What do you think is happening? A Japanese actor-dancer, Kuniya Sawamura, wearing black-and-silver Kabuki attire, swings a spear with fierce precision at the invisible enemies that surround him. At the same time, Kayvon Pourazar, a familiar dancer to downtown New York audiences, rushes about the space more freely, several times slamming against Dance Theater Workshop’s bare back wall. The sounds that Steven Reker draws from his guitar and other turbulent effects in Soichiro Migita’s sound design increase in intensity. Neither man acknowledges the other, but their pauses and sudden unleashings of energy seem to coincide, their deep lunges almost to mirror each other.

In Yasuko Yokoshi’s fascinating and astonishingly beautiful Tyler Tyler, the juxtaposition of styles creates both contrasts and symmetries. In this case, Pourazar is performing a solo created by Yokoshi, with his collaborative input. It means whatever it means to him and whatever you’d like it to mean. Sawamura is performing a classical solo choreographed by Masumi Seyama VI; to a knowledgeable Japanese audience, its subject matter (drawn from the Kabuki play Funabenkei) has a very specific meaning. But Yokoshi doesn’t need the New York audience to know that, and, interestingly, in one night’s post-performance discussion (which I moderated), no American spectator asked to know what anything “meant.”

Yokoshi, born in Hiroshima, living here since 1981 (and dancing in works by a number of adventurous choreographers), has, since 2003, been on a quest into her personal history and the traditions of her native land. That was the year she created and performed her solo, Shuffle, which mingled a family tragedy with a Japanese creation myth; it was also the year she began to make trips to Japan to study with Seyama, a disciple of the prominent Kabuki performer and choreographer Kanjyuro Fujima VI (1900-1990). Fujima’s style, perfected within the Kabuki tradition of Su-odori, called for more purity and simplicity in the dances performed in the classical repertory. Seyama, a woman now in her seventies, co-choreographed Yokoshi’s 2006 What We When We, a recasting of a Raymond Carver short story using stylistic elements of Su-odori, and she choreographed the Japanese dances in Tyler Tyler, as well as coaching Pourazar and Julie Alexander.

Kayvon Purazar and Kuniya Sawamura in Yasuko Yokoshi¹s Tyler Tyler
Alexandra Corazza
Kayvon Purazar and Kuniya Sawamura in Yasuko Yokoshi¹s Tyler Tyler

Tyler Tyler is a formal investigation of doubling, beginning with the title. Since “l” and “r” sound identical in Japanese, Taira, the name of one of the two warring factions in Yokoshi’s source (the epic 12th-century Tale of the Heike), is interchangeable with Tyler. And throughout this elegantly shaped and performed work, East and West, Japanese and American, ancient and contemporary, personal and cultural are set beside one another, often in startling ways. For instance, near the beginning of Tyler Tyler, Naoki Asaji (one of three extraordinary performers from Japan—all trained by Seyama) enters with slow shuffling steps, makes a quarter turn, comes forward, and sinks to his knees before. . . a toy piano. He’s wearing a traditional costume like Sawamura’s. Pourazar—who has entered with him, garbed in jeans and a paler Western-style shirt—sits to one side. Then: a shock. Asaji, hitting the piano keys, erupts (in fastidiously articulated English) into the song “Yesterday Once More,” a nostalgic look at old radio hits, while Pourazar executes, without props, what looks like a tea ceremony. Behind them and to one side, Alexander dances—slanting backward until her shoulders touch the floor, running, spinning, hurling herself down and sliding on her belly.

Some of the scenes—dramatically lit by Ayumu “Poe” Saegusa—have more complex unities and disjunctions. And the costumes that Akiko Iwasaki designed for Alexander and Pourazar accentuate these. In the beginning Alexander wears a shirt similar to Pourazar’s but with a long denim skirt, ingeniously draped at the back and trailing slightly. When she dances in her own style, it flairs around her and must be managed. At some point, she gets a new dark gray denim skirt and matching fitted top with big puffed sleeves, while Pourazar reappears in gray pants and a short, tight, gray tailcoat with asymmetrically placed metal buttons. When Alexander ceremoniously hands him a cowboy hat and a gun, you realize that Yokoshi is relating the clan battles of ancient Japan to the feuds of the Wild West. It’s in this costume that Pourazar performs—carefully and gravely—a solo in the style that Seyama is perpetuating.

