Review by Kathleen Campion
Staged as spectacle at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater, Pearl showcases Pearl Buck’s immersion in, and devotion to the China of her childhood during the early twentieth century.
The director’s program tells us, “Pearl is an evocative dance play using the language of movement to tell…Buck’s life journey….”
For many Americans, Buck’s 1932 Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, The Good Earth, and the film that followed, were a first look inside a culture remote, in every sense, from the America she later came to know.
The story is sketched in the program (which is enormously helpful, as there are long stretches where the “language of movement” is not entirely clear). We start with Pearl’s childhood in China, nurtured by a Chinese nanny, she drinks in a culture she later puts on the page. She marries and goes to NY, is celebrated, falls in love with a man who nurtures her talent and when he dies she wants to go home to China, but the revolution and just plain time have changed it.
In telling her story, director and choreographer Daniel Ezralow relies winningly on special effects executed with remarkable precision. The opening sequence is arresting and quite beautiful, and the whole first act, in the nature of first acts, is all Shazam!—exciting and surprising and worth the ticket.
The choreography is fresh even though it whispers of familiar “Asian” moves we’ve seen before: the “L” movement turn of the foot we’ve seen in The King and I since the 50s; the sturdy sumo wrestler (the Chinese call it Shuai jiao) haunch-driven stamping we’ve seen Belushi do on SNL; whirling running backward circles favored at the Beijing Olympics that even the Rockettes do. These would all be banal if not married to innovative groupings, multiple loops of arms ‘birthing’ a child, rolling bodies supporting a moving dancer.
Some effects are freighted with delicacy. Dancers layer panels of light fabric on wires strung across the width of the stage. As they do, the panels take on Chinese characters and, simultaneously the stage is full of panels, with dancers before and behind. In a flash, the panels are pushed aside, and a new reality begins. Artful. Elegant. It’s more than the dancing that is graceful; it’s the thinking behind the staging that demands attention.
An unfortunate peek behind the special-effects curtain shortly after intermission put the kibosh on Act 2 by letting the audience in on the secret that much of the magic here is not art but science. All the effects we’ve ooh-ahed over in Act 1 worked but, in Act 2, when the huge blank back wall of the stage glowed with the familiar Microsoft icon and the legend: “Windows is Starting”—the game was up.
As Windows wasn’t quite ready to deliver, we can only guess what would have been the next “gee whiz” moment. What the audience did learn was that this production is an exquisitely integrated creature, dependent on all cylinders firing. The effects of light and sound and—most of all—projection, imposed a layer of ‘wow” that the dance alone does not supply.
Integration is key on several levels. The dancers themselves came in all colors and ethnicities from every region and every dance category. Their bios reflect Paula Abdul backup dancers, credits from Glee and America’s Got Talent and videos with Snoop Dog. Wang Yang danced at the Beijing Olympics, Raymond Ejiofor is a founding member of the August Wilson Dance Ensemble, and the youngest, Yasmine Arya, enchanting as the little girl Pearl, is in elementary school in L.A. and has a Skechers commercial.
The generic music is disappointing. It seems to represent China or America but never feels specific. It is largely Chinese tonal sounds, evocative in a sense, if predictable. There are amusing, if jarring, inserts of American music and dance as Pearl comes to New York.
Pearl – conceived by Daniel Ezralow, Arabella Ezralow, Liu Bin, Angela Xiaolei Tang. Directed and choreographed by Daniel Ezralow.
With: a cast of 30 American and Chinese dancers, including Margie Gills and Yasmine Arias.
Designed by Michael Cotten; video designer is Mirada. Costumes from Oana Botez, Lighting by Christopher Akerlind, sound David Crawford, and projection system Zak Borovay.
Pearl has a brief run through August 30 at the David Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes with one intermission.