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Amazed, Out of My Element

Amazed, Out of My Element

PEILING KAO DANCES 6th home season.png

I will tell you now: I am out of my depths. I’m not a dancer or a dance writer. My vocabulary for responding to dance is painfully limited. Dance happens without words, happens in a completely different vernacular, requires a whole other vocabulary than the one carrying these thoughts on this page just now.

I know enough to know that no dancer in the world would be pleased to hear the clunky responses I can muster: “Wow,” and “Cool,” and “So beautiful,” and “I-am-in-awe-of-your-physical-fitness-how-do-you-move-like-that?”

On Friday, December 7, and again on Saturday, December 8, I sat among the lucky few who witnessed the solo dance offering, One Body: Five Dances: Six Perspectives. (For what it is worth, I recommend this approach: one cannot hope to take the whole thing in with just a single viewing).

The One Body in question belongs to the astonishingly gifted choreographer/dance educator/performer Peiling Kao. The Five Dances refer to the visions of the five choreographers she commissioned through her eponymous company, PEILING KAO DANCES, to create and set work upon her for this occasion: Betsy Fischer, Ming-Shen Ku, Molissa Fenley, Hope Mohr, and Christy Funsch. The Six[th] Perspective is the one which unifies those visions and also stands apart: her own.

It isn’t fair picking favorites, but I’ll do it anyway: Synapse, the first piece, leaped out at me. Peiling Kao enters upstage left with the music Fragmentary Blues in the air. Those Blues have something of playful, campy, mid-century cartoon fun in them and Ms. Kao allows brief moments of almost-comedy to unfold in conjunction with them: bouncing her bobble-headed way from point A to point B, a BONK! to her scalp – administered by her own hand, and a hint of the clown’s dazed eye-roll before the moment is gone.

She doesn’t allow the moment to become fully funny – of course, that wouldn’t be the point – but I thought I saw Playfulness there. I mention it here because Playfulness is what I watch for in the world and I think others may share my preference. After all, what’s not to like about Playfulness?

Another moment that stood out later in the same piece: Ms. Kao’s right hand enacts its own agenda as the remainder of her body lays still on the floor, the left hand policing the rambunctious mischief of its counterpart. The right hand is determined to resist all efforts at soothing though and is indifferent to the well-being of its host – like anxious impulses in the darker corners of the mind – an irritated, obsessive, mis-firing Synapse.


A light steel door frame mounted to a fancified skateboard informs each image in Liminal Turnings, the second piece.

Two moments I retained: one where Ms. Kao storms through the frame from upstage to downstage with all the furious deliberation in the world.

Another, where she finds herself passing through the movable opening, alternating from one side of the frame to the other, searching for the better view.

And from the last third of Stay With Me, the fourth dance of the five: Ms. Kao accomplishes a progressive, circular, silent stomp – her leg flying high, racing toward the ground, but never announcing the collision with sound. She repeats this in tighter and tighter snail-shell circles.


Why call these moments out?

Because they looked so cool!


Also true that they were simply moments I was able to latch onto and repeated in my mind until words slowly came to represent them with some small degree of accuracy.

When it comes to modern/postmodern dance, I think I am right to say an interweaving of gestures apart from their originating contexts is the rule. This makes for a torrent of images, each as resistant to verbal rendering as the rest. I’ve simply grabbed what little I could hold from the stream and made the best of it here. The remarkable thing is the way these images and gestures still fit together, still add up in some way, still make for rewarding consideration even if there’s no saying just what that reward is or should be.

Here is a layman’s admiration: Peiling Kao wastes not a flicker of movement ever, at all, even a little bit. She makes it look easy, like nothing much is going on, like this kind of synthesis happens all the time, ho-hum, who cares, f’ggedaboudit.

It seems impossible to me that she learns this, that she works with this, that effort was ever part of the conversation: she is so perfectly in control of her physical presence, she seems to have transcended any potential she could ever – in any sense – struggle or fail. She is somehow lighter, faster, stronger than all of that.

I would say her thoughts and her corporeal being are in perfect harmony, but the word “thought” seems too heavy, ponderous, slow: whim is more to the mark. Her body is wherever her whim says it is – is there already, as the whim whims it; and where whim says now; and whim, and where; and whim and where and how and altogether now.


Past that, I can only say that I am – again – happily, totally, and completely, out of my depths.

Written by Donovan Oakleaf.

"Avenue Q" at Manoa Valley Theatre

"Avenue Q" at Manoa Valley Theatre

The Women's Voices Theatre Festival