South of Gold Mountain
H.T. Chen & Dancers
Chen Dance Center
May 14, 2016
The history of the Chinese in the American south prior to World War lI is an under-told story that South of Gold Mountain seeks to rectify. Using images, recorded voices, music and dance, H.T. Chen & Dancers set out to show the collective journey of a group of people who quietly made a big difference to their communities.
The multi-ethnic dancers are strong, mostly young and have a way of conveying complex ideas through often mundane movement. For instance, in the Obstacles section, a dancer leaps or crawls forward over the bodies of others, an idea we’ve seen before but not without validity here. The Porch, Grocery Store, Restaurant and Family Laundry sequences are particularly delightful with each displaying a central dance element as in the arm movements signifying carrying or moving goods in Grocery Store. The Restaurant sequence adds humor as the chef struggles with a rubber duck and then replays his chopping action on the leg of another dancer. Family pride is evident in every scene that includes 4th graders Ava Luan and Alexander Luong who perform simple steps to perfection. Ms. Luan is especially charming at the end of the work when she appears in lab coat and stethoscope signifying she has grown up to become a doctor.
Renourd Gee as a loving father, busy chef and army officer moves with authority and inherent dignity while Sean Nederlof offers some brilliant leaps, (especially one in which he clasps his knees in the air), and Ari Someya brings a fluid style and enormous warmth to her every appearance.
The program’s music includes African-American songs as sung by workers in the cotton fields; Chinese melodies; an American military theme; church hymns and, for some reason, Tchaikovsky which I didn’t understand — if there’s a connection between the late Romantic Russian composer and Chinese workers in the American south I missed it. Sometimes the music fights the dancers as in the earlier sequences but most of the time it enhances. Too bad that the commentary is muffled and therefore hard to hear or understand because from what I could make of it, the words further explain and develop the work.
H.T. Chen & Dancers, a modern dance company now in its thirty-sixth year, infuses Western dance with the strength and beauty of Asian aesthetics. In 2002, the company received the New York State Governor’s Award for artistic achievement and contributions to communities. H. T. Chen serves as artistic director of the company and also heads the Chen Dance Center and School that provides an ongoing program of music and dance instruction to hundreds of children in New York’s Chinatown.
Early Chinese newcomers called the U.S. “Gold Mountain” in reference to the Gold Rush that brought them to the West. Later arrivals came to the southern states where they worked on plantations and began developing family businesses particularly laundries, restaurants and grocery stores. Despite often intense discrimination, strong family ties and determination enabled them to persevere. South of Gold Mountain pays tribute to their victories.