Book Sorcery


The spines of books hold pages together. Fan the pages out, and stories, waiting to be read, seem to awaken and breathe. The human spine anchors the bones that send movements rippling into space. When you read, writes Japanese choreographer Saburo Teshigawara, “your bones are dancing in the pages.”

In his magical Bones in Pages, shown at the Lincoln Center Festival, Teshigawara shares the stage with thousands of books—heaped on the floor, formed into a low wall, and lined up, open sides out, on high shelves that stretch on a shallow diagonal from the front of the stage to the back. When Sergio Pessanha’s uncannily beautiful lighting first strikes those shelves, the yellowing pages shimmer like a quilt of pure gold patches. A turquoise ray spills down on the chair where Teshigawara sits, his head bowed to rest on a small table covered with broken glass.

Teshigawara’s installation, Dance of Air, resonates as a dream maze, a playground for the mind. Borges would feel at home here. A dark peninsula across from the book-wall turns out to be made entirely of women’s shoes. Angled clear plastic screens in the center of the stage mark off two tiny environments that mirror each other oddly: each houses a small table; one holds the rear half of a wooden armchair, the other the front half. A scrim softens the audience’s view, and an almost invisible panel at the back faintly and fuzzily reflects some of the action. The changing soundscape, compiled by Kei Miyata and the choreographer, includes muffled tolling, industrial clanking, thunder, cataclysmic rumbling and crashing, and sweet passages for string orchestra.

Teshigawara, at 52, is an extraordinary performer—slim and nimble, with a bald head and an expressive face. He studied ballet and contemporary dance in Japan, as well as fine arts. The dance is a mysterious journey. We see the impact of thought and minute inner climate changes on his body. At times he jitters and jerks, or droops like a marionette whose strings have been loosened. His feet slide and twist over a suddenly slippery floor. At other times, his gestures slash the surrounding air. Just as you begin to sense the sculpture of his body as low and wide, crooking sinuously into multiple crannies of space, he pulls himself into a tall, narrow stance and spins, or advances with small chassés. When the music turns melodious, he opens himself to it in delight, rounding his arms, revealing the fluency of his wrists.

He is not entirely alone. About two-thirds of the way through the 55-minute piece, a woman (Miyata) clad in black appears, advances, and then slowly backs up; for a second or two, only her reaching hands are lit. As she sweeps and bends against the rear panel, the reflections of her gestures flair after her, as if she were drawing her shadow. Later, a masked woman (Rihoko Sato) wobbles and staggers among the shoes, finally hurling some of the them against the scrim and collapsing.

A third companion is even more enigmatic. Sharing the stage with Teshigawara from the outset is a raven—large, although not yet fully grown. This is a local raven, supplied by All Tame Animals (its flying training was postponed until after these performances), but it evidently feels a kinship with Teshigawara, whose company is named Karas (crow). Sauntering around the set, fluttering onto a table and knocking a book to the floor, pecking at things, the bird epitomizes unpredictability. Yet it is as responsive to real events as the performer-choreographer is to illusory ones. When Teshigawara suddenly drops a book, the raven runs over to check on him, then walks away. When the man falls onto the pile of books, the bird hops rapidly to him, and then stays to do a little reading after Teshigawara moves on. Even more startling: The man takes a book from a shelf and scatters its pages; the bird, standing on the glass shards and making them clink, echoes the move by pulling on a shelved book with its beak. At the end, as the lights are fading, and Teshigawara is again seated at the shining table, the raven, perched on his arm, gives him a kiss. In the silent darkness that follows, a single quiet “caw” is heard.

This extraordinary artist hasn’t been seen in the U.S. since Karas performed his Noiject at BAM in 1994. Nor have any American companies followed the lead of Ballet Frankfurt, Nederlands Dans Theater, the Paris Opera Ballet, and the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genéve in commissioning a work from him. The two Lincoln Center performances of Bones in Pages, created in 1991 and revised in 2003, whet appetites for more of his pieces. Seldom does dream as art make such mesmerizing inroads on the watcher’s soul.