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A new dance-play evokes the remarkable life of Pearl S. Buck
Daniel Ezralow's career has gone global in recent years, so it seems appropriate that he's directing and choreographing Pearl, a "multicultural dance-play" that's inspired by the life of Pearl S. Buck – the Nobel Prize-winning author whose enlightened ideas and global perspective were well ahead of their time.
When he was first invited to discuss the project by producer Angela Tang, CEO of the China-based Legend River Entertainment, Ezralow knew as much about Buck (1892 – 1973) as most Americans retain from their high school days. But he soon recognized that she provided potent source material.
Perhaps best known for her Pulitzer-winning novel The Good Earth, Buck was born in West Virginia to missionary parents, but she spent her childhood and early adult years in China. "She thought in Chinese, but wrote in English," Ezralow recently said while discussing the show at a press event. "So she was the perfect person – maybe one of the ONLY people – who could communicate to the West what the East was about. She spoke with an Eastern head through a Western voice.
"Pearl Buck was able to look at the unknown and confront it with curiosity. I think one of the big tragedies of our lives is that we're taught to look at the unknown with fear, instead of curiosity. If this show can bring that message, I'm very pleased."
Pearl will have its world premiere from August 27-30 at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater, but it promises to be anything but your typical dance performance. "I felt we needed to clean the palate of everyone who had been to that theatre before," Ezralow said in a one-on-one interview after the press event. He had just introduced several brief excerpts from the show, performed by six dancers who had flown with him from Los Angeles, where most of the 10-week rehearsal period took place. "I want to re-define what the audience is going to look at. I need to change your expectations."
He describes the work as a "spectacular extravaganza," featuring a cast of 30 dancers (both American and Chinese), a sophisticated projection design, and a set that features a river (with actual water) traversing the stage. "The river represents the Yangtze, the Pacific Ocean, and the divide in Pearl – which part is Chinese, which part is American?" Ezralow explained.
A key element of the show – one that Tang proposed and that Ezralow found useful – is a seventh-century Chinese poem that uses natural imagery to suggest the ebb and flow of life. It suggested a structure for the piece, and it led Ezralow to cast five different dancers as Buck at different stages of her life.
"I understood it was a very evocative poem that anyone could understand – about the way that life travels," Ezralow said.. "It's about how a person views the river. When you read it, you understand: This is about how time passes and how we let go of it."
The excerpts shown at the press preview ranged from ritualistic intensity to restrained eloquence, with an emphasis on connection and separation. Selections from Jun Miyake's original score revealed a wide range of styles and influences, from a typewriter clacking away to more melodic portions that utilize jazz influences and the sounds of traditional Chinese instruments.
Ezralow has been based in LA since the late 1990s, after starting his career as a modern dancer in New York, most notably as a member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company. He co-founded Momix with Moses Pendleton in 1981, sharing that madcap creator's spirit of openness and spontaneity. Since then, Ezralow has at times choreographed repertory works for modern and ballet companies, but he has often gravitated towards large-scale events, including the opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
He's also been a regular collaborator of the director Julie Taymor, dating back to her 2000 production The Green Bird and including her 2007 film Across the Universe. Of course, the most notorious of those collaborations was the 2011 musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark whose turbulent life has become the stuff of legend.
Ezralow noted wryly during the interview that the Pearl press event was taking place in the very studio where he had rehearsed that ill-fated show. "In a strange way, the comparison is that Pearl constantly tried to help people to communicate. The biggest problem on Spider-Man was that people didn't communicate. There came a time when the web and internet were communicating more than people inside the production."
Regardless, his enthusiasm for collaboration remains clear. "As a dancer, what excited me was the touch, the physical pleasure, the movement of my own body – showing what I could do," he said. "Now what excites me is to see how we're moved by what we see. So whatever does that is what I want to be doing."
Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.
Photos by Jim Cox.Top photo: The cast of Pearl.