With ‘Insight,’ Gin Dance Company founder Shu-Chen Cuff takes final bow

Flowers overflow Capital One Hall stage as the celebrated Taiwanese American dancer and choreographer retires from performing.

Long-stemmed red carnations tossed from the audience carpeted the front of the stage at Capital One Hall this past Saturday evening in celebration of Gin Dance Company founder Shu-Chen Cuff’s retirement from performing. The Taiwanese American dancer and choreographer founded Gin Dance 13 years ago as a means to express and share her dual identity through the language of dance. Offering bouquets and tossing flowers is a long-held tradition in the ballet world and fitting for Cuff, who, while her choreography draws on contemporary elements, is firmly rooted in the ballet aesthetic and its traditions.

In fact, in “I Am Here,” which collects spoken excerpts of local immigrants’ stories to accompany the musical score from composers Ceeys and Philip Glass, we hear Cuff describe her dream to dance in the United States. The piece also portrays the immigrant experience in dance and in a kinetic sculpture by Kevin Reese. This oversized Calder-like mobile features white graphic elements replicating a house, sun, and swoops and circles, which Cuff takes off and packs up in a suitcase. She describes in voiceover her journey to the U.S., from seeing American ballet dancers pictured in Dance magazine to the sacrifices her working-class parents made to send her abroad. Scenes include Cuff at home in Taiwan with her dance friends and family; navigating the immigration line, along with strangers also waiting to get that prized stamp on their passport; and, ultimately, a celebratory dance sequence with the company clad in red, white, and blue.

Julia Hellmich, Shu-Chen Cuff, and Michala Conroy in ‘I Am Here,’ choreographed by Shu-Chen Cuff. Photo by Ruth Judson.

Cuff’s movement language draws from her ballet training, and graceful fluidity is her signature style, although in “I Am Here” she plays with American jazz dance idioms in the finale, including kick-ball-changes, fan kicks, and bright smiles.

The program opened with “A Cup of Tea,” firmly ensconced in Cuff’s Taiwanese roots. The tea ceremony is as much a spiritual experience as it is a cultural one, and this piece features Cuff at the heart of the ceremony, first at a table resolutely presiding over the care-filled and specific steps of tea service, preparing the leaves, preparing the pot, pouring, and serving — each meted out with flowing, careful precision.

Both the accompanying dancers and Cuff embody the tea, the steam, and the drinkers, through their languid, snaking arms and stretching and curving torsos. Their pale silky chemises and flowing pants suggest the wafting steam rising to the heavens as Asian flute accompanies this ceremonial reflection.

Cuff is leaving the stage but will continue to teach, choreograph, and direct her company. She crafted a new work, “Insight,” that celebrated the experience and wisdom of elders while including her young dancers. Inspired by the African proverb “When an old person dies, a library burns down,” the work included eight dancers of a “certain age” — all over 50 — accompanied by the younger Gin Dance Company members. The choreographer strives to surpass cliches, but it begins with a single older dancer alone on stage. Are all of us oldster Boomers lonely and sad sitting on park benches? Do we need a 20-something dancer to come lift our spirits as we share memories of a time gone by? I hope not, but that’s what much of this piece felt like, with mimetic sequences and danced sequences toggling back and forth. While the young dancers trod through sharper choreography to Max Richter, sections with older dancers or flashbacks featured Felix Mendelssohn. In the end the goal of creating a multigenerational cast and community attempted to overcome the cliches with feel-good moments.

Shu-Chen Cuff in ‘I Am Here,’ choreographed by Shu-Chen Cuff. Photo by Ruth Judson.

And who can fault Cuff for taking on issues of aging and wisdom-sharing at her own moment of transition? A dancer’s career is short. That Cuff is making her final bows at 47 is the exception rather than the rule. Many dancers, especially those working in ballet, leave the stage in their 30s.

As the dancers bowed, Cuff was the last to return to the stage. The red flowers rained down from her fans and friends in the front rows of Capital One Hall in Tysons. She sunk low in a curtsy expressing gratitude to the audience, to her supportive family and colleagues, and to the fortuitous events that brought her to this moment.

Running Time: 80 minutes, one intermission.

Insight played November 11, 2023, performed by Gin Dance Company in the Main Theater at Capital One Hall – 7750 Capital One Tower Road, Tysons, VA. For information on the company, visit gindance.org.

Company members: Kaiti Bachman, Rachel Bozalis, Michala Conroy, Thomas Downey, Michelle Geoghegan, Julia Hellmich, Morgan Lamarre, Yun Liang, Tristen Matthews, Micah McKee

Guest performers: Abbi Brees, Douglas Galbi, Dana Gattuso, Kathy Haffey, Patricia Langan, Frankie Park-Stryk, Peg Schaefer, Len Wojcik

Gin Dance Company’s artistic director Shu-Chen Cuff to retire from the stage (news story, October 18, 2023)

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Lisa Traiger
An arts journalist since 1985, Lisa Traiger writes frequently on the performing arts for Washington Jewish Week and other local and national publications, including Dance, Pointe, and Dance Teacher. She also edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online eJournal. She was a freelance dance critic for The Washington Post Style section from 1997-2006. As arts correspondent, her pieces on the cultural and performing arts appear regularly in the Washington Jewish Week where she has reported on Jewish drum circles, Israeli folk dance, Holocaust survivors, Jewish Freedom Riders, and Jewish American artists from Ben Shahn to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim to Y Love, Anna Sokolow to Liz Lerman. Her dance writing can also be read on DanceViewTimes.com. She has written for Washingtonian, The Forward, Moment, Dance Studio Life, Stagebill, Sondheim Review, Asian Week, New Jersey Jewish News, Atlanta Jewish Times, and Washington Review. She received two Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Arts Criticism from the American Jewish Press Association; a 2009 shared Rockower for reporting; and in 2007 first-place recognition from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. In 2003, Traiger was a New York Times Fellow in the Institute for Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C. She holds an M.F.A. in choreography from the University of Maryland, College Park, and has taught dance appreciation at the University of Maryland and Montgomery College, Rockville, Md. Traiger served on the Dance Critics Association Board of Directors from 1991-93, returned to the board in 2005, and served as co-president in 2006-2007. She was a member of the advisory board of the Dance Notation Bureau from 2008-2009.


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