When does the personal become the universal? That is one of several questions raised by Minh Tran’s Anicca (Impermanence), the Vietnamese-born choreographer’s first new piece in eight years, which premiered on Thursday night in Reed College’s Massee Performance Lab.
Two years in the making, Anicca is in fact deeply personal: It is Tran’s superbly crafted response to the loss of his parents, particularly his mother, its organizing principle the time (49 days) that practitioners of Theravada Buddhism believe it takes for the soul to journey from death to rebirth. “These souls are called wandering ghosts,” Tran said in an interview for Reed Magazine. “They’re living in a world we call the bardo, a (neverland) that doesn’t belong to any place at all. During this time, these souls need a lot of attention and prayers [so] they will be shepherded by the bodhisatta or the Goddess of Mercy until they reach the gate … so they can be reincarnated for the next life.”
In the course of the 49-minute piece (give or take) the seven dancers in Anicca perform the same number of sections, each of them representing a different stage of the soul’s journey, as well as that of those who grieve and finally find some form of acceptance.
Anicca begins slowly, ritualistically, with six of the dancers – Suzanne Chi, Margretta Hansen, Shaun Keylock, Andrés Peraza-Aguillón, Rachel Slater, and Tran himself – in costume designer Sandy Hedgepeth’s beautifully fashioned, Asian inspired white tunics and trousers, taking slow steps across the expanse of the rectangular space, each of them dancing toward and around Carla Mann, who is motionless in the center. She resembles an antique sculpture (I thought of Angkor Wat) in her flesh-colored unitard marked with dark striations; what she represents is the death soul of Tran’s mother.
As the piece builds, experienced Tran-viewers (I have been following his work since he was a Portland State University student, which means I’ve been watching him dance and tracking his development as a choreographer for upwards of thirty years) begin to recognize the hallmarks of his vocabulary. These are fluttering fingers, wide second position pliés, turned-out legs, curved jumps, dancers arranged in diagonals and circles, in a melding of the eastern and western influences that is uniquely his. In Vietnam, as a child, he trained in Vietnamese Opera dance; the rapid movement of the fingers, and some stomping toward the end of Anicca, reminded me of that classical form. In recent years he’s been studying and teaching Balinese dance, hence those wide second positions and the slightly turned-up toes.
In this country, Tran received his dance training in the now-dead dance department at Portland State University, whose possible reincarnation is taking a lot longer than 49 days. In Anicca, Tran pays tribute to his teacher/mothers there. They are Bonnie Merrill, who died on February 14, and who surely influenced the spaciousness of his choreography and the way he uses his back in those curved jumps; Judy Patton, a witty, visually oriented choreographer in whose work he performed when she was one of the directors of The Company We Keep; Kathy Evleshin, who taught world dance and is particularly interested in Latin American dance; and Nancy Matschek Martino, who spotted his talent the minute he walked through the gym doors, and was his ballet teacher.
Of Tran’s dancing in other people’s work, I wrote in 1989 in one of those “best of” articles that, The Oregonian so loved, “He uses his small but lanky body as a vehicle for an amazing spectrum of movement. He can bend and twist into many shapes, jump, run fast, dance with subtle slowness.”
Choreographers presented in PSU’s Contemporary Dance Season who gave master classes when Tran was still a student contributed to that spectrum of movement, most significantly Stephen Petronio and Trisha Brown. And when, in 1996 Tran went into the M.A.T. program in dance at the University of Washington, whose performing arm specializes in the reconstruction of modern masterpieces, he danced a spectacular Faun in Nijinsky’s L’Aprés Midi d’un Faune, in which he was as feral and bewitching as the choreographer is said to have been. This, and his performance in Gregg Bielemeier’s ManTango (which he danced with the choreographer, who made the duet for the two of them), continue to provide what one of my colleagues once termed afterimages, more than two decades later, as do several performances in the work of his PSU classmate Tere Mathern.
Tran’s body is no longer lanky, and that has changed the appearance of his dancing, but not his skills as a performer. His dancing on opening night in the first part of Anicca was marked by that subtle slowness, as well as a gravitas befitting the tone of the piece. In the second part, his pace picked up, as did the emotional tension when at one point Chi placed a foot on Tran’s back, symbolizing I’m not sure what, unless it was Tran’s parents’ insistence that he and his brothers leave Vietnam after the fall of Saigon – a horrific journey by boat that Tran has danced about elsewhere.
Despite the quickening of the pace, and the energy of the ensemble dancing, I found this section dragged a bit in contrast with the next one, in which everyone but Tran was onstage, performing with and against Marilys Ernst’s gorgeous projections. A fight between Keylock and Peraza-Aguillón, who along with Chi are the youngsters in the company, reminded me that Buddhism isn’t always a peaceful, contemplative religious practice: the movement vocabulary here is highly reminiscent of contact improvisation, in which one kick or push or twist of the body is the cause of a different version by another dancer.
In section four, Heather Perkins’ excellent, Asian-infused score, commissioned for this piece, becomes highly percussive and as growly as a riff by Louis Armstrong; and the spoken text, which I couldn’t always understand, proclaims that either Tran or his mother or both are not ready for death. Chi, Slater and Hansen dance rapidly and angrily across the space, providing a real contrast to the next section, labeled “acceptance.” In this section, Tran has created for Hansen a slow, meditative solo, danced with projections of words such as “Floating” and “Breath,” and images of fire. This builds toward section six, where the dancers move with stop-motion projections of orchids, an iris, and other lovely flowers in choreography that returns to the beginning of the piece: the circles and the diagonal; fingers fluttering, bodies curved. This leads up to the final section and the return of Mann as the death soul, who performs a contorted, struggling, gut-wrenching solo before entering the gate leading to reincarnation. Her solo is accompanied by the only false notes in this piece, provided by vocalist Brent Woodson Smith, whose music is described in the program as “dripping with soulful authenticity.” Be that as it may, I found it a distraction from some magnificent dancing. This section, and the piece itself, concluded, appropriately, with a ritual involving offerings.
Most of us in modern times outlive our parents; letting them go, grieving for them, accepting their deaths. That’s universal, whether we are practitioners of a religion – any religion – agnostics, atheists, or simply don’t care. So I would say that in this beautifully produced and put-together piece of art that is Anicca (Impermanence) the personal indeed has become universal, and Minh Tran, the artist who is unafraid to appropriate dance techniques from many cultures, has truly come into his own.
Final performances are at 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb, 23-24, at Reed College’s Massee Performance Lab. Ticket information here.