Theater archives

Robert Wilson Pays Homage to Suzushi Hanayagi at the Guggenheim


None of the events in the Guggenheim’s admirable Works & Processes series connects so sensitively with its current exhibition, The Third Mind—Americans Artists Contemplate Asia (1860–1989), as the piece it commissioned from the remarkable theater artist Robert Wilson. Wilson’s contemplation with Asia began in the early 1980s when he met Suzushi Hanayagi in Tokyo and discovered a kindred spirit and a mentor. During the talk that preceded the April 17 premiere of his homage to Hanayagi, KOOL—Dancing in My Mind, he told the exhibit’s curator, Alexandra Munroe, that the Japanese dancer-choreographer taught him that movement created with no meaning intended could generate its own meaning. And that Hanayagi enlarged his understanding of the body’s relation to space and that of feet to the floor.

Hanayagi was trained in several classical Japanese dance styles emanating from Noh or Kabuki theater. When, at the age of 20, she changed Kiuchi, the name she was born with in 1928, to Hanayagi, she had been studying for 17 years and had mastered 100 dances in the Hanayagi style. She didn’t stop performing her classical repertory in Japan until the end of the 1990s. But she also created contemporary dance works and spent much of the 1960s and 1970s in New York and on the West Coast, participating in the vanguard work of Fluxus and Judson Dance Theater. She and Carla Blank made 14 pieces together. In a 1975 essay, Trisha Brown wrote that the eighth movement of her own Primary Accumulation was “a one-second distillation of my love for Suzushi Hanayagi.”

Hanayagi began to collaborate with Wilson in 1984, contributing choreography to his the CIVIL warS, which premiered at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, and went on to work with him on over 15 productions. The austerely beautiful and poetic KOOL— Dancing in My Mind acknowledges not only her contributions to the field and to him, but the mysterious power of dance itself.

The story behind KOOL (Suzushi means cool in Japanese) is both sad and inspiring. Wilson has trouble telling it to the audience at the Guggenheim, and when I recount it to a friend, I start to cry. Several years ago, Wilson lost contact with Hanayagi, and no one could tell him how to find her. He finally discovered her living in a special-care facility in Osaka, and lost in a graver sense. The images of Hanayagi—thin, weathered face, hooded eyes—that we see projected on the background screen of the Guggenheim’s Peter B. Lewis Theater show a woman in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. She never speaks, she barely moves. She sits in a chair.

The first day that Wilson visited Hanayagi, she stuck out her hand; he took it. She stuck it out again; he copied her gesture. After what may have been quite a few repetitions, he added a small turn of the wrist. She mirrored him. (He tells us this without emphasis, but exclamation points hang in the air.) When he had to leave Japan and paid his last visit, she said softly in Japanese, “I am dancing in my mind.”

Wilson, as is usual with him, devised and oversaw the concept, the movement, and the visual design for KOOL—Dancing in My Mind, but he had help from many people. Blank—also noted also as an author and dramaturge—helped assemble archival material and reinterpret excerpts from her early collaborations with Hanyagi. Jonah Bokaer choreographed his own solos (as did Illenk Gentille) and mined the array of sources (productions by Wilson, Hanayagi, Blank) to shape and create material for Wilson’s overall collage structure. Richard Rutkowski coordinated the photographs, film clips, and videos shot in Osaka. David Byrne gave permission for his music for the knee plays—the CIVIL wars to be used. We hear Hanayagi’s thoughts about art-making (but not in her voice) from interviews and written material dating from the 1970s until 2003.

The dancing takes place in front of either a beautifully lit cyclorama (Scott Bolman is credited with lighting, along with Wilson) or the array of skillfully arranged and timed projections. We see flashes of Hanayagi performing her own pieces—classical, contemporary, and hybrid; we see her in Wilson’s work and in Blank’s. We also see her most important teacher, Takehara Han. Here, unforgettably, is Hanayagi rehearsing, or teaching a large group of people—her round face merry, her movements exhilarated.

In the recent black-and-white close-ups, her gnarled hands emerge limply from the sleeves of an embroidered kimono as she sits in her chair in Osaka. Then, gradually and jerkily, as if surveyed by a time-lapse camera, the hands arch up and the fingers spread. They look strangely powerful, unreal. Later, one at a time, they turn over to show their palms.

The live performance channels movements from Hanayagi’s distant and recent past. Five dancers (Bokaer, Gentille, CC Cheng, Meg Harper, Sally Gross, and Yuki Kawahisa) wear white suits (costume design by Carlos Soto) and move with great precision and deliberateness—whether marching or falling suddenly or making clear gestures (like thrusting one straight arm out to the side). During one of Gentille’s solos, the others stand and simply repeat the minimal hand motions—their three middle fingers held together—that Hanayagi made for Wilson when he visited her in Osaka. There’s a quartet in which Bokaer and Gentille partner Cheng and Kawahisa and a sequence devised by Wilson in which the two men split the stage to re-envision a duet in which Blank and Hanayagi performed their own solos side by side. Cheng and Kawahisa walk on in a squat—one almost piggybacking the other—like two comic kyogen actors.

Gentille—wearing a white kimono and wielding a fan—honors Hanayagi with slow, ceremonious dancing in classical Japanese style; when he suddenly jumps straight up, the effect is almost shocking. Bokaer celebrates her wilder, exploratory side. Against a red-lit background, sometimes silhouetted, he repeatedly races forward as if to bolt, then rushes back thrashing and staggering; when the red gives way to bluish white, he stands motionless, one arm held out to the side.

A pile of slim, white boards is spot-lit downstage, and actions with other boards become a motif, echoing a brief film clip of Hanayagi (I think) gathering up similar ones. Once, Gross (who was involved with Judson Dance Theater and certainly knew Hanayagi) enters slowly, carrying three boards, stops, and hurls them to the floor. Much later, Harper carefully picks some up, holds them for several long moments, and drops them. Bokaer spins with three of them before throwing them down in a sudden brief flash of green light.

All the short scenes are separated by blackouts. None finishes with a climax. It’s as if we were looking over a page of intriguing snapshots, with a moment of nothingness when the page is turned. Sometimes a sharp clack of two sticks precipitates or signals the end of a scene, as in a Kabuki performance. The clarity of the images and the measured pace broken by unexpected explosions bring to mind not only Japanese art forms but Wilson’s own creations. Recalling his early avant-garde pieces, such as Deafman Glance, before he met Hanayagi, I can see why the two fell in artistic love with each other and why that long relationship needed to be remembered and acknowledged.

KOOL—Dancing in My Mind will be performed again on August 8 and 9 at East Hampton’s Guild Hall.