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Goodbye Kitty: Japanese Contemporary Dance in New York

8th Annual Japanese Contemporary Dance Showcase
Japan House
New York City
January 7 and 8, 2005

by by Tom Phillips
copyright © 2004 by by Tom Phillips

Two all-female dance troupes grabbed the spotlight at the 8th annual Japanese Contemporary Dance Showcase in New York, providing glimpses of the still-obscure world of Japanese women, and of their enormous creative potential. One offered explosive images of desperation, while the other found gentle ways to mock the social roles Japanese women have been forced to play.

The happy group, from Osaka, calling itself the Sennichimae Blue Sky Dance Club, is happy with a wink in its eye. Their funniest episode looked like a satire on Hello Kitty, or the strange way that young Japanese women learn to smile and squeak like animated techno-toys. Four dancers sit huddled in a row, wearing smocks and big yellow socks, with flowers pasted on the sides of their heads. To a Japanese pop version of “Turkey in the Straw,” they dance a dumbed-down version of the hokey pokey, waggling their heads and patting their feet in unison, while grinning inanely. But piece by piece, the unison breaks down. Individual gestures sneak in, then garish, un-cute expressions. By the end they have all crawled off the stage, each looking for a life.

Each routine in the group’s little variety show, entitled “A Bowl of Summer,” reflects in some way the distortions and devaluations that Japanese society inflicts on its women. In one, they are contorted in handstands that gradually crumble and end up in a heap on the floor. In another they have been reincarnated as dancing bugs. Another features a topless dancer with a huge festival lantern for a head. But the show ends on a note of hope: the four hokey-pokey girls, now clad in white, process from the four corners of the stage, and find each other around a circle of light at the center.

The Blue Sky Dance Club has a male director and choreographer, Akadama, whose perspective may account for some of the irony in their work. No such perspective softens the gestures of the other all-female group, Batik, which opened the evening with an assault on the audience’s sensibilities. The lights went up to a roaring, thumping sound score, and eight women in red clutching their crotches, violently doubling over and rearing back. They pulled their dresses up and plunged their hands into their underpants, seemingly not so much for pleasure as to scratch some unbearable itch. They twisted and hurled themselves to the floor. One dancer slapped another’s hair, back and forth, harder and harder until the attacker fell down exhausted, and the victim looked up and laughed. All this might sound silly or over the top, but it didn’t look that way, because of the intensity with which it was danced. And this piece, too, ends on an ascending note. Lead dancer and choreographer Ikuyo Kuroda, seemingly exhausted, staggers toward the audience and pulls her dress up again, but this time begins a little ballet with her feet. It’s twisted, sickled, and spasmodic, but it looks like a groping toward order and beauty, a long journey away but conceivable.

Sandwiched between these two female acts was a male solo that drew on traditional Japanese elements. Kaiji Moriyama looked like a moving statue in a Zen garden, with liquid limbs and an undulating torso, against a background of white noise and nature sounds.

The other groups on the program looked much more American and European, reflecting the huge influence of western dance in Japan. Monochrome Circus draws its choreographic style from Contact Improvisation, an American dance form based on partners sharing weight, momentum and the impulses of both body and mind. This Kyoto-based trio -- two men and one lithe lady -- seem to have mastered it, most spectacularly in a weaving, pulsating dance for two men, joined hand to hand, that combined the fluidity of the lindy hop with the impact of a judo match. Another eye-catching move was a two-person roll on a carpet spread all the way across the stage. Man and woman rolled back to back, then belly to belly, like gears meshing in a transmission, so the top partner never touched the floor.

The final piece on the program was by Jo Kanamori, the artistic director and lead dancer of Noism05. Kanamori left Japan as a youth to work with the likes of Maurice Bejart and Jiri Kylian in Europe. He’s now returned to Japan to start this contemporary dance group, but his work retains a heavy European influence. His gloomy, introspective piece Lost Title was the most-promoted item on the bill, but it drew only polite applause from the culturally mixed crowd at Japan House. The choreography matched the sound score, an unremitting roar of misery punctuated by cracks of doom. Bring back the Blue Sky Dance Club, please!

Front page photo © Kayo Nichizono

Volume 3, No. 2
January 10, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by Tom Phillips


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