Ritual and Spectacle

by Leigh Witchel

Kei Takei has been building on her series “Light” for close to half a century. She brought two sections of it as part of the “Lumberyard in the City” series that revisited three female choreographers from the 1970s. But sometimes, the more you return to a subject, the less there is to say.

“Light Part 44” (Bamboo Forest), from 2016, took place in a square demarcated by glowing cords like a boxing ring. The noise of wind and sticks striking bamboo could be heard in the darkness. Takei, a tiny woman with frizzy hair, still performs. She began the piece at the center. At the sides, the other dancers watched her in close formation.

The whole cast was costumed simply, in white wraps with green at the shoulders. Takei walked forward slowly, her arms down and palms out, staring upwards without seeing, like a blind person staring at the sun.

The others broke formation and drifted impassively to the center. Everyone crouched and walked in a circle. The elemental nature of the work recalled so many things with the theme of an unseen natural presence bigger than us: “The Rite of Spring,” “The Woman in the Dunes.”

An older couple at the center was replaced by a younger one. The others continued stalking and looking as the music changed to drumming and pounding. The movement was as simple and naturalistic as possible; utilitarian movements and a wrestler’s stance. Yet that stillness requires its own training; several members of the cast including Takei study Noh.

The pounding circle expanded and contracted: Laz Brezer, Takei’s husband, found his way out of the circle. He reached to the ground, then skywards as if to sanctify it. The others stood sentinel. The group resumed slowly circling. Two women in the center reached as if threshing. They turned and walked towards the back.

It didn’t seem to make a difference where things began and ended, yet suddenly, there was an ending, to music with bells and pounding drums. One by one the community joined in to stomp and throw their arms to the earth or sky.

A couple stood in a corner and moved as if heading on a dark, rock-strewn road. The wind and tapping began again. As everyone else headed to a corner, the lights picked out Takei. She continued the journey she began as she stared at the horizon – or at nothing. The others reached up and hunched over as the lights faded.

“Light, Part 44” (Bamboo Forest). Photo © Kate Enman.

Takei’s inspiration from nature led to a subdued performance as ritual, almost an incantation. Like many kinds of Japanese art, the event didn’t insist on amounting to a performance. Yet at this point these ideas felt cliché rather than elemental.

The solo performed by Takei from “Light Part 8,” from 1974, had the feeling of parable. The lights came up on a recording of a chime striking and men chanting. Takei entered wearing thin undergarments; white briefs and a small top.

At the center of the stage there was a large pile of white cloth at center stage. She stepped gingerly towards it and grabbed something – clothing, only deformed with padded lumps like tumors. Takei put it on, but not by using the sleeve hole, but instead placing it anywhere it might go and tying it, as she did with another piece from the pile. One round her shoulder, then the next round her waist, then another, then another, then another . . .

Her movement was antic, and felt like the enactment of a comic fable. She tied on another piece, howling happily, then stamped nervously around the pile before attacking it again. If “Light Part 44” tapped in to ritualized performance, “Light Part 8” was spectacle.

Takei crashed down on the pile, putting on more and more bits. It became harder and harder for her to move. Crawling on the floor, she kept returning for more, attacking the pile, putting another piece on ludicrously with little cries of effort.

She fell on her back trying to affix the last few garments, happily knotting them on and bouncing to the chanted rhythm, but she could no longer get up. Spasming, her movement became smaller until she lay still, belly up – she had become the pile. Literally. The lights went out, and when they came back up, two stagehands entered to pick her up and carry her off.

In many ways the fable of avarice that Takei told was no less familiar, but it felt fresher. What made the tale worth telling was the sense that no one would sound quite like she did.

copyright © 2018 by Leigh Witchel

“Light, Part 44” (Bamboo Forest), solo from “Light, Part 8” – Kei Takei’s Moving Earth Orient Sphere
Lumberyard in the City
New York Live Arts, New York, NY
January 25, 2018

Cover: Kei Takei in solo from “Light, Part 8.” Photo © Kate Enman.

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