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Japanese Tradition In 'Niwa'

September 21, 1987|LEWIS SEGAL | Times Dance Writer

Natsu Nakajima is a major exponent of the postwar form of Expressionist Japanese dance-drama called butoh , a controversial idiom considered a radical break with cultural traditions in the Land of the Rising Sun.

However, in its presentation of the female persona and depiction of women's feelings, Nakajima's autobiographical "Niwa" (The Garden), Friday at the Japan America Theatre, often replicated forms of characterization and theatrical expression akin to the nightmarish Grand Kabuki classic "Kasane" (presented locally two years ago), the Kita Noh Company's staging of "Aoi no Ue" (last year) and many other mainstream works.

Evidently, centuries of male depiction and stylization of women in the theater and dance of Japan have so influenced that nation that even forms of avant-garde rebellion bear their mark.

Certainly the gliding, kimono-clad figure--her face painted dead white, her features highlighted in red--is a timeless Japanese vision, and the concept of nostalgic suffering that Nakajima's Muteki-sha company conveyed proved no less familiar. Even the startling facial grotesquerie (a butoh specialty) had ample precedent.

Looking deeply into her past and reclaiming both major experiences (wartime evacuation from her island home) and those fleeting, disconnected images that persist in memory, Nakajima emerged with a work of nonlinear movement theater--one notable less for its statements about loss and change than its haunting imagery and sense of total emotional recall.

From the shadows at the edge of the stage, Nakajima (or, sometimes, Yuriko Maezawa) would slowly move into the glare of spotlights mounted on the floor, kneeling to bring her face into the center of the stream of light.

The music might be Japanese or Western, the costume opulent or plain, the emotion an active child's or a meditative adult's. Each time, however, feelings would blaze across her face as if experienced anew rather than remembered. For Nakajima, facing the light meant probing an old wound, and her pain unified the 100-minute work, linking its seven sections as a sustained cadenza of agony.

Although formal dancing occurred almost as rarely as Nakajima and Maezawa appearing together in any sequence, the imaginative use of movement did reinforce the remarkable immediacy of "Niwa."

In "The Infant," for instance, gleeful, childlike actions--playing an imaginary horn, nose-touching, energetic waving--came from a body that, partly hidden by a long cloak, had suddenly assumed a child's proportions. Elsewhere, a recurring rising/sinking/swooping pattern--with kimono spread wide--made the human figure resemble a windblown kite too fragile to survive long in the storm.

Almost as important as Nakajima herself, the lighting design by Yoji Suzuki created shifting perspectives on the spare, measured action and stage properties, inviting reappraisal of everything previously perceived and taken for granted.

Thus, if Nakajima and Maezawa relived the past at full force on this stage, Suzuki's artistry suggested that the whole experience was some dream or illusion--merely a trick of the light. In Japanese dance theater, that is the oldest message of all.

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