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The remarkable elements of Dance Theater Workshop’s presentation of Stories of Us are established before the show begins. In this new piece by Le Vu Long/Together Higher, the audience is treated to an attenuated prologue in which not much happens, encouraging us to take in the hushed, vesper-tinged lighting and the set (both designed by choreographer Long), a series of muslin drops etched with cut-out windows and drawings of leaves, surrounding a stage filled with pylons suggesting a pier. And then there was the music of Nguyen Van Cuong, whose collage of synthesized sounds accompanied by percussive, tango-esque guitar runs, compelled our ears as we anticipated a dance that might engage our eyes.
Long’s aim to summon an atmosphere redolent of northeast Asia was noble, but judging from the audience’s restlessness he chose a risky way to begin. Those of us who’d endured a hailstorm that coated New York’s avenues with slush were rewarded by a diminutive woman in black who cleaved the air in a series of fluid diagonal weaves and dissolves; this felt like the true beginning to a piece its choreographer says was inspired by the company’s work with the hearing-impaired and H.I.V. and AIDS groups in his native Vietnam. Indeed, this section’s tactile sensuality (note the soloist’s upheld arm, perhaps ravaged by one too many IV needles), communicated a especial interior preoccupation that resisted invasion—or rapport—with outside forces, personified by a male dancer’s subtle but unsuccessful attempts to invade the soloist’s space.
Spatial relationships speak loudly in Stories of Us. A closely proximate trio of females rarely touches, twining in and out of themselves in slow motion; later two men spaced further apart carry out a wary dance of courtship (or of flirty competition judging from how the choreography feels thrown back and forth as if on a dare). More conventional duets emerge, such as that between a man and woman whose mirrored movements evolve into a series of lifts and clutches, followed by extrications that intimate the ways in which affection, frailty and attachments get cast aside in the interest of self preservation. Two men repeat the same duet but end in a frozen kiss that turns chilling, as one half of the pair erupts in a sudden convulsion—it’s a charged metaphor, one that speaks to our late 20th century blues where images of illness and death inform sexual inevitabilities alongside pleasure and abandon.
According to press reports, the “artlessness” personified by the program’s end is intentional, but what’s made its way to the stage feels more like process, rather than a satisfying conclusion. The final processional march where individuals periodically break free to express their independence, speaks bluntly to themes of tradition, conformity and oppression; still, it made one think of theater games from an introductory acting class, an unworthy coda to the preceding provocation.