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Pearl – A Dance-Drama About Pearl S. Buck

Sheila Kogan, Contributing Writer, September 1, 2015

Pearl, the dance-drama inspired by the life of novelist and humanitarian Pearl S. Buck, is a beautiful and beautifully conceived project. The fascinating melding of dance, drama, music, sets, costumes, and multimedia projections flows along with the real river of water that is part of the stage set.

Presented at the David H. Koch Theater, which is home to the New York City Ballet, there isn’t a toe shoe in sight. Daniel Ezralow choreographs in a modern idiom, often using movement based on ordinary gestures. The dances are expressive and compelling. Although there are fine solos and dances with couples, the most fascinating parts are the creative movement of groups. Ezralow has had experience working with large numbers of people in a grand setting (the Olympics at Sochi and in the Broadway musical, Spider-man) plus he has a solid background as a modern dancer (MOMIX, etc.)

For Pearl, Ezralow has created some wonderful dances: the opening with Chinese workers, the gymnastic “cat’s cradle” of bodies on slacklines, and my favorite which shows Pearl as a schoolgirl. She was raised in China by American-missionary parents and now is back in an American school. Definitely out of synch with her classmates, the dance humorously shows her situation as she tries to jump along in the simple patterns to bouncy music. It was an audience pleaser. The dancers are all strong, disciplined, and talented performers who can dance individually or work together as one in great swirls of motion.

As the director (and creator), Ezralow has organized the material in a coherent manner. It’s not a linear biography, but it makes sense and it’s constantly moving. The printed program provided an amount of biographical information, but I didn’t need to read anything to understand what was going on, although now I’m motivated to read more.

The marvelously original music by Jun Miyake is diverse, from Asian-inspired drumming to the kind of dance music popular at the beginning of the twentieth century (Ragtime?). Always, it provides a foundation for the dances with its strong rhythms.

Oana Botez designed the tastefully beautiful costumes with few colors, based on Chinese or period-American styles.

The multimedia projections are also expressive and create visual surprises, layers, dimensions, and specific locations in time. I was particularly interested in the projected archival photos of China and America, which were backdrops on occasion. At the beginning of Pearl, there are panels that hang from the ceiling to the stage floor. Projected onto the panels are the dancers who will perform Pearl in the different stages of her life. Through film technique, the little girl Pearl morphs into the young woman Pearl, whose movement is then seamlessly continued by a real-life dancer coming from behind the panel. The oldest Pearl is danced with authority and presence by the modern-dance veteran, Margie Gillis.

There are a few spoken words, readings from Buck’s own writings, but this presentation depends on visuals and succeeds in that. Pearl S. Buck won a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize for her writing and her humanitarian work, which helped to create an understanding between the different cultures of China and the West. This stage presentation is a deserved celebration of a special individual and a reminder of her place in history. (I recommend her books and the exquisite film version of The Good Earth made in the 30s. The extraordinary performances of Paul Muni and Luise Rainer are so very touching and honest, even though neither actor is Asian.)

I want to describe so much more about what I saw, but instead, I hope that the producers (Legend River Entertainment, etc.) bring this production back to New York for a longer stay so that more people might have a chance to see and enjoy it for themselves. Pearl is going on tour, so if it’s coming to your town, I recommend that you see it.


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