Japan Society’s 11th Annual Contemporary Dance Showcase was one of many events timed to coincide with the annual international conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (January 11 through 15). APAP week is always awash in showcases and strategically scheduled performances. Every group involved has to hope that one or two of the 4000+ presenters will be sufficiently smitten with a music, dance, or theater performance to book it. The organization offers what’s essentially a citywide marketplace—an opportunity to see and be seen, mix and mingle, however bleary-eyed all attendees will be by the time they stumble into the final salsa party.
This year’s Contemporary Dance Showcase ventures beyond new Japanese choreography to include works from Korea and Taiwan, at least two of these adapted from longer works (with somewhat mystifying results). Three separate performances, divided along national lines, might have provided spectators with a better understanding of the trends in dance and various approaches within a country, although certain common interests do crop up. As cities like Seoul, Tokyo, and Taipei have bustled into the world-market economy, their ancient traditions have gone into hiding, reserved for special occasions and ceremonies. It’s not surprising that many contemporary Asian artists are drawn to themes that reflect anomie, competitiveness, urban congestion, pop culture crazes, and queries about identity, while others (primarily Japanese butoh performers) investigate primal states that pre-date westernization.
Three out of the five works on seem born from the frustrations of a rat-race society in which image is not only crucial but subject to unpredictable trends. Since the title of Dulcinea (performed by the Japanese company Kingyo) reflects founder-choreographer Yukio Suzuki’s interest in Cervantes’s novel Don Quixote, maybe the bicycle helmet that the choreographer dashes to the ground in this falling-apart piece, as well as the one that Ryohei Yokoyama struggles to take off, is a badge of knighthood. The only woman onstage (Nao Ashimine) is even more unstable than the two men, and the closest either of them gets to her is by crawling on his belly and touching her ankle during one of the rare moments when she stops staggering. Not only do these three people hurl their limbs around like whips, yanking themselves off balance, the very ground seems to betray them, and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, Part 1 (the first sounds we hear) could easily knock a person down. It’s hard to believe that these three can briefly mesh such impulsive movements into unison. For a quixotic task, Suzuki attempts to climb an unsupported vertical board via two round, fat pegs and crashes to the floor. Only when he thinks to prop the board against a back wall can he climb it. But to what end?
The glamorous woman who strides onstage to begin Inside Out is wearing a trim little black dress and high heels, but a scarf covers her head and dark glasses mask her eyes (apparently she’s channeling Jackie Kennedy). Revealing and concealing, as well as the effect of fashion on feminine identity, are the basic themes of this intriguing, but perplexing work, created by two Taiwanese choreographers, Pi-Jung Wu and Hsiu-Ping Chang, for their Sun-Shier Dance Theater. Clear plastic screens act as both windows and mirrors, depending on Ting-Tsung Ho’s lighting. As Chang contemplates her image, a ghostly alter ego swims into the gleaming depths. Seated on a stool in a “closet” of the screens, having removed some of her fashionable attire (including falsies),, Chang subtly entwines with a doppelganger who emerges into from the darkness behind her. I should mention that one of the taped music selections is “I Blame the Government” sung in a wan British voice by Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine..
Three of the five performers pop up intermittently from behind a horizontal panel. These perky women wear startling techno outfits— stiff mirrored skirts and black tops with hoods bearing what look like cinnamon buns for decoration (costumes by Yu-Fen Shai). Anime triplets from a flowery planet on which Captain Kirk accidentally touched down? A dream of bad fashion on the part of the heroine? A witchy figure appears and disappears. In the end, not only is Chang dressed in her original clothes but everyone else is garbed identically Here’s a real nightmare for the fashion-conscious, but the implications of the Jackie connection never develop..
The theatrically savvy Nipponia Nippon, choreographed by Makoto Enda for his Japan-based Makotocluv, offers a lightly satiric view of the white-collar world. It begins with a duet between the choreographer and Eiji Saito, both dressed in business attire; one politely offers a piece of white paper to the other and then withdraws it at the last minute. The grabbing-evading exchange, expanding beyond pantomime, wittily epitomizes the conflict between courtesy and need. A man and a woman, kneeling on opposite sides of a square of light, create a dialogue out of tumbling across the space, then collect themselves and back away. A fifth performer wanders through the piece. He consults a map worriedly; maybe he’s late for an interview; it’s hot. Frustrated and ill-at-ease, he summons enough courage to imitate the robust steps of the others—showing that he can dance to their beat (for a long time, Masayoshi Ogawa’s music is just a nastily insistent ticking). Nipponia Nippon ends with the performers facing away from us and jiggling tensely while they toss storm of business cards into the air. So much for corporate life.
A solo, Below the Surface, performed and choreographed by Yon-In Lee, founder of the Korean group UBIN Dance, defines a world less turbulent than that of the three group works. She begins provocatively, slowly walking away from the audience, angling her legs interestingly and then disappearing in a blaze of light that hits the audience in the eyes. Lee is a lovely dancer. She sways and unfurls her flexible limbs and expansive body like seaweed in a mild current, but I find my attention drifting because of the sameness of her rhythms and overall tempo.
From the moment Jiro Matsumoto’s lighting and sound design reveal Japanese choreographer Yun Myung Fee surrounded by darkness and the strains of oddly distorted flamenco music, you know this woman is extraordinary. In her solo Pevelada (showcase version), she wears a pale, frilly dress half unfastened at the top, and the light catches her leaning slightly backward, wilting, dropping a white powdery substance from her limp hands. Blackout. Lights. Here she is in another spot, the next blackout enveloping her as she rises from a deep second-position plié. We see her only in these brief, isolated respites from darkness, always in a different place, rarely captured beginning or ending anything,. She falls. She lunges deeply. She jolts her feet stiffly, rhythmically together and apart. She vaults up repeatedly, bending her knees as if jumping rope, but her arms hang by her sides. Who she is and what has menaced her are enigmas, but as a performer, she’s unforgettable.