Turning UnJapanese

by Leigh Witchel

The 17th Contemporary Dance Showcase at the Japan Society threw open its borders and extended the festival’s reach beyond Japan with no international incidents, except for some good dance.

Yi-Wen Tien and Chen-Chih Lao in “Tschüss!! Bunny.” Photo © Julie Lemberger.

“Tschüss!! Bunny,” by Yen-Cheng Liu from Taiwan, looked at modern marriage with a sure touch.  Yi-Wei Tien and Chen Chih Lao laid a roll of artificial grass across the stage, then rolled themselves up in it to a Spanish protest song.  Their argument bled into a game of rock/paper/scissors. Both were arresting performers: Tien was patrician and prim with a putty face; Lao a bantam rooster in a cheap suit.  During her solo he stood in the darkness at the back, dousing himself with baby powder.  As the lights came up, he shook off a cloud in a zany riff on butoh.  She came over and in a moment of simple, recognizable tenderness, wiped his face off with a folded cloth and shook out his jacket.  To end, they rearranged the Astroturf and headed to the back, disrobing with their backs to us.  The rebellious nudity was undercut, by (perhaps being required to) put their clothing back on for a long awkward time in the dark before turning around to bow for us, instead of just going for broke and giving us the Full Monty.

The opening work from Japan on the program stretched the definition of a duet.  Akiko Kitamura and Navid Navab were both onstage for Kitamura’s “TranSenses” but only Kitamura was dancing; Navab created the sound and video.  The aesthetic was modern rather than traditional Japan; Kitamura wore a shirt and pants in neutral tones with a simple, chic cut.  She moved in front of the projections with a loose, fluid torso but nervous, clutching arms and twisting fingers.  If the piece was more up-to-date than “Les Noces,” it was also more filled with a cliché of Japanese postwar art: inchoate dread.

Sheng-Ho Chang and Chien-Chin Chang in “Hugin/Munin.” Photo © Julie Lemberger.

Two prizewinning male duets, one from Korea, the other Taiwan, were bookends of the last thing you expected: enigmatic homoeroticism. In “Jimmy & Jack” by JJBro, Heung-Ryeol Jun and Sang-Man Pyo danced in pageboy wigs absurdly while a female voice absurdly intoned a learn-to-speak-English dialogue.  As she continued speaking and they continued touching one another, her narrative lost its thread, becoming unhinged and voyeuristic: “Jimmy, what are you doing?  Where are you going?  What’s wrong with you?  I’m curious.”  The men got ever more weirdly, uncomfortably intimate in this Korean yaoi comic-of-the-closet.  By the end they were slapping one another’s balls as the narrator queried “Boys?  How are you doing?”

If “Jimmy & Jack” was “Three’s Company,” “Hugin/Munin” was “Brokeback Mountain.”  The duet, choreographed by Po-Cheng Tsai from Taiwan and danced by Chien-Chih Chang and Sheng-Ho Chang, was just as closeted, but with tragic overtones. To end, the men brought out a ghostly plastic sheet that floated and curled beautifully in the air, until they lay together under it like a shroud.  For all the curdled and repressed undertones, the dancing was impressively gymnastic: one man used his head to do a somersault on the other’s back.

Un Yamada and Llon Kawai in “Les Noces.” Photo © Julie Lemberger.

The most audacious surprise was a Japanese version of “Les Noces” performed by only two dancers.  Choreographer Un Yamada and her partner Llon Kawai were onstage the entire time.  They entered from opposite sides; she approached him in silence and kicked her foot into his face, curling her toes off his cheek on the opening keening notes.  It was a shock, and had nothing to do with the bridal lament being sung, but she was listening closely to Stravinsky’s sounds and notes.

Yamada chose the right recording for her version; a chamber rendition by the Pokrovsky Ensemble that sounded less like a choral performance in a concert hall and more like snatches of conversations in a room. The two dancers wore costumes by Yuko Ikeda that referenced traditional Japanese working-class clothing. Yamada was not in a kimono, but a simpler top and skirt; Kawai wore a tunic and topknot that gave him a martial air.

Both dancers were tireless, getting through the marathon seemingly unwinded.  Their moods were keyed the score, sometimes doll-like and mechanical, sometimes combative, sometimes protective.  Early on, Yamada rode Kawai as if he were a beast of burden; before the finale she again went on his back, but upside down, legs sticking upwards: cargo rather than a rider.

Her heritage gave Yamada a leg up in avoiding the biggest trap in staging the work; she could access a traditional culture without getting bogged down in Russianness or the indelible qualities of Nijinska’s original, un-bettered version.  Standing up to Stravinsky’s complex, magnificent score was an achievement in itself.  Still, if anything was missing, it was a sense of ritual and nuptials.  The mercurial relationship onstage wasn’t a wedding, but it was a portrait of a marriage.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

17th Contemporary Dance Showcase: Japan + East Asia
Japan Society, New York, NY
January 7, 2017

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