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Delicate dance of puppets

With one hand in history and the other in modern technology, Hiroshi Hori brings a classic tale to life.

March 18, 2003|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

A lovely woman in an embroidered kimono glides into view, moving her delicately painted fan like a bird's wing; her lover meets her beside a cherry tree in full blossom; they embrace in the sunlight, surrounded by softly falling petals and floating butterflies....

Puppet theater can be many things, but on stage at the Japan America Theatre on Sunday, it was a study in beauty and grace as Japanese master puppeteer, doll maker, costume designer and classical dance artist Hiroshi Hori, making a rare U.S. tour, performed excerpts from a 1,000-year-old classic of Japanese literature, "The Tale of Genji." (The performance in Little Tokyo was its only California stop.)

Written by Murasaki Shikibu in 11th century Kyoto, the romantic epic is a tumultuous chronicle of the life of Prince Genji, his family and his numerous romantic liaisons.

Hori has made the re-creation of the entire saga, in his own "dance of puppets" style, his life's work, a passion reflected in the quiet intensity of his performance. Each vignette, directed, written and choreographed by Maiko Hori, glowed with the elaborate, multicolored silk kimonos worn by life-size, doll-like puppets with unearthly white faces and ankle-length hair.

Hiroshi Hori, who designed the puppets and costumes, served as both puppeteer and actor, intermittently assisted by three black-clad company members. While manipulating "Lady Akashi" in the cherry blossom piece, "Akashi," Hori soulfully played Genji as her ardent lover. In "Aoi-no ue," he was puppeteer only, playing out a chilling chapter in which Genji's wife is killed in childbirth by his mistress, who has been transformed by hate into a vengeful spirit.

The scene was no less shocking for its elegant movement, fraught with the symbolic use of long-stemmed red flowers, red streamers, fan manipulation and haunting traditional Japanese vocal and instrumental music.

"Hagoromo," a non-"Genji" excerpt, was presented Noh-style, with highly stylized movement and music. Through translator and host Katsumi Kuntisugu, Hori described the work as one that he had intended to perform "as a gift of peace" to U.S. audiences during the tour that originally had been scheduled for September 2001. In it, Hori operated an enigmatic celestial nymph in red and gold, moving her with meditative grace in a "dance of heavenly beings."

Performance segments were separated by a lecture, demonstration and the screening the short film, "Ukifune from the Tale of Genji." A permanent attraction at the Genji Monogatari Museum in Kyoto and a collaboration with film director Masahiro Shinoda, it is a story enacted by 47 puppets, with Hori's image digitally removed from the screen.

After the screening, more than a dozen of Hori's striking junihito-e, robes that he designed from antique designs of the Heian period, were modeled by his assistants, and he explained how the varied designs defined each character.

While fascinating, it was Hori's graceful movements in the too-short, live performances that enthralled. His finale, another delicate puppet dance, was so fluid that puppet and puppeteer seemed engaged in an exquisite pas de deux. That poignant, ethereal quality of a master artist's vision lingers in the memory like a dream.

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