In one arresting passage, Reker plays his guitar and a shrill Japanese flute and sings in Japanese. Sawamura, kneeling opposite him on the other side of the stage, strikes a tsuzumi by way of punctuation, holding the small, high-pitched drum on his shoulder; periodically he emits the dramatic cries and prolonged vocal exhortations that figure in Kabuki plays. Alexander and Asaji, both holding golden fans, move in place with synchronized elegance. The style is contained, each passing emotion distilled into a subtle gesture or shift of gaze.

The gist of the dramatic scene (based on Shizu-no-Odomaki) is this: Shizu, a dancer, has watched her warrior lover set off through the snow and now must dance to entertain his brother (now his enemy) who holds her captive. Her child has been killed. Asaji’s face reflects an array of emotions. Alexander remains serene, almost stony of visage and voice as she speaks what’s possibly a very idiosyncratic translation of the words (Pourazar, taking the role of a Kabuki stagehand, crouches to hold a mic for her). Among her lines: “But what the hell; I’ve had to take the shit all by myself.” She calls her opponent an “evil fuck,” before saying, “Now I will dance for you.” Yet for all the layers of meaning in this scene—and in the even more multi-pronged, full-cast vision of the climactic battle of Dan-no-ura—every discrete moment is burnished to a glow.

In a sense, Japanese classical dance theater and American postmodern dance are both objective. The formality of Kabuki (especially the Fujima approach to it) has the effect of both distancing and intensifying the high emotions expressed in the dramas; feelings are so compressed that we experience them with a kind of deep, interior pang. The contemporary dance that Yokoshi practices—no matter how wild it may get—also asks for a kind of reticence, in which personal feeling shapes a form that in turn expresses it, without calling for naturalistic acting on the part of the dancer.

When we see Sawamura undergoing a crisis of some kind, we may not understand it as an expert might. Watching him stagger slightly, we might wonder whether his character is exhausted, just awakened from a deep sleep, dizzy, or perhaps a little tipsy. Has he just had daunting news? Yet we understand the essence of his movements very well; who has not experienced—and had to battle—a loss of physical or mental equilibrium?

Yokoshi has asked both the Japanese and the American performers to do things that are not usually part of their experience. Pourazar and Alexander are accustomed to moving loosely and freely, out of their own experience; it’s rare that they have to rein in their gestures in order to end in poses, or work within a highly defined discipline. For an actor to touch and support another as Sawamura does for Pourazar is unknown in Kabuki. It’s uncommon for Asaji, Sawamura, and Kayo Seyama to perform separate solos simultaneously as they do in Tyler Tyler. It’s customary for the tiny, fragile, yet steely Seyama (who has assisted Masumi Seyama in preserving this tradition for over 50 years) to perform a poignant solo, as compressed as a haiku, in which she holds—and sometimes lets drop—a white scarf that symbolizes much to her. But it’s surely unusual for her, in the last moments of Tyler Tyler, to perform onstage an equally slow, refined solo wearing pants and a red T-shirt bearing a logo, while Pourazar, in green T-shirt, sits before the tiny piano and sings casually and very quietly Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.”

The five performers are all extraordinary, as they move through this tilting landscape. It’s not only Saegusa’s lighting that renders them luminous. And, however complex Yokoshi’s postmodern weaving, the essential purity of Fujima’s approach pares away all excess. Grappling with an unfamiliar style and a dynamic both dramatically charged and infused with restraint, Alexander and Pourazar—always fine performers—have never seemed so powerful.

In Yokoshi’s earlier Shuffle, she alluded to an accidental drowning in her family. There’s a naval battle in The Tale of the Heike, as well as a perilous sea voyage, and a watery suicide. At several points in Tyler Tyler, Marin Holzman’s video projection fills the back wall with rippling ocean water; sometimes a young Asian girl is swimming and splashing in the shallows. It seems as if Yokoshi’s intuition and creative choices draw on personal imagery and feelings unknown to us in order to create the kind of resonant poetry that renders cultural boundaries porous.

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