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Give it props for Surrealism

Curious objects contribute to the imagistic language of 'Ship in a View,' a Japanese dance piece coming to UCLA Live.

January 29, 2006|Victoria Looseleaf | Special to The Times

JAPAN, it's no secret, has been a purveyor of cute for many years -- think Hello Kitty, anime and, more recently, the must-have Breezy Singers, a collection of life-size, battery-powered warbling birds. But in the world of Hiroshi Koike, artistic director of the Tokyo-based dance ensemble Pappa Tarahumara, cute also brushes against the dark side in surprising, provocative ways.

In Koike's 1997 evening-length work "Ship in a View," which will receive its West Coast premiere at Royce Hall on Friday and Saturday as part of UCLA Live, myriad mechanical objects help create a theater event that the Japan Times called "devastatingly beautiful."

For starters, there is a craft-paper-made, wood-based ship that slowly traverses the stage on small wheels at the start of, and again about two-thirds into, the 100-minute intermissionless piece. Designed by Masato Tanaka and programmed to run on a 12-volt battery, this tugboat may be less than 3 feet long but is big on symbolism.

To the 49-year old Koike, who grew up in Hitachi City, 125 miles north of Tokyo, and founded Pappa Tarahumara in 1982, the work's setting may be a seaside town in 1960s Japan, but the ship is the vehicle linking the town to the world. It also stands for an exit strategy.

"In my childhood," he recalls, "I looked at ships in the harbor and wanted to escape. In my heart, in my brain, the ship becomes very big, but in my memories, the ships are very small."

No ship, of course, can sail without a mast, and in this case, that's a 16-foot-high iron pole fabricated by Makoto Matsushima, one of the 12 dancers in "Ship." Bolted to the floor, the piece nevertheless changes shape, as dancers periodically adorn it with both flags and their bodies. And Koike says that the pole has yet another meaning: It can signify a schoolyard, inside which troupe members assemble in a faux classroom at 1950s-style wooden desks that ultimately break apart into eight boards.

Designed by Naomi Fukushima, these boards, which at one point are illuminated by fluorescent tubing, then become a shack-like house. Other school-oriented objects in "Ship" include an old bicycle ridden by one dancer and a large, Tanaka-designed double-spoked chrome wheel that mysteriously rolls around the stage.

Koike, a former television director, subscribes to the same dictum as 20th century stage visionary Antonin Artaud: Theater should speak an imagistic language unconstrained by literal syntax, one in which the director gives equal weight to movement (Koike's choreography infuses modern dance with a Noh-like sensibility), stage objects, lighting, music and costumes.

Koike spent time in France in the late '80s, and so influenced was he by the Surrealist author and painter that he named his company after the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico's Copper Canyon, about whom Artaud once wrote.

Even Artaud, though, probably couldn't have conceived of the future that Koike envisions in "Ship." Building from a seemingly haiku-like simplicity that includes a man dancing with a one-armed, headless and legless doll (essentially, a dress with a limb), the work climaxes with a tableau of a high-tech netherworld.

As realized by designer Hiroyuki Moriwaki, five rows of six 110-watt bulbs slowly descend from the rafters to the floor in UFO-style, a woman lies on a mirrored platform that rises from the stage, and a pair of 4-foot-tall robotic dolls, designed by Aya Miyaki and seated on two rolling chairs, are wheeled in by two dancers.

A kind of Japanese counterpart to Grant Wood's "American Gothic," the dolls are made of wire and clad in a translucent silvery fabric. The male, in pants and a top, sports a video monitor with abstract imagery for a head; the female, in a dress, has a noggin made of metallic mesh and wood that spins wildly, its chandelier earrings madly awhirl. Connected to a circuit box offstage and powered by electricity, these figures also tremble from their midsections.

Whether you find them cute or creepy, Koike says the dolls occupy a special position "between the living and the dead."

"The machine," he adds, "also has two meanings: It can help people and, at the same time, it destroys people."

Paul Organisak, executive director of the Pittsburgh Dance Council, presented "Ship" in October and praises the choreographer's skill at merging dance, theater and design.

"You're never quite sure who these people are or where we are in time and place," he says. "But the journey Koike creates is remarkable, and much of it is done with such a simple thing as an exposed lightbulb."

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