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UW Dance professor Jin-Wen Yu unveils intriguing video work and tributes to tango in Transit

Several works referenced Jin-Wen Yu's travels.
Credit:John Maniaci
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UW Dance professor Jin-Wen Yu presents an evening of works titled Transit at Lathrop Hall's Maraget H'Doubler Performance Space through Oct. 5. There are six premieres in the program and four pieces that serve as a sort of a scrapbook of movement as Yu shares how traveling in South America has influenced him.

As a rakishly handsome photo in the program shows, Yu studied the tango during his travels. This dance infuses a quartet of new pieces. Set to music by Astor Piazzolla, Yu's choreography nods to Argentine tango's movement vocabulary, postures and embraces. But by retaining his own modern dance sensibilities, Yu prevents the pieces from becoming a derivative pastiche. The dancers wear socks, which help them explore the playful possibilities of sliding and gliding as they revel in the newness that swapping partners brings.

On opening night, the first piece of the series, "Transit 1," paired a confident and supple James Hibbard with the precise Katherine Warner. "Transit 2" had Hibbard dancing with Palmer Matthews, who brought exuberance and charm to what was my favorite work of the evening. Matthews often came swooping in at the last second to sidle up to Hibbard, who always seemed to beat him to their destinations. The two men performed some very demanding floor work and lifts but were smooth and clearly in control the entire time. "Transit 3" brought back Katherine Warner, now with the smoldering Flora Hyoin Kim, a dancer who can always be counted to deliver the complete package of dazzling technique and compelling stage presence. The ladies are all business in their red skirts and white blouses. The final piece of the series, and the program, was "Transit 4," in which the four dancers come together, changing partners and sliding in their socks to an exhilarating ending.

A work titled "Fresh Ground" features a cast of pretty young dancers in sheer tunics and French braids. It sometimes veered into bland territory, but Yu knows when to mix things up, like when he had the dancers walk backwards slowly, with each striking out on their own to hold a pose. At the end, with their backs to the audience, they linked their arms around each other's waists, creating a chain of muses that seemed to fade into Claude Heintz's excellent lighting.

Collette Stewart, who dances in Yu's company and teaches in the UW Dance Department, shows the control and subtlety that maturity brings. Always a nuanced and reliable vessel for Yu's choreography, she plays with stillness and effort. At one point, she grasped a foot by snaking her hand around her leg, and then placed the foot in a new spot with effort. Later, her hands clutched her throat before moving up her head. This piece is accompanied by Stewart's recorded spoken-word poetry about thirst, both the physical sensation and the metaphorical thirst for knowledge. At one point Stewart wisely observes that "we're not really thirsty until we’ve been thirsty awhile."

Yu brings back "Passages," a piece from 2003, set to the Le Mystere Dex Voix Bulgares by quirky world music darlings the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir. The dancers, clad in unfortunate pants with folkloric-looking trim, work with small stones. The mood alternated between innocence and creepiness at the performance I saw. Sometimes the dancers balanced the stones on their heads before lowering themselves to the ground, causing the objects to land on the stage with a satisfying thud. Other times, they passed them to each other in intricate patterns. The yips and squeals from the Bulgarian ladies got grating, though, and there were times I found myself wishing the piece was coming to end. But then Yu would give his cast something to do that drew me back in, like having a line of dancers move diagonally across the stage, gingerly dropping rocks between their feet.

Also on the program were excerpts of a film project by Yu and Wendy Woodson. It's a film within a film, actually. Pictured is a busy New York train station where commuters' feet traverse the well-worn marble floors. Also in the film is Yu, who dances in front of the foot-traffic footage in a bright yellow jacket. New Yorkers spill out into the streets, where there are crosswalks and manholes. The people's different tempos and attitudes emerge as they are on the move. A new piece, "On Transit," reveals more of this film, but has Yu performing live in front of the large screen. It is very satisfying to watch a pedestrian hail a cab on the smaller film within the film as the decade-younger version of Yu dances nearby and the current version of Yu onstage emulates the gesture.

Transit will be performed again on Friday, Oct. 4, and Saturday, Oct. 5, 8 p.m.

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