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Leaning toward beauty, athleticism

By David Perkins
Globe Correspondent / July 4, 2009
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First, let it be said: Fang-Yi Sheu is one of the most beautiful dancers in the world. She is a woman whose extended arm can tell an epic story, who can suspend herself in space like a floating bodhisattva and curl up as if she contained the world's suffering. And she is in that special moment of maturity (she's been at it for more than 14 years) when her physical strength is equaled by her emotional range.

Sheu is the lead dancer of the Taiwanese company LAFA &Artists, which made its US debut at Jacob's Pillow on Wednesday night. A longtime member of the Martha Graham Dance Company, she is well known internationally and appeared in Becket last summer as a guest artist; now she has brought her own company, which she founded in 2002. It is a small ensemble built around her (the six supportive dancers are all men), and she was the cynosure of three pieces, choreographed by her artistic codirector and life partner, Bulareyaung Pagarlava.

Sheu's movement is a mix of Graham's grieving, earthy style (contracted abdomen, crunched shoulders), gymnastic athleticism, and Asian poise. In "Single Room" (2002), a brilliant solo dance, she created a series of poses of sensual yearning against the hard edges of a long table. At moments, she achieved an exquisite balance, poised on a corner, arms and legs outstretched, like a temple carving. What made it a less than truly great dance? Perhaps a tendency to veer away from emotion and settle for athleticism and beauty. (Or is that a Western way of looking at it?)

The opening work, "37 Arts," was a brilliant ensemble piece that began with a comic skit of late-night visitors to a kitchen competing for a bottle of milk, seen in slow motion, until they were entangled like the ancient sculpture of the Laocoon. This was followed by clowning and skilled gymnastic turns, then by a truly riveting duet between two lovers — a muscled Ming- Cheng Huang (elsewhere a skilled gymnast) controlling Sheu in a fearful dialogue of dominance and attempted escape.

"Summer Fantasia Part I — Summer at Jacob's Pillow," a world premiere, was the final piece: a funny tribute to summer afternoons at the beach, with Sheu as the Annette Funicello to the ensemble's multiple Frankie Avalons.

Throughout the program, the intensely athletic variations on each theme were always ingenious. Still, each dance, and each segment within each dance, ended more or less where it began, without fully confronting its own premises: Where does life in a solitary room take you? Where would the abusive lover have gone with his woman? The men were called on for gymnastic feats, rather than as expressive artists. While the lighting of Chien-Chang Lee created fine effects, the music often seemed ancillary. When it was over, one had the feeling there is even more to Fang-Yi Sheu —; and her company — to be found.

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