Saturday, May 7, 2011


I'm telling you now: If you're incapable of being mesmerized by Muna Tseng's Stella, you're dead from the neck up and the neck down. Better see to that little problem.

And if you have not seen Stella, try for tonight's wait list at the door, starting at 7:15pm.

Since Judy Hussie-Taylor took the helm at Danspace Project, glamor, humor, sensuality and ecstasy in "downtown" dance have found a friendly welcome through the creativity of her PLATFORM curators. Tseng's production, though technically not part of the PLATFORM series, feels like an extension of all that and the crown on top and quite shamelessly so. Its art installation and most of its costuming come directly from Tseng's late mother, the Stella in question, an elegant fashion plate in her day.

Entering St. Mark's sanctuary, you might think you took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up at the Met's Costume Institute. Sit down and get comfortable. You're about to have an audience with a woman voted one of Shanghai's Top Ten Beauties.

Four performers--Tseng, David Thomson, Rebecca Warner and Isadora Wolf--embody Stella. Tseng, seated at one side of the space, plays a recording of narration that blends history and personal memory. Thomson, Warner and Wolf play dress-up, their makeup, wigs and cheongsams--curve-hugging, high-necked dresses diagonally zipped up under the arm--invoking the good life recreated in Hong Kong after Stella's folks fled the emergence of Communism in China. (This lifestyle would not remain affluent after the family eventually relocated to Canada, a poignant backdrop to this visual display.) Thomson's lengthy solo segment, opening with a scarily meticulous primer on the right way to set a table and serve guests, is a stunning character study--not to mention that Thomson really has the legs for that little gray dress/jacket ensemble.

The prickly toughie under Stella's polished surface comes through there as well as in a long, amusing parade of Stella-isms projected behind some of the dancing. Go figure a woman who would counsel the use of sunscreen because "you don't want to be an African mask" or who would advise you to "read Emily Bronte not Amy Tan" or slam you with "You make me cough blood." Reading these words takes us further into Tseng's engagement with her complicated inheritance from a mom who internalized values from Western culture and "polite" society. Stella/Stella is, by turns, powerfully seductive and discomfiting.

If Judy Hussie-Taylor and her curators have warmed to the idea of over-the-topness in dance, they probably never envisioned anything as over the top as what Tseng pulls off at Stella's finale--an old-school theatrical Wow! befitting the woman and even out-camping the camp of Thomson and his porcelain soup spoons and high heels. To which I can only say--to Stella and to Tseng--You go, girl!

Stella--final performance tonight at 8pm

Danspace Project
St. Mark's Church
Second Avenue and Tenth Street, Manhattan

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