Reardon, Christopher, Dance Magazine
Ralph Lemon set out to make a dance about Buddhism, but eight months in Asia left him mystified.
How perfectly Zen.
WHEN RALPH LEMON folded his dance company in 1995, many people saw it as a harbinger of worse things to come. The economy was still recuperating from a recent recession. The National Endowment for the Arts was under siege. If a troupe celebrated as widely as Lemon's could not survive, perhaps the whole company model was poised for extinction.
Lemon viewed it differently. A few days before his troupe's last gig, which featured a dance aptly titled Killing Tulips, he told me his decision to disband came in response to creative limitations, not financial or political pressures. "I was frustrated with business as usual," he reiterated over lunch recently near his home in Manhattan's East Village. "When you start with the same dancers, you often end up making the same dance. Yes, there's a refinement. Yes, you can create a style. But I began to question the relevance of a private language that no one outside my company understood. I'm not making any broad statements about the art form. I just needed to have a larger conversation."
And so he went out into the world, embarking on a journey of self-discovery that is loosely chronicled in Geography, his 1997 collaboration with a group of West African dancers and drummers. The piece, which one critic found both "mind-blowing and maddening," marked a turning point for Lemon, a postmodernist who had never really faced up to his questions about what it means to be a black man in America, let alone a black American in Africa.
Lemon, who won the $50,000 Cal-Arts/Alpert Award for dance last year, envisioned Geography as the first piece in a trilogy based on cultural exchange. This fall, he will return to the stage with the second installment, an ambitious sequel called Tree. Inspired by his recent travels in Asia, the ninety-minute spectacle couples traditional performers from India, China and Japan with practitioners of modern dance and hip-hop. (Part three, tentatively titled Home, will explore his roots in the American South.) After brief runs in Texas, Minnesota, Illinois and California, Tree will appear Oct. 24-28 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival.
Just as Lemon's race drew him to Africa, his affinity for Buddhism took him to Asia. "That's where I go spiritually," he said. Flush with grants from the Asian Cultural Council and other funders, he set off on a series of trips that traced the historical spread of Buddhism. "It started in India, traveled to Indonesia, then up into China ... and then to Japan, where it became Zen--the form I'm most interested in," said Lemon, 47. "Along the way I hung out, met people, did my research. But at the end of the day it had nothing to do with Buddhism. There's not one Buddhist onstage in Tree. It's like having a concept, beginning it and watching it fall apart."
It has the makings of a Zen parable, but for Lemon, a Midwesterner who took up meditation relatively late in life, it was often excruciating. At times, he felt the project was spinning wildly out of control. Along with language barriers, aesthetic differences and a fading sense of direction, he had to contend with a string of occupational mishaps. The clincher came when Cheng-Chieh Yu, who got her start with Taiwan's Cloud Gate Dance Theater, inadvertently struck Djedje Djedje Gervais, a Geography holdover from Cote d'Ivoire, in the head with a rock during a rehearsal and knocked him out.
There were also profound moments of discovery and connection, many of them purely serendipitous. Lemon recalled putting on a recording of Robert Johnson, the pioneering blues singer from Mississippi, while warming up one day with his fellow performers. Among them were Li Wen Yi and Wang Liliang, two Chinese musicians he had met during his travels. Suddenly Li, who also farms for a living, began warbling along to Johnson's plaintive falsetto. …