Synchronized gangstas catapult into your mind’s living room á là Michael, Britney, or Madonna. A surreal table set for four evokes Magritte cum Chaplin. A chorus of Greek tragic troglodytes scream silently in pre-existential pain. A couple, he in satin black and she in white, practice—practice!—on a fabric square. A young wife has a fit and dies; her ghost comes back an Ex-y Dancer. Where are you? You’re at the Japan Society, watching the U.S. debuts of four companies from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan at the Society’s 13th Annual Contemporary Dance Showcase in January.
Fresh from a spectacular New York performance based on 10th Century historical Chinese opera and dance (Han-Tang YueFu Ensemble, Brooklyn Rail, December 2009), a reviewer could be forgiven for having temporarily forgotten just how profoundly the imperialism of modern American media and entertainment kultur has colonized the international mind, especially the aspiring purveyor satellites of Japan, Korea and Capitalist China. Modern dance, apparently, is a Western franchise, and the Asian choreographers presenting are apparently willing to imitate rather than innovate, unwilling to convey the muscle memories of their multimillennial cultures. Godzilla, guys, we’ve made this movie before. One possible explanation, of course, is that our societies are becoming the same: high-speed treadmills, corporate, conformist, business attired, dreamless. Isn’t that why we dance? For antidote and inspiration, to invalidate the mediocre, mere moderne through talent and imagination, to achieve somatic release?
But the supercilious Miss Shonagon doth protest too much, methinks. Read on.
South Korea’s Laboratory Dance Project (LDP) led off with, in their U.S. debut, No Comment, divided into two parts by its soundtrack. No Comment, the 2002 work of choreographer Shin Chang-ho, was inspired by German television video-only (i.e., without commentary) coverage of the Iraq conflict. Of course, “no comment” has a different meaning in American idiomatic parlance, just as the choreographer’s intention to “drop unnecessary interpretations and symbolism” in this work seems garbled. No Comment, an ebb and flow of energy, was propelled first by Goran Bregovic’s contrapuntal drumsynth “Babylon,” then Transglobal Underground’s “Ali Mullah,” eerie, wailing fusion music with a Mideastern vocal track (both altogether satisfying). The work was highly interpretable, its narrative revolving around the physical conflicts occurring in the male psyche, literally embodied by the street gang macho male dancers. Individuality, conformity, rebellion, repression, violence and escape were all danced—convincingly, exuberantly, to sinewed pound-and-gyre music, punctuated by impressive airborne acrobatics.
Another Story, the U.S. premiere of a comedic, surreal compilation by the mime-based Company Derashinera of Japan followed. As it opened, two couples, dressed in monochrome businessworld attire, sat around a table. One male keeled over, the other three covered him in furniture, he revived, the table was reset, rinse, and repeat… and repeat… and so on. Various variations were redundantly reprised. There were probably some dance-like movements, too, but they were, regrettably, unremarked. (Not true: One recalls an octopus magician’s topological eight-arm sleight-of-hand interchange of jacket, millionth iteration. What they didn’t do was also telling: avoiding any movements that could possibly be construed as amative. All business, they, one ratiocinates.) Perhaps there was self-parody of Zen surprise, but the indulgence to watch an eight-second movie of someone sleeping isn’t a feature of the restive Homo multitaskitus in the Current Era. And have you lately seen L’Age d’Or? It was really something back in 30, allowing for no later substitutes.
And then they. KIKIKIKIKIKI’s (that’s three Kikis) first foretelling autochthon emerged from fire-char darkness, and we got a hint of butoh: Omedeto (Congratulations), for the company’s U.S. debut. The primordial essence of humanity: anthropomorphic Chōjūgiga-zo—“frolicking animal-persons”—women with individuated, differentiated bodies, not clone-shaped spacesuits, protodancing animistic movements—and that was just their mouths, enchanting and primitive. We were thrown back to our own dreamtime hindbrain bestial origins by the variety and fluidity of their subconscious-seeming movements. It’s possible that the entire piece was performed in levitation; one was too enrapt to ascertain. Congratulations, very yes.
In a bizarre development, Taiwan’s WCdance company was denied visas by U.S. Immigration; choreographer/director WenChung Lin and associate artistic director Ruping Wang performed excerpts from the scheduled Small Nanguan (Small Songs), to have been danced by the company. They shouldn’t have: Life is so much more meaningless than was conveyed, though one suspects that message was not intended. In this venue, creativity was expected: fluid dancing not enough.
The performance closed with the U.S. debut of Masako Yasumoto’s “slap, pat, suck,” a domestic pas de deux by Ms. Yasumoto and consort Ryosuke Sato. This was a sleeper, an allegory of the discontinuity of modern life, replete with singsong, seizures, strobes, and spasmodisms, and the vaginal delivery of a shipline string of miniature flags and baby clothes. To put this in perspective: The audience got the tame version of Yasumoto, whose online performances are übererotic, irreverent, and pleasingly culturally insane, for starters.
Presenting a potpourri of companies from several cultures is undeniably fraught with risk, so artistic director Yoko Shioya deserves plaudits for her courage. Reordering the presentation would’ve helped: unfortunately, the opening piece wasn’t a dawning, and the most climactic piece didn’t close. That forgiven, it was multicultural mashup: enticing variety, aesthetically splendid, offered for our delectation. Arigatō, gamsa habnida, xiè xiè nín, Japan Society.