Her dances have been called hypnotic, cosmic spectacles. She has staged them for such important companies as the Netherlands Dance Theatre and the Inbal Dance Theatre of Israel. She has won audience and critical acclaim around the world.
Yet, the last time Kei Takei and her Moving Earth Company performed in Los Angeles--at UCLA in 1979--she remembers half the audience ending up shouting at the other half to either shut up or leave.
One does not expect dancers so calculated in their discipline, pace and symbolic clarity to provoke such controversy, but Takei's "Light," a series of dances she began choreographing in 1969, has sometimes pushed audiences beyond their normal endurance. These are dances of toil and tedium--and they force the audience to experience the same painstaking labor as the performers. The emotional impact comes only after the fact of the dance.
"Light, Part 20," which Takei has just finished, will have its world premiere on a program that includes other sections of the "Light" series Friday and Saturday at the Japan America Theatre.
Takei mines a contemplative world of gestures and theater images that has been compared to everything from Robert Wilson's performance work to traditional Japanese Kabuki and Noh.
However, it may be her acutely non-theatrical sense of time in which a single, simple action such as bowing to a pile of stones is repeated over and over, or dancers follow each other in a seemingly never-ending trek to a distant mountaintop, that has provoked such strong reactions from some of her audiences.
Through such images as dancers harvesting wheat and falling on their faces from exhaustion, fighting in the crouched poses of prowling animals or wrapping themselves in shredded clothes until they are incapable of moving, Takei establishes lengthy processes of accumulation requiring stamina not only from her company of 19 performers but also from her audience.
In the 1979 UCLA performances, she recalls, audiences grew angry at the distended tempos of her work. "Half the people had the mentality of changing channels on TV," she comments, "and the dances call out for something other than a pop-culture mentality. But the other half really loved the performance. They thought it was exciting."
A lifelong project that is something like a dance diary, "Light" began soon after Takei had arrived in this country from Japan on a Fulbright scholarship. Takei had become frustrated with her own dancing. Despite her background in ballet, Expressionist dance and traditional Japanese dance in Tokyo, where she was born and raised, she found studying at New York's Juilliard School more difficult than she had expected.
"I didn't have the technique and was too stylized; my vocabulary was too foreign," she says in heavily accented English. Walking through New York's Riverside Park one day, Takei found her creative frustrations multiplying with each step.
"There were a lot of leaves on the drive," she recalls, "and I was thinking about why I couldn't dance the way I wanted to, and about having so much trouble with my English, as I stepped on the dry leaves." The crumbling leaves beneath her feet suggested a way of breaking through her frustrations and establishing a form of dance that bridged her Western training and Japanese background.
"Light, Part I," which used dry leaves, was the result--symbolizing a rejection of modern dance's stylized repertory as well as Takei's own rejuvenation as a choreographer concerned with natural cycles of life ("Birth-work-die, birth-work-die," she says).
Her dances bear the mark of one who has a profoundly spiritual attachment to objects in nature: Each part of "Light" is dedicated to exploring the rituals at work in our experience of them. Daikon, the long, white Japanese radish, figures prominently in "Light, Part 16," and stones, wheat and pine cones are central to other dances. But it is less the objects themselves than their relationship to life that concerns Takei.
"In ballet," she says, "the dance is designed for the stage, rehearsed in the studio, and then performed on a stage, so it's not relating to life itself, but to the stage. My dances come from and are created in life. I create in a studio, but I'm thinking about human beings, real people, primitive and realistic."
As this series of distinct dances in an ongoing discourse with life continues into its 16th year, the entire "Light" is occasionally presented as a marathon theater event. (In 1975, a seven-hour version was performed at the prestigious Brooklyn Academy of Music.) However, as the number of dances has grown, the word light --which Takei had originally chosen because "all my dances come from the same source"--has become more like a reference or opus number in classical music.
From Takei's point of view, "Light" will--indeed, must-- continue for it is not only a source of inspiration, but also a universal principle: of energy, of spiritual clarity and of a conscious determination in triumph over certain adversities of life.
"I feel myself as a human animal, just following my instincts, not deciding where to go," Takei says. She is optimistic that Los Angeles audiences will respond positively to her work this time around.
"Time has passed," she points out. "People now have a more open mind about time; people are bored with what they've seen already. They're looking for something else to stimulate them, so this time, I'm sure it will be different."