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Festival '90 : A SPRITE WHOSE HEART BELONGS TO DADA : Saburo Teshigawara dances on the edge of Japan's avant-garde, treating air as though it were a fickle medium to fall through

August 26, 1990|Michael Kurcfeld | Kurcfeld is a Los Angeles-based arts writer who has recently focused on Japanese contemporary culture. and

Karas is known for its striking imagery. Glass, of course, offers the transparency of air, and one of the most startling of Teshigawara's effects is when he tramples shards of glass and then reappears with the shards seemingly piercing his entire torso--a postmodern St. Sebastian. Teshigawara, who dictates virtually every pictorial detail, studied drawing and sculpture before entering his five-year training in classical ballet. It has aligned his senses. "I don't live to make dance," he says. "When there is something I want to express, if I hold a pen, it will be poetry, if I have a canvas in front of me it will be a painting, and if there is space around me, it will become a dance."

In 1985, in a notorious solo spectacle, he remained buried up to his neck beside a river bank for eight hours, an investigation of the relation between air and the body. It was a turning point, as was his first meeting with Kei Miyata. An admirer of his work, Miyata became his manager and soon helped him form Karas. Despite having no prior training, today she is his prima performer, a petite dynamo with a gift for deadpan humor and precision swooning.

You can't talk about contemporary Japanese dance without invoking butoh. L.A. audiences have seen a bit of it, most notably the 1984 appearance at the Olympic Arts Festival of Sankaijuku--who left the indelible image of four bald, wiry, ash-covered men in loincloths suspended upside-down on ropes from the flies of Royce Hall's proscenium.

Butoh has many shapes and moods, much of it quite macabre. What holds this "dance of darkness" in a single arena is its groping toward the primordial. Everything in butoh feels ancient and earthbound. Its trademark grimaces and agonizing slowness of pace have as much to do with the sheer weight of time--and the relentless goading of the id--as with all the sturm und drang usually attached to it by critics.

Teshigawara is really butoh's alter ego. His dance is melancholia made airborne, and ignited by a nervous personal history rather than by an apocalyptic racial past. It is butoh transported from tribal fireside writhings to stylish urban non sequiturs. It is butoh quickened with the nutty syncopations of vaudeville, the suave giddiness of commedia dell'arte. (One Parisian reviewer called him a "Pierrot lunaire.")

Teshigawara once spent an evening with Kazuo Ohno, one of butoh's revered progenitors, but was simply told that dance cannot be taught and that he must find his own way. So he did. What remains butoh is Teshigawara's flirtation with the limbo between life and death. Teasing out moments of morbidity, he seems to find sad, strange beauty more satisfying than smug conventional beauty.

This is what makes the pieces so Japanese. Teshigawara denies wanting to make anything that defines new Japanese dance, and he hopes festival audiences can see beyond Pacific Rim stereotypes. But it's hard to avoid the island flavors: The scattered blue stones in "Ishi no Hana," a Japanese rock garden reinvented with theatrical fakery; a famous model dressed in kimono, idly spinning an upturned bicycle wheel; a giant carp, part of the folk iconography of Japan, gingerly handed to Teshigawara as if it were an infant; the androgynous plain cotton garb so often worn by the dancers, echoing the ages-old gender vertigo of Japanese theater.

"In music and rhythm," Teshigawara says, "there is no feminine or masculine reality. It is the same in my dance."

And the preoccupation with elemental forms (air, earth, moon and what Teshigawara calls "metaliquids"), as well as with the notions of in-dwelling spirits and life-as-illusion--bring to mind the entwined Japanese creeds, Shinto and Buddhism.

At the same time, Karas is of its age. The scores feel blessed by Cage and Tower Records. "It's from the level of noise," Teshigawara says, "that music grows in my pieces." Apart from a lot of throbbing industrial percussion (imagine Kraftwerk doing an album on steel mills), his audiences hear Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy's "L'Apres-Midi d'un Faun," French folksongs arranged by Canteloube, bagpipes, electronic-music composer Yannis Xenakis, military music, bits of David Lynch's "Eraserheard" and of a Wim Wenders sound track, jazz trumpet and so on.

As with everything else in Japan, technology is the foil--either resisted or embraced. In one dance, a live tape recorder sits on stage; in another, a soldering iron is applied to a metal plate worn by Miyata, causing great bouquets of sparks to fly.

"Being surrounded by technology will create a whole different kind of dance," Teshigawara says, "because our feelings will be influenced by these things. What's scary but interesting is the prospect of replicating humans through genetic engineering."

The hottest choreographer in Tokyo has no fear about dance keeping up with the modern world. "Dance is a spiritual thing, therefore it's futuristic. I think I'm dancing in the 21st Century." P

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