Passion Distilled

A choreographer turns her postmodern gaze on an ancient style

The last time I saw Yasuko Yokoshi, she was performing her 2003 solo, Shuffle, a wild-woman merger of Japanese myth and episodes from her family's history, with imaginative use of a set, props, video, and speech. In her new what we when we, narrative is reduced to its essence, because Yokoshi, while in Japan, became deeply involved in studying a highly subtle form of Kabuki dance perfected by Kanjyuro Fujima VI (1909-1990) with Fujima's disciple Masumi Seyama (who is also credited with some of the choreography).

Yokoshi has also been reading Raymond Carver, and her mesmerizing wordless dance-drama builds on his story, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." The terse, allusive style of Carver's prose has a provocative kinship with a dance style that employs simple, spare motions to suggest large emotions and events. Although you needn't have read Carver's tale to understand Yokoshi's more elusive one, they employ similar devices. Carver's two couples sit around a table, drinking a great deal of gin and conversing about love—with divorce, abusive love, attempted or contemplated murder, and suicide, as well as their various attempts to define real love, presented as personal recollections. And in Yokoshi's work, you feel the slipperiness of time and the suspicion that you may be seeing events from the points of view of various characters.

Adding to the enigmatic quality of what we when we are the gender complexities of Kabuki. The five performers—Eikazu Nakamura, Ryutaro Mishima, Hiromi Naruse, Matsuhide Nakashima, and Yokoshi—all wear plain cotton kimonos in assorted black-and-white patterns, and at different times two of the men, Nakashima and Nakamura, move in a sinuous female style.

The setting and behavior are intensely formal. A portion of the audience sits on an L-shaped red carpet. A video screen designed to look like a narrow hanging scroll holds, very occasionally, a few beautiful painterly slides by Mishima (a field, oranges on a tree, a window, a harbor). The score—credited to microstoria, snd_, Tindersticks, and So Takahashi and mixed by So_ichiro Migita—drops occasional fragments of music and sounds like rain, thunder, bird calls, tolling bells, clock chimes, and dogs barking—into a pool of watchful silence. The five enter and leave the performing space with a smooth, shuffling walk channeled into right-angled paths, rarely tracing curves or diagonals. Often, they bear or remove pillows, and many scenes occur between two people sitting on their heels, side by side, close together.

It is in this configuration that we see Mishima—something of a world-weary swaggerer, often with a cigarette (lit in pantomime)—lean slowly toward Nakamura and put an arm around him, taking his chin in one hand as if for a kiss, while Nakamura pulls slightly, slowly, away. Later the action is repeated somewhat differently by Mishima with Nakashima. Mishima and Yokoshi sit together and he pours them cup after cup of what must be sake. Later, in a distant square of light (the elegant lighting design is by Carol Mullins), these two lean their heads together and "sleep," while in the foreground Nakamura and Nakashima meet furtively, then come together again to kiss.

In the several dancing passages, the two women, Hiromi Naruse and Yokoshi, are refined and minimal in female style: small, soft toeing-in steps; the effect of a narrow body shifting into subtle curves and oppositional pulls and gently settling into poses. Naruse wields a parasol in one solo, Yokoshi a fan whose openings and closings and tiltings hint at symbolic meanings. The three men move briefly together in a bolder style, cutting the air with their arms as if practicing martial arts. To end the piece, Nakamura dances flicking a scarf, his movements similar to the women's, and very unlike his earlier stiff-armed, wider-legged stances.

There are no wasted motions. Every small act seems burned onto the space and onto your retina. A violent emotion is reduced to a single, controlled look or gesture. The performers don geta and we deduce they are going outside; they remove the clacking wooden sandals and place them neatly—now they've come into a house. You could almost miss the moment when Mishima slowly makes a fist near his waist or takes something (a knife? a gun?) out of his kimono and then replaces it. The way he taps a cigarette against his palm becomes immensely important, as does the way Yokoshi suddenly lets a single pillow dangle from her hand—her carelessness amid all the fastidious care resonating like a sigh from the depths.

Watching the comings and goings of these people, you feel the weight of what is not being expressed—the burden of despair, anger, or desire that infuses their slightest physical shift. Over the 70 minutes the piece takes to unfold, restraint creates an almost painful drama of its own—like an exquisite glass vase that might shatter from the force of its contents.

 
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