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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Anarchy and Ash: Contemporary Dance from Asia

HAIGUFURU -- Ash is Falling
-- By Tom Phillips

After a one-year hiatus, Japan Society’s Contemporary Dance Showcase has returned, with a new look and a new theme.   When I first saw this showcase in 2005, dancers and choreographers were wrestling with issues like sexism, conformity, and office politics in Japan’s sclerotic traditional culture.  That seems like small potatoes now.  In the 2013 edition, we see artists surrounded by overwhelming forces, both natural and technological.  The 21st century has heaved into full view, and life as we know it is under siege.  What is to be done?  

The most apocalyptic of the four pieces was the finale, titled “HAIGUFURU – Ash is Falling.”  Choreographer Kosei Sakamoto created this “On the Beach” piece following the tsunami and nuclear accident that devastated Japan in 2011.  In extreme slow motion and with exquisite control, four dancers appear to be blown all the way upstage, rolling, turning and tumbling.  They pull themselves up and stagger forward again, but these half-clothed survivors seem permanently wounded, stunned by the destructive power of the natural environment.   

Technology is the trap in “Seventh Sense” by Taiwanese choreographer Chieh-hua Hsieh and his +Anarchy Dance Theatre.   This takes place in a closed, high-tech interactive space, where the two dancers’ movements set off large-scale patterns in the grid lighting that surrounds them.   At first the dancers seem to be calling the shots, but the patterns they set off grow larger and larger, until the space begins to reel and rock out of their control.  Eventually it lays them low, and in an eerie conclusion, colored tendrils creep  out of the floor and envelop them, like the thorny hedge that grows around Sleeping Beauty.  Here no prince arrives to slash through the hedge, and the dancers are left with an alien world closing in on them.  What is it?  Maybe the end of civilization, and the inevitable return of the vegetable kingdom.  

Two veteran Butoh dancers offer another grim fairy tale, a battle between life and death with death the easy winner.  Makoto Enda and Kutomaro Mukai’s “Misshitsu:  Secret Honey Room” is a bizarre duet:  a harried salaryman is frantically trying to get into his suit when he is visited by a ghostly grinning guest on a tricycle.  The guest gradually takes control of the hapless host, manipulating him like a puppeteer.  In the end he brings him a cup of tea on a string, which he pulls away until his victim crumples and crawls off the stage.  Then he tastes it himself, with a hearty “Aahh.”   
Four Tokyo street dancers offer some comic relief with a piece called “Send It, Mr. Monster” but it’s hip-hop with a dark edge.  The two boys and two girls of +Tokyo Electrock Stairs have fun showing off their cool moves, but the dominant motif is lying on their backs kicking wildly, as if throwing a tantrum or fending off an attack.   There’s a menacing air in the non-environment of a bare stage, and the techno music track punctuated by one big bang that flattens the whole crew.   The gifted leader, who bills himself as KENTARO! takes a  solo in which he seems to be losing control, his limbs being jerked out from under him by an unseen force.  But this is the essence of hip-hop humor, the encrustation of the mechanical on the human in a way that actually valorizes the human.  His message to the world seems to be: You wanna manipulate me?  I bet you can’t do this…   

So boys and girls, there’s hope.  In hip-hop there is hope!  In an apocalyptic age (and this isn’t the first such age) KENTARO! says the answer is to dance. 
Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips
Photos by Julie Lemberger

                                                    Misshitsu: Secret Honey Room