Like a Nike ad, Saburo Teshigawara has a thing about air. Air as the medium of dance. Air as a metaphor for the physical rendered into spirit. Air as the realm of reverie. Air as a gas that mutates as freely as Teshigawara on an open stage.
In a poem, he coins the phrase "architecturing atmospheres," which could be an eloquent stab at his own job description. And his recurring color is blue, as in "Blue Meteorite," the production he and his Tokyo-based dance company, Karas, will perform as part of Los Angeles Festival.
Teshigawara choreographs as if he were most comfortable when falling through air. "Born of the air," he writes, "and by it known."
His movements seem designed for a zone in which gravity is fickle--at times dense and unforgiving, at times slight as match light. The range of his tireless glide through space is astonishing. From the double-jointed friskiness of a marionette, he'll flick into mock-Frankenstein lurches, fast-forward skitters, electro-shock staggers, and all the hydraulics of a mime having nightmares.
Teshigawara moves in waves and spasms, a kind of REM of the body--seemingly involuntary, as if driven by some cohabiting demon, or by squabbling multiple personalities. Teshigawara calls it the Cut-Puppet-String Theory of Dance and tries to name its aspects in another poem: the Dragon-Fly Midair Freeze, the Skeleton Fall, the Silverfly Turn, the Ant Pose, Moth Make-up, Dwarf Perspective, Malachite Mnemonics, Full-Moon Slendering.
In a recent major production SRO crowds in Osaka and was titled "Kitai," a word that refers to both expectations and to the transformation of solid into gas. An alchemist of moves, he studies the ways in which the physical can escape to the ethereal.
In person, Teshigawara is a sprite and his heart belongs to Dada. Small-framed, he is a shy man child with ramrod bearing, a monkish whitewall haircut and bent grin. He will wriggle away from pat theories about his work, defending against cliches with constant wordplay.
The French, who adore Teshigawara and give him prizes, like to call him "the Pale Child," after one of his dance titles. But done up in the whiteface and white hair of his performances, he has the look of a vampirical cherub--vulnerable as an urchin, diabolical as an agent.
For Teshigawara, memories of childhood have had a stronger impact than anything else, certainly more compelling to him than the catalogue of modern dance signatures. Although everyone from Martha Graham to Pina Bausch has been imported to Japan, directly or by inheritance, the most original choreographers there--and Teshigawara is the most original of his generation--seem to have followed deeply personal visions, and what Sam Shepard called buried children.
Critics refer to his "fall and recovery" device (he and his dancers often collapse in mechanical repetition) as a link to Western modernism, but he would probably rather ascribe it to something like his precarious first toddle.
"When I was a child, the sudden realization that I was alive, and not just a blank witness, made me feel \o7 iraira\f7 --irked. Which made me wonder why I was born," he said.
It's that virgin \o7 Angst\f7 that Teshigawara brings to his dance. If the West has given him anything, it's the Freudian license to root about in his subconscious for puzzle parts to play with.
Like the Surrealists of which he is fond, Teshigawara puts a lot of faith in the automatic, the improvised. He shares with John Cage an obsession with chance.
"I want to create accidents on stage, in my body," Teshigawara said. "It's a constant fight against myself, between control and accident. It's not a peaceful internal process. That peaceful state is not necessarily a good or healthy thing. Sometimes it's a scream from the body, or silence, that is needed to create a new form. Freedom is more important than structured thinking."
He speaks of the intelligence of discreet body parts, and a world in which muscles tell secrets, bones pray, nerves laugh. Call it the anatomy of memory. "Not only memory," Teshigawara says, "I want to say dream. I think we dream in our bodies, in the joints, the arms, every part."
He talks about seeing his own body from a distance, and each of his dancers move about as if cocooned from one another. But despite this disembodied quality, there's a romantic sheen to his art. "My body is here, and my heart is on the moon." Although it can look as cool and detached as operatic minimalists like Robert Wilson, it sweats the poetry of symbol-drunk somnambulists.