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The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Cherry Blossom Time

Arts of Japan Celebration - Cherry Blossoms, Saeko Ichinohe, Mannojo Nomura
Tidal Basin and Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC
Friday, March 26 to Sunday, April 11, 2004 - especially Monday, March 29 and Friday, April 2

by George Jackson
copyright 2004 by George Jackson
published 12 April 2004

The blossoming each year of the Japanese cherries can be considered a performance. It is the result of art as much as it is a manifestation of nature. The selection process for the trees is as stringent as entry into a top ballet school and over time it has produced trunks and branches that darken as they age (with a red tint hidden in the oldest, blackest bark) and blossoms of a pink so pale that it is the ideal color for Princess Aurora's Act 1 tutu.

During the Cherry Blossom Festival's first week this year, nature provided just one sunny day for viewing the trees' performance—Monday, March 29. Using the old railroad bridge that the new Oriental Hotel has turned into a footpath, I crossed busy Maine Avenue SW which separates the built up city on the east from the Tidal Basin's rim, hub of Washington's flowering cherries. Parallel to this bridge and in spitting distance is another railroad bridge that is still in use for trains, and with luck one can see the most diverse rolling stock rumbling by. Not many people as yet have discovered this path. In order to get to it, face the landside entrance of the Oriental. Look back and notice the potted cherries in the middle of the street. They are not the classic Japanese sort but dark pink and with miniscule petals that have a feathery appearance. Facing forward, proceed to the outdoor staircase on the left or east side of the hotel. At the base of stairs, turn into a path to the right that runs along a terrace on the hotel's waterside front, quite high above Maine Avenue and a connecting road for northbound traffic. The path turns left as it reaches the bridge. Cross over the traffic and take the stairs down on the channel side of the road. Make a u-turn onto the sidewalk along Maine and proceed under the two bridges to the Tidal Basin.

The blossoms on Monday were fresh, and still a bit stiff (the fluffy state comes later). A painter friend who hadn't seen them before remarked on the extravagance of the scene that stretches all around the basin on the left, and on the right over parkland up to the Washington Monument. Most of the trees bore the pale petals, although a few had the somewhat deeper tint of cherry syrup on vanilla ice-cream. There were quite a few sightseers but the walks weren't crowded.

The weather became overcast the rest of the week, with periods of fog and a light rain. That kept the traffic down and it was possible to drive past the cherries, which were worth seeing even in the gray atmosphere.

The Arts of Japan Celebration, which the Kennedy Center organized to coincide with this year's Cherry Blossom Festival, presented two dance performances on April 2: the Saeko Ichinohe Dance Company at 6 PM on the northwestern Millennium Stage and Mannojo Nomura's Ethnos ensemble at 8 PM in the Concert Hall.

Ichinohe, who has persisted in her American dance career for years, showed two suites. The first, Stars & Stripes and Cherry Blossoms to Nicholas Scarim's music, is a mostly comedic celebration of changes that took place in Japan after Commander Perry's 1853 arrival. The 1984 choreography was bicultural, with American modern dance predominating in some sections and Japanese movement in others. There was even a touch of ballet for a figure similar to the El Capitan of George Balanchine's Stars and Stripes. The mix was awkward, with the modern dance looking creaky and the ballet absurd. One of the Japanese portions, for a youthful pair which first presents itself with poster portraits of He and She over their real faces, had livelier wit and invention.

Utamaro, a premiere, was Japanese in feeling. Ichinohe seemed fascinated with the act of leaning, which she explored in many subtle variations to diverse music. In part 2 of this piece, the company's finest dance—a young woman whose name in the program was not linked to the work—slipped delicately and fluidly through a solo titled Woman Diver Catching Abalone. The final part, the duet Lovers' Journey, used leans and supports sensually and sensitively to chart a relationship. This duet was dedicated to the late choreographer Antony Tudor.

The costumes in both of Ichinohe's suites (by S. Horishige for the 1984 work and by Yukie Okuyama for the new work—particularly the kimonos for the latter