August 4–6, 2022
On a large black box stage ringed with white curtains, the lights rise in tandem with the sound of a very long note. Eventually Lai Yi Ohlsen enters walking with slow, calibrated steps. Dressed all in white, she assumes a formal position, one foot crossed in front of the other, elbows bent sharply to bring her hands to her hips. Moving so steadily as to be almost imperceptible, Ohlsen scans the audience, rotating her head to the right and left.
The August 4th premiere of Benjamin Akio Kimitch’s Tiger Hands began like a languorous dawn. Presented at The Griffin Theater as part of The Shed’s Open Call series, the forty-minute work set a deliberate pace and yet, the end seemed to arrive way too quickly.
Springing out from her ready position, Ohlsen cuts the air with strong gestures—a fist, a reach, a slow sweep across the front of her body. A robotic, almost pop-and-lock type quality emphasizes each sharp stop, punctuating nearly every movement in her phrase. The long ambient notes of composer Claire M. Singer continue to drone as Ohlsen gains speed and momentum. Her dancing has a conjuring effect; she appears to be making waves, setting an abstract story in motion. Her focus remains out to the audience as a coiled energy courses through every moment of stillness and each strong pose.
At the climax of this opening solo, Ohlsen stares us down as she presses her arms out to the sides of the space—as if to hold up the walls. The shape of her hands is distinct: four fingers glued together with the thumb apart. The effort does not register on her impassive face, yet we can feel the intensity of it as she holds the posture for several breaths. Her arms reach overhead carefully and meet before lowering in front of her. In a sort of release or reversal, she allows an arm to slip out, undulating away from her before she recedes back into the white curtains.
Julie McMillan Castellano then takes the stage, backing in with an exaggerated, shortened stride. These tiny steps, made from heel to toe, trace circles on the floor and quicken as her arms reach out, index and middle fingers pointing up. Castellano flows easily in and out of these traditional Chinese dance steps. She articulates her wrists and her spine and the movement vocabulary grows to include kicks and jumps, as Pareena Lim spins onto the stage, large sword in hand.
An Asian American perspective is still an all too rare thing to encounter in modern dance. Despite the plethora of talented Asian and Asian American dancers working in concert dance companies across the country today, you will not find many dance works centering their experiences in the repertoire. Tiger Hands sought to put “East” and “West” in genuine conversation, a generative task that will hopefully yield more such stories to complicate and undermine centuries of exoticization and appropriation.
The notes around the work cite Kimitch’s early training in Chinese dance as well as continuing “a body of dance works that honor grief for his late mother, a third-generation sansei Japanese American,” as inspiration. “Tiger hands” is also the name of a Peking opera posture most often performed by male characters. While I am certain I did not catch every reference embedded in this multi-layered work, with dramaturgy by Jeffrey Gan, and imagine very few people without Kimitch’s unique experience could, the lack of complete legibility seemed to be part of its very personal authenticity. Casting a trio of female dancers to embody and interpret this mélange of influences also kept the work from feeling overly didactic, imbuing it with a sense of fresh discovery as each interpreted the movement from her own perspective.
This light spirit brings the work into an alternate realm as the women reappear in a series of overlapping solos that introduce various traditional costumes, designed by Carlos Soto, and props. Skirts made up of large rectangular pieces of fabric and shirts with puffy sleeves magnify the smallest of steps and embellish the larger spirals and turns. Spears, with red fringe dangling from the far end, extend the lines of a gesture and bring the dancers into more direct relationship with one another: first through a brief section of fight choreography and later, as an offering when Lim hands two spears off to Ohlsen. A brilliant headdress with two long feathers ripples as McMillan bounds across the stage in a series of leaps, calling to mind an antelope or a ram in a dream-like world.
All the while, Serena Wong’s lighting design evokes the shifting palette of sunrise, the lights placed underneath the white curtains bleeding faint shades of peach and pink onto the fabric. Throughout, the dancers are stoic in their expression: their strength a given, their composure an encounter with the eternal.
Tiger Hands ends with Ohlsen, now transformed. Two spears in hand, she conducts the air, her gaze following the calculated movements of her arms. She travels through various levels of being: kneeling and then rolling on the floor to lay prone, before rising once again. Crystalized in a blue light, she grabs the spear and lunges with it as the last tone fades, a warrior prepared for her next battle.