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Nix the sombreros and dragons

Two visiting dance companies move beyond expected stereotypes

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You can perhaps be forgiven by the culture cops if, when you read that this week brings to Atlanta dance companies from China and Mexico, visions flit through your head of dragon dances and hat dances (or dances in which a dragon wears a sombrero ... somebody should totally do that). That is no reflection on the dance these countries have to offer, but rather on what we insular Americans are typically open to seeing from them -- tourist trap sorts of scenic movement that reaffirms romantic colonial notions regarding our small-world brethren. Movement quaint and contained, soothing our isolated spirits with consoling reverberations of golden lit pre-modernity.

Godot be praised, Atlanta curators have taken a risk for a change. Instead of dragon dances, we're getting the Beijing Modern Dance Company performing "Rear Light" to Pink Floyd's The Wall at the Ferst Center. And instead of hat dances, we're getting Alicia Sánchez y Compañía's El Teatro de Movimiento performing the existential "Entre Tú, Yo y Los Otros (Between You, Me, and the Others)" at the Rialto Center.

Unfortunately, they're on the same night, at the same time, so you only get to go to one.

Until quite recently, the Chinese government had no small hand in promoting only dance that was traditional and conformist -- mostly the orthodox ethnic dances of the peasant classes, along with classical ballet.

When contemporary choreographers tried to break with tradition, according to Beijing Modern Dance Company artistic director Willy Tsao, "Some of them were persecuted, and some of them were confined to the proper mode of expression. But I suppose these things are the same everywhere. If you are innovative, if you are trying to be different from the social norm, you are going to get criticized."

Case in point: When Vaslav Nijinsky (with a score by Igor Stravinsky) premiered "The Rite of Spring" -- his seminal break with classical ballet -- a riot broke out in the Théatre des Champs-Elysées. As part of its own emancipation, Beijing Modern created "Rite of Spring (All River Red)" to the same music.

The recent easing of cultural restraints in China has allowed the birth of an intellectually modern (sometimes post-modern) yet still distinctly Chinese form of dance. "It's a developing country," says Tsao, "and we are doing quite fresh things, quite different from what people used to think."

Like, say, choreographing modern movement to one of the prototypical anti-establishment rock operas. Says Tsao, "The main scene [in 'Rear Light'] is about the individual against a system, the kind of surrounding society that superimposes certain restrictions to [the] individual. I think this sort of thing happens everywhere in the world. ... I think it's happening still in the rest of the world and China ... and maybe will still ring a bell in the States."

"Rear Light" dramatizes the conflict both abstractly and theatrically, looking not only at the rush of liberation but at the horror of sudden isolation. Regimented walls of dancers break apart into more chaotic collections and individual expressions that reference traditional Chinese forms without being bound by them. Cold, harsh light isolates a single dancer on stage, bent and cowering beneath the glare.

Where "Rear Light" ends, "Entre Tú, Yo y Los Otros" begins. El Teatro de Movimiento artistic director Alicia Sánchez is best known for her bleak "TR3S," staged in an Escher-like set of broken perspective and inspired narratively by Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. It was for such work that Mexico's Sistema Nacional de Creadores de Arte named Sánchez one of the 100 most important artists of the 20th century.

The organization is the rough equivalent of the American National Endowment for the Arts, though it's hard to imagine the latter ever celebrating such chilling intellectual work. "When in the U.S. would [a recipient for such an award] ever be a choreographer?" asks Sue Schroeder, founder and artistic director of Several Dancers Core. "And a contemporary choreographer?"

Timed to coincide with Day of the Dead festivities, Sánchez's company is performing as the first production in a new modern dance series curated by Several Dancers Core in a partnership with the Rialto Center and the Woodruff Arts Center. (Rennie Harris' Puremovement, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and Several Dancers Core in "Messiah" will fill out the season.)

In "Entre Tú," dancers run past each other in the dark. They sit alone. They meet briefly for loosely synchronized phrases, with someone else staring off in a perpendicular direction. They're always breaking apart. What Sánchez writes in her artistic statement for the piece roughly translates as, "Time is angular; lost in its own circumference. Each day I see hundreds of faces, none of whom know me. Communal history does not exist."

These works may not get you clapping your hands and stomping your feet quite the way the sombrero-wearing dragon dance might, but for a look at what's happening in the Mexican and Chinese dance communities today -- as opposed to hundreds of years ago -- this is the best opportunity you'll get without a passport.

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