Trapped in a repetitive pingpong between extremes, Hiroshi Koike's Expressionist dance-theater quintet "Spring Day" tries to reflect the zeitgeist of contemporary Japan by juxtaposing whimsical parodies of mindless complacency with intense depictions of pervasive anxiety and even terror.
Strikingly designed by Koike and Naomi Fukushima, with atmospheric music by Masahiro Sugaya and emblematic photo-projections by Katsuji Sato, this 90-minute study of a fragmented national sensibility introduced Tokyo's 17-year-old Pappa Tarahumara company to American audiences on Saturday at the Japan America Theatre. And ultimately it was the five-member company and not Koike that sustained interest in sequences with no place to go beyond the obvious and a flat, declarative performance style that one might call gesture on the run.
Much of "Spring Day" alternated manic discontinuities--cheerful marching one moment, painful collapsing the next--with tiny Sachiko Shirai giving every challenge maximum clarity and force. But when it comes to nameless dread, butoh leaves Koike way behind and his mock-cute day-at-the-beach scenes quickly proved less intriguing than some of the more closeted themes of the work.
In a confused, revealing program note, Koike spoke of "biological transformation of male creatures into females" as a dark, "symbolic" phenomenon or fear in current Japanese life, along with corruption of foodstuffs and disposal of industrial waste. But when lanky, boyish Hiroyuki Miura put on a long red gown, the gender-shift ennobled him, releasing a depth of thought and feeling never evident in his previous male role-playing. Moreover, Miura's male-male duet with Makoto Matsushima represented the only moment when the sense of romantic yearning proclaimed at length in Koike's poetic texts reached the stage at anything like full heat.
So what was going on here? Since Japanese dance-theater has always used men cast as women to express the most subtle truths about human experience, why all the bluster about "contamination of DNA" and "transformation of male gender?"
Obviously, Koike bought into exquisite stylized femininity as avidly as any Kabuki devotee, and you might even say that the only genuinely profound moments in his whole piece hinged not on the question of what contemporary Japanese social reality might be but what contemporary Japanese manhood might be. This subject has obsessed and sometimes paralyzed national consciousness since the samurai era and, in this century alone, destroyed the great novelist Yukio Mishima. The only question on the table is whether Koike is man or woman enough to tackle it head-on.