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Saturday, November 21, 2015

In the Realm of the Senses 2

Choreographed by Shuji Onodera
Japan Society, New York
November 13, 2015
by Tom Phillips 
Spectator julie_lemberger-0783Amidst flying furniture and bodies, an ordinary piece of fruit --  an orange -- commands the stage in Shuji Onodera's dance/ mime/ theatre piece "Spectator."  The orange is bowled across the floor, passed from hand to hand, or held in place while seven acrobatic performers take turns supporting it. It's an object of curiosity, then of contention as two women fight for control, with one finally plunging a knife into it, driving the other to fling a fit. The action is presided over by a pretty female narrator, who introduces herself as a writer and the piece as a love story. But then she's a waitress, and still later a housewife suspected in the disappearance of her husband, who's been cleverly stuffed into an attache case.  What's going on?  We can't really say, and that turns out to be the key to the pleasures of "Spectator."  

 This is not Theatre of the Absurd, but a meditation on everyday life as observed from the middle distance. The dancers are four men and three women in ordinary clothes, almost always in motion. Middle distance is the aesthetic point of view -- neither up close where we're caught in the emotional drama, nor in the far distance where we take a detached, global perspective. This is the realm of the senses, the domain of pure, non-narrative beauty.  It's where we all are when we look in a window or walk down the street, catching glimpses of tenderness, conflict, fakery, anguish, passion, joy -- and put them together not as a story, but a spectacle. 
"Spectator" works like a Zen koan to exhaust the thoughts and feelings, and clear the way for "just seeing." By the end of this 70-minute piece, even the most blockheaded observer, such as I, has given up trying to figure out a story line, or a thesis. At this point our minds are cleared to see the finale, where all seven dancers lie down and join in a rolling, rising and falling floor ballet, ending in darkness. It took me that long to see that this piece is about beauty itself, nothing more, nothing less.  
Not even "about" beauty, it gives us the thing itself: A dancer moving like a cat, creeping and pouncing, leaping onto a table without a sound. The beauty of ensemble movement -- dancers rolling and tumbling, moving furniture while they pass the orange like a baton. Onodera's performers move with purpose, but where they're going is utterly unpredictable.  For me the high point was an upside-down bobblehead dance by a man and a woman, on hands and knees with their heads dangling and bouncing around in the air. The master of this move -- and the cat routine -- is Naoya Oda, a butoh-trained dancer whose limbs and neck can somehow work far beyond the normal range. 
Behind all this is a choreographer with a purpose. Shuji Onodera found inspiration for this piece at a school for the deaf in Tokyo, where students had developed their other senses to an extraordinary level. He too, he says, wants to be close to "the honing of the senses."   
copyright 2015 by Tom Phillips
Photo by Julie Lemberger   Mai Nagumo, Yu Saito, Momoko Fujita, Naoya Oda, Hideaki Takeuchi, Maki Yamada in Shuji Onodera's "Spectator."