Timely and Timeless

Some Asian choreographers ride the pop culture bandwagon; others plumb their traditions

Japan Society titled its spring 2005 offerings "Cool Japan: Otaku Strikes." Otaku, the fad for popular culture, rules the society's current art exhibit "Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture" ("little boy" refers both to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and to the infantilized images of manga and anime). The huge-eyed Betty Boops of Japanese comic books and animated cartoons populate violent landscapes, linearly suave and brightly colored. In the theater, a video note-in-progress from Yukiko Amano, sweetly apologizing for being too injured to perform on the weekend's showcases for emerging choreographers, is styled like a child's artwork with stick figures and quirky English ("Today is really sorry").

Before the performance, Natsuko Tezuka, in a schoolgirl's plaid skirt and black blouse, bridges art exhibit and dance performance by walking very slowly, creaky and robot-stiff, across the lobby—two big paper eyes stuck over hers, two paper ears obstructing her own. When she moves one eye to her shirt, another to a leg, and repositions the ears, her circuits split and her movements sputter. Briefly, she opens her real eyes, then puts the paper organs back where they started and jerks to a halt.

In her gripping Anatomical Experiments II, she lies on a low platform. Volunteer spectators flank her on chairs, the lighting hitting their intent faces bringing to mind an autopsy theater; we in the auditorium are given binoculars. Tezuka is again stiff, jerking spasmodically, fingers splayed, legs waving, as if she's trying to break loose from her frozen body. She gradually works her way to standing and finally to thrashing around in a disco frenzy. But she's hardly free. When an attendant brings her water, her hand can't find her mouth, and when he brings her beer at the end, she can't stop flailing to drink it and spills more than she drinks.

Spastic grace: Natsuko Tezuka
photo: Cary Conover
Spastic grace: Natsuko Tezuka

Details

Solo/Duo
Japan Society
May 20 and 21

Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Co.
Asia Society
May 21 and 22

At one point, Tezuka's face mechanically progresses from joy to sorrow to surprise to horror. A similar isolation of body parts plays a role in Shigemi Kitamura's i.d. Bent forward, skirt over her head, she features her spotlit, red-knickered butt to a tinny recording of Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabre (the use of music among these choreographers is wildly eclectic). Drinking from what could be a can of Red Bull, she licks her lips elaborately after each swallow. As she runs and jumps energetically or slumps into apathy, a video silhouette of a slimmer, elongated dancer periodically looms over her. As admonition? As ideal?

Osamu Jareo and Misako Terada avoid pop imagery in their It Might Be Sunny Tomorrow. A man, a woman, two chairs, companionable alienation. To sounds as diverse as "Plaisir d'Amour," Mendelssohn's "Wedding March," the voices of a man and woman conversing in what sounds like Russian, and so on, they reposition the chairs, reposition themselves on them, and embark on contrapuntal movement journeys across the stage. They're nice dancers. The work ends as it began: Terada falls from one of the wings onto an empty stage. No Godzilla here, just protracted, time-honored marital drudgery.


D.C. choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess's Tracings is aptly named. It was inspired by his tracing of his great-grandparents' 1903emigration from Japan-dominated Korea to Hawaii, where they and their descendants picked pineapples on Del Monte's plantation. The piece itself is a delicate tracery about starting a new life—so ritualized that it's akin to a kut, a Korean cleansing ceremony. Judy Hansen's costumes are all white. Jennifer Tipton's serene lighting turns various areas of the stage into golden pools. The music and sound design by Aaron Leitko and (for one section) Jason Kao Hwang is mostly gentle and dreamy, with light percussion and subtly Asian harmonies and melodies.

Projected slides show a ship, a palm tree, acres of pineapples, a young couple, a family. But only the printed program tells us that the choreographer's mother, master weaver Anna Kang Burgess (onstage twice), scarred her hands picking pineapples at age 14. The performers go about their grave, fluid activities, usually in unison, like lovely white fish swimming in formation in an aquarium. Ceremoniously exchanged pineapples are white, as are suitcases, a traditional Korean dance mask that Miyako Nitadori wears at times, and the sheet she shakes to purify herself or set spirits at rest.

Events are abstracted, highly condensed. While four women dance, three men and a fifth woman at the four corners of the stage repeatedly enter, each bearing a pineapple, setting it in an open suitcase, and leaving to get another. The harvest. Shu-Chen Cuff, hair down, face troubled, sits swaying her arms beside Nitadori and Connie Fink. They pluck once at her long black locks, which she then ties up. The three dance. A coming-of-age. A tender, reticent duet for "Tati" Maria Del Carmen Valle-Riestra and Burgess stands for the great-grandparents' union and all that came before and after.

The movements—elegant, often imaginatively designed and linked—ride a gentle rising and sinking vaguely suggestive of traditional Korean dance. The performers' heads are mobile, their arm gestures fluent. Martial arts and soft postmodern tumbles play a role, along with (less felicitously) a few classroomy high side extensions. The dance is so soothing that it can almost put you to sleep; it was designed to calm the soul, though, and it does.

 
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