When “Geography,” the first part of Ralph Lemon’s ongoing “Geography Trilogy,” opened at the Yale University Theater in October 1997, a considerable percentage of its audience found it difficult if not impossible to unravel its mysteries. A casual, unstructured collage of bits and pieces of modern and ethnic dance, it’s best remembered for the strikingly beautiful elements of its setting by Nari Ward. The same goes for “Tree,” the second part of the trilogy. Both are worst remembered for their long stretches of boring self-indulgence and their repetitiveness.
Basically more of the same rather than a departure from the first part, “Tree” continues to present loping, walking, hopping, rolling barefoot movement that starts and stops arbitrarily on a fully revealed stage. Performers resting and preparing in the wings are as clearly visible as what is happening stage center. Whereas “Geography” drew on dance/musicians from the West Coast of Africa, “Tree” gathered together an ecumenical group of a dozen performers from China, Taiwan, India, Japan, the Ivory Coast and the U.S., and so the dance veered from time to time into classical folk movement from those countries and even into hip-hop.
In between the dance elements are fractured fragments of spoken word in a variety of languages. The subjects include Chinese opera, an earthquake, trees and leaves, etc. Some ethnic songs are performed and some actual traditional dances are offered, but casualness prevails, and nothing seems to add up to anything much.
Throughout, the stage is dominated by a magnificent glowing rear wall by Ward that calls to mind a Louise Nevelson sculpture. Toward the end, it suddenly tilts forward as if about to crash to the ground. Ward also offers a pair of curtains made of strips of clear plastic that flicker and glimmer in the chiaroscuro lighting of Stephen Strawbridge. Anita Yavich’s costumes cleverly blend Eastern and Western elements.
James Lo has provided a sound score that makes good use of natural sounds, beginning with running water and wind and including a multitude of voices, street sounds, birds, insects and a chiming clock, as well as stretches of silence. As did “Geography,” “Tree” uses drummers for some of its dances. It ends with an old recording of a jazz blues.
The work’s creator also opts for elements of surrealism and minimalism, sometimes even resorting to slow motion. Revolving bicycle wheels are strapped to some of the women dancers’ backs. At the end of the piece, for no clear reason, a supermarket shopping cart is wheeled on, its superstructure an exquisite Ward metal filigree somewhat in the shape of a swan. But what is its point? If any?
Lemon is also fond of going to great lengths for tiny returns. At one point a huge scaffolding tower is wheeled onstage and, after considerably preparation, a dancer rolls off its high platform and is saved from hitting the stage floor by bungee-style cables. That’s it. At two other times, a female dancer enters wearing flying equipment. It’s used only to assist her to jump, without any visible effort, onto a sitting-height bench. The result is to raise the question of why all this expense and effort should be made for so little artistic return.
But then Lemon is one of those idiosyncratic people who is in the position to go his own way apparently without bothering much about reaching out to his audience. (He has funding from the Doris Duke Fund for Dance of the National Dance Project, among other support.)
And so his work is bound to enlighten only a tiny percentage of people, and some of their reactions may be suspect. Lemon says that his pieces are “about people, just people. And how mysterious we are to each other.” And so it’s perfectly OK to find “Tree” mysterious and to embrace or reject it (there were some walkouts in New Haven) or respond anywhere in between those extremes.
A warning: “Tree” is somewhat longer than “Geography” and seems endless. The production will also play Austin, Texas; Minneapolis; Urbana, Ill.; San Francisco; and Chicago as well as playing the Brooklyn Academy of Music Oct. 24, 26, 27 and 28.