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Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers (KYL/D) celebrated its 25th anniversary with a performance at Drexel’s Mandell Theater entitled KyLin’s Garden 麒麟的花園: A Space For Tending, Sharing & Imagination. KyLin’s Garden was the company’s original name, from 1998-2002, and it holds special meaning for artistic director and founder Kun-Yang Lin. His initials are “KYL,” and as he explained before the show, the kylin (or qilin) is a creature in Chinese mythology that embodies the integration and balance of seemingly opposing traits, such as light and darkness, fierceness and gentleness, yin and yang. According to the program notes, the kylin combines parts of five different animals into one creature, symbolizing the unity of the ensemble’s diverse artistic voices and influences.
Two world premieres created by KYL/D dance artists and four reimagined works from the repertory helped bring these themes to life. The program also reflected support for the next generation of choreographers and Lin’s vision of keeping energy and life force (also known as chi or qi) active within the company.
Sculpture becomes dance
The two world premieres responded to the same work of art at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey: Dragon’s Shrill in the Cosmic Void (1991) by Taiwanese artist Yuyu Yang (1926-1997). The program began with Shrill by Evalina Carbonell, who joined KYL/D in 2012. Shrill interprets the dragon’s cry as human yearning and pain, which can isolate us from others but also offer ways of connecting to them. After all, suffering is a universal experience. The dance began with Carbonell, Takashi Kanai, Weiwei Ma, Sophie Malin, and Campbell Tosney forming a human pyramid against a backdrop resembling a river in vivid kaleidoscope colors. Shrill incorporated the dancers’ percussive breathing, pairing the sound with the dancers’ gestures of swimming and diving. Another repeated movement phrase evoked classic paper dolls joined at the hands, suggesting the connection found in community with others.
Dragon by Weiwei Ma, a member of KYL/D since 2013 and its lead Chinese artist, offered a complementary perspective on Yang’s sculpture. Drawing from the viewer’s experience of becoming part of the sculptural dragon, this dance depicted performers joining together to form segments of the legendary creature. Carbonell, Kanai, Malin, Keila Pérez-Vega, and Tosney moved individually, then together, seeming to roar. Mirrored movement gave way to balancing tableaux before the dancers formed a dragon shape. Though Dragon ended a little abruptly, it integrated Chinese cultural concepts with contemporary dance in interesting and beautiful ways.
A Philadelphia premiere
Ma’s choreography also resonated with Lin’s artistic principles, from his combination of Eastern and Western styles and themes to his inspiration from the mythical kylin. His solo KyLin’s Garden portrays the physical manifestation of balance between masculine and feminine. This work premiered at Merce Cunningham Studio Theatre in 1997, but it had not been performed in Philadelphia until now. Pérez-Vega lit up the stage in a gold costume by Jill Peterson, effortlessly conveying both strength and grace. KyLin’s Garden began with jerky, almost mechanical movements before segueing into fluid elegance. Pérez-Vega imbued each step with precision, from grand spins and leaps to the smallest flutter of her fingers.
Love Song and The Wind 2
The 2023 revision of Lin’s duet Love Song was another highlight. Love Song premiered at the 1998 Dancers Respond to AIDS Concert in New York, and it reflected Lin’s acceptance of his sexuality. This was the first time a man-woman couple performed the piece. Flesh-colored dancewear gave Robert Burden and Tosney the appearance of nudity, which underscored themes of passion, tenderness, and intimacy that transcend gender, culture, race, and sexual orientation. Though Burden performed all of the lifts, the dance seemed less gendered than most romantic duets. Both dancers alternated taking the lead, and each sent loving looks toward the other.
Another reworked piece, The Wind 2 (2022), transformed a solo Lin developed by himself during the pandemic into a full-ensemble piece featuring KYL/D alumni and community participants. It began and ended with arresting images. Dancers ran backward in a circle in the opening scene, and spot-lit individuals spaced throughout the theater mirrored the dancers’ gestures at the end. The Wind 2 did not cohere as effectively as other works in the program, though, and the middle sections felt a bit slow.
A fitting celebration
Traces of Brush (2004) brought KyLin’s Garden full circle to finish on a high note. An exploration of the connections between dance and Chinese calligraphy, the dance is set to original music by Andy Teirstein and a live reading of a poem by Myrna Patterson inspired by Lin’s choreography. The KYL/D ensemble seemed to create three-dimensional calligraphy with their bodies as they performed Traces of Brush, which incorporated elements of Chinese classical dance, tai chi, and martial arts. With a fan covering her face, Ma was mesmerizing as she sent a long piece of black fabric swirling through the air like ink across a page. Burden and Pérez-Vega also gave particularly strong performances before the ensemble came together in a moving formation.
A fitting anniversary celebration for a one-of-a-kind Philadelphia dance company, KyLin’s Garden linked KYL/D’s past and present with its future while staying true to its vision. This performance connected Eastern philosophies and practices with contemporary dance to form something as new and unique as the mythical kylin.
Above: Weiwei Ma in Kun-Yang Lin’s Traces of Brush. (Photo by Rob Li.)
What, When, Where
KyLin’s Garden 麒麟的花園: A Space For Tending, Sharing & Imagination. Choreography by Evalina Carbonell, Weiwei Ma, and Kun-Yang Lin. Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers. $25-$45. March 10-11, 2023, at the Mandell Theater, 3220 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. (267) 687-3739 or kyld.org.
Masks were recommended, but not required.
The Mandell Theater is an ADA-compliant venue.
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