The dance is based on Dai Sijie's novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, which was first published in France in 2000 (as Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise) and has since been translated around the world.
The book tells the story of an unnamed narrator and his best friend, Luo, who are sent by Chairman Mao's brigades to haul stuff up Phoenix of the Sky Mountain. As sons of bourgeois doctors, the two are supposed to be learning whatever proletarian lessons can be mucked from pails of manure. Instead, they find a secret treasure trove of Western literature and learn of love from the daring daughter of the village tailor.
Gately is a veteran master of cross-disciplinary contemporary dance who has translated inspirations from many other art forms. In 2000, she was commissioned by the High Museum of Art to create five dances to works in the High's permanent collection. She previously incorporated literature into her dance works, such as Kent Haruf's austere Plainsong.
Balzac is a book of lush lands and vibrant characters, and Gately's choreography follows suit, making movement of the mountain and phrases of the rain. Never excessively pretty, Seamstress is drawn with strong, substantial, scooping arcs of spine and limbs. The un-prettiness is felt when dancers press and pound the stage with flattened feet, mimicking a peasant's weight.
Gately's interpretation is not literal. "I don't want the audience to know that they're getting a story," Gately says. "I want them to get more a kinesthetic and an emotional response."
Seamstress is an abstraction of the book, a realization in movement of the characters' essence and the spirit of the land. And it's a fitting translation of the power of art to emancipate the mind.
Room to Move Dance and the Penderecki String Quartet present Breadth of Strings May 13-15 at the Chaddick Center for the Arts (at the Galloway School), 215 W. Wieuca Road. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. $6-$15. 404-847-0453. www.roomtomovedance.org.