Two years ago Ralph Lemon set out to explore Asia with only the bare bones of an itinerary. He thought he would trace, geographically, the development of Buddhism, and then visit each country in the region to see how their cultures related to one another.
"But when I got there I threw my plan away and met no Buddhists -- or at least few," Lemon remembers, now returned to America and relaxing at a Minneapolis hotel. "It was a very circuitous trip. Someone would tell me I should go visit this village, there was an interesting dance to see there. I was really just keeping my ears open and letting the work come to me. I try not to get mystical about it but there were some larger forces at work."
Such has been Lemon's modus operandi ever since he disbanded his well-respected dance company five years ago and began his sweeping Geography Trilogy. The series' first installment, Africa/Race, took him gamboling along that continent's west coast and culminated in an evening-length work that presented, among many other provocative images, male African dancers clothed in gowns in homage to their ancestors. The series' second installment, Tree, brings together Indian percussionists, African-American modern dancers, Chinese musicians, and a female Odissi practitioner in a showdown against the binds of tradition. Tree runs in San Francisco for four days before finishing its national tour at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival, and it continues to prove that Lemon's unanchored work arrangement is viable, if not easy.
"I was free-falling when I left my company -- and I still am," Lemon says. "Every day I spent in Asia I was on call. Every day I had to wake up and decide for myself what I should be doing in that moment. I stayed sometimes in the desert, sometimes in a village, I traveled alone. It was scary and dangerous and disturbing."
The result is as open-ended as Lemon's own creative process. "I don't use the word "multiculturalism,'" he says. "It's been hard for me because this work is so fashionably trendy. But I'm mostly just working with people who really interest me. And I don't look at it as "globalization.' I look at it as "Americanization.' It's not a bad thing, it's real, it's happening. And I represent America. I don't make these works in Asia, I don't workshop them in Africa, so there's an economic privilege involved in this trilogy. So I try at least not to use those simple terms."
It's a way of choreographing -- and of living -- that merges naturally with Lemon's longtime affinity for Buddhism. "I don't know whether it's hyperego or egoless," he says, "but I think in Eastern philosophies it's one and the same."