to the first time I saw Kun-Yang Lin dance it as a solo, bare-chested with a fan spread open in his mouth, chin up, and a black skirt that seemed to fill the stage, commanding the audience’s attention. Myrna Patterson wrote a poem that borrowed the title after seeing Lin dance it. The company’s former executive director Rev. Kenneth Metzner read it as a prologue. Now remade for the ensemble, the arresting power its creator imbued it is only slightly diminished. But for anyone seeing it as an ensemble dance for the first time, it’s still a one-two knockout gut punch.

Robert Burden, Keila Perez-Vega in “Traces of Bush” by Kun-Yang Lin. Photograph by Rob Li

Ma takes Lin’s role, adding a feminine note to her angled arms, splayed fingers and legs and to the foot flicking back the train of her skirt, as she minces forward, head hidden behind the fan. As if by prestidigitation, the fan opens in her splayed hands as other dancers join her, all in inky black in this calligraphically stage-sweeping dance. Petrilli lights their floor-skimming feet like blue pen nips. Ma’s dips and swirls the fan around her until she rushes offstage flipping it behind her like a peacock’s tail, her head cocked to the audience.

Lin’s work, as a retired Temple University Professor Emeritus of dance and his dedication and beliefs go beyond his programs. When his company first moved into their South Philly studio, called CHI Movement Arts Center, (CHI-MAC) down the block from the Pat’s and Geno’s rival cheesesteak empires, neighbors did not give them a warm welcome. A proof of the community networking Metzner, Lin and anyone connected with the company have done over the years—going door to door to meet the neighbors, inviting them in for free studio shows, and teaching their children—Saturday’s substantial matinee audience included friends and family. Every ethnicity of the company’s dancers was represented, making it the most diverse audience I’ve seen of late. This was a most soul-filling and celebratory program. Who knew cheesesteaks and CHI would meld together so well?

*Philadelphia Inquirer, 2008

Merilyn Jackson


Merilyn Jackson has written on dance for the Philadelphia Inquirer since 1996 and writes on dance, theater, food, travel and Eastern European culture and Latin American fiction for publications including the New York Times, the Warsaw Voice, the Arizona Republic, Phoenix New Times, MIT’s Technology Review, Arizona Highways, Dance, Pointe and Dance Teacher magazines, and Broad Street Review. She also writes for tanz magazin and Ballet Review. She was awarded an NEA Critics Fellowship in 2005 to Duke University and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship for her novel-in-progress, Solitary Host.

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