When Kei Takei performs, it is as if a tree walked. Her every step seems wrenched from the earth, achieved at great cost. Until I saw her new solo The Absence of Izanagi (Time Diary) at La MaMa, I had almost forgotten how much I missed her. She lives in Japan now, and her last visit here was in 1996, but beginning in the ’60s many of the 31 parts of her epic Light—over a day’s worth of dance—were created in New York for her company, Moving Earth.
The Absence of Izanagi refers to a Japanese creation myth, which shares certain themes with the legends of Persephone and of Orpheus. But Takei is not portraying Izanami, the female half of a pair of gods who are both siblings and lovers; she is herself—a modern woman, a major artist—”uneasy,” as she has said, in today’s world, searching for “something that should exist [but] doesn’t exist.”
Performing, however, she is primal. In the landscape designed by architect Akio Hayashi, the domed tops of three small pillars light up. A single piano note sounds. The pillars darken. Even sitting close, on wooden boxes placed along two sides of the cavernous La MaMa Annex, we can barely make out Takei: a small figure in white garments like those of a long-ago Japanese peasant, loops of something—braided straw, maybe—attached to her back, her short black hair a cloud. A single chord hangs in the air.
The lights (by Ranko Ohnishi) brighten only a little as Takei inches toward the threshold between two other pillars. In the silences that are a vital part of Somei Satoh’s spare and beautiful score, we hear her breathing. Bent at the knees, she starts swinging her arms; I can’t imagine swinging mine so long, so violently. I think she’ll die if she keeps it up. Yet she can scarcely get her stuck feet to move. It seems to take forever for her to get through the gateway. Later, briefly, her feet are free, scampering and twisting, but one hand can’t escape the floor. Her periods of rest or contemplation are almost more wrenching than her striving.
A white line loops around her arena—something resembling chalk—and she dances along it like a child playing alone. The object on her back turns out to be a pair of white rag shoes tied together. Wearing one, she can do a better job of smudging the track. When she finally finds the right direction to travel, she disappears back into darkness and silence. Why am I crying?
Laz Brezer, married to Takei, has his own solo program at La MaMa. You can see the influence of his adopted country on the tempo of his work, especially in a slow Invocation. But the image Brezer projects most clearly is more that of a Samuel Beckett nonhero. In The Rope, based on a story by Keiichi Nishida and performed to a sound collage by the author, Brezer wears a Western suit turned inside out. He’s pulling an invisible rope, twisting into it, being pulled back by it (sometimes the image is vivid, at other times less convincing). A real rope falls from above, but he doesn’t seem to see it. Suddenly he’s a clown—free to leap and hop—but he ends by pulling again on his unseen lifeline.
His most ambitious piece, My Friend, is dedicated to the late stage designer Tetsu Maeda. Maeda was collaborating with Brezer on this work at the time of his death. Here the choreographer is a white-suited wanderer; fire and flood overwhelm his projected video image. The live Brezer seems to become Maeda, tottering into the arms of eight assistants who’ve been sweeping the floor and monitoring the cloth panels that descend. The actions are both ceremonious and desultory—goalless, yet fraught. The helpers lay Brezer on a white pallet; he rises to stare out between curtains, or sits and turns the pages of a book. When the lights come on after a moment of blackness, he’s lying on the bed with a sleeping woman beside him. In another intriguing moment, the eight hurry to lace black fabric to the hems of the white panels, so they can rise into darkness.
Brezer’s expressiveness as a performer lies mostly in his bold face and strong, supple arms, which constantly stir and mold the air. An uncredited, untitled solo to Chopin shows that while his torso is flexible, movement doesn’t flow through it. (The solo seems to have been composed in 1998 by Daniel Nagrin, but, perhaps because it inevitably changed in the intervening two years, the maker has temporarily disowned it.) Brezer, who has been performing with Takei for many years, is relatively new to choreography, his considerable intelligence still grappling with issues of structure and timing.
Can you imagine a choreographer saying to Desmond Richardson, “Could you possibly ripple about half that many muscles?” Or to Elizabeth Parkinson, “I love how you thrust that leg to the ceiling, but could you deemphasize the virtuosity?”
Such a choreographer might not be working for RhythMEK, the new group making its debut at Jacob’s Pillow this summer. This is a dancer-driven company, founded by three Alvin Ailey alums: Karine Plantadit-Bageot, Elizabeth Roxas, and Michael Thomas. Its 12 stellar performers cry out to be played to the max, the way a Strad beckons a violin virtuoso.
They’re not simply technical marvels. A quote from Rumi—the same one that inspired Laz Brezer’s concert—graces their pamphlet: “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Although each number on their swift-moving program (no pauses, no bows till the end) purports to be about a particular relationship, all are primarily about these people’s relationship to dancing as a physically and spiritually enriching endeavor.
The choreography is not always up to thelevel of the dancing. Sherash by Mia Michaels begins strikingly, with the whole group pulsing and chanting together in a triangle of light. But the dance loses its power, even as it introduces us to these gorgeous creatures. Bill Hastings’s Nabta Playa, with Roxas and Plantadit-Bageot dozing on derelict beach chairs while Thomas dances up a storm and finally galvanizes them, tells us little about these three as people or collaborators, but a lot about their chops. A much better trio—Secret Selves, from Zvi Gotheiner’s Chair—features Rebecca Rigert and Parkinson in solo struggles on chairs, and Dwight Rhoden and Roger Bellamy in a chair duet. (It made me yearn to see this company tackle Anna Sokolow’s Rooms.)
Curiously, the evening’s predominant emotions are anger, struggle, pain, and sexual heat—expressed with knife-sharp clarity in Ulysses Dove’s notable search-and-destroy Episodes. In Growth, a solo choreographed by Rhoden to music by Steve Reich, that rich performer Sarita Allen lashes her figurative tail in some fathomless rage to conquer that takes no breaks. Thomas’s Shout Out has Zane Booker atop a tall platform, treading and rippling and gesturing as if his inner serpent were screaming to get out.
It’s a relief to find a trace of humor in the hot-eyed prowling and grasping of Gary Pierce’s tango foursome On the Ropes—at least as Richardson plays it—in addition to flashing legwork by him and Roxas, Antonio Scott, and Leonora Stapleton. There are 100 ways to hatch a dance troupe, and this is one of them—choosing choreography that showcases each wonderful dancer equally. Next, maybe, they’ll think of more ways to define “wonderful.“