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.
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.
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.
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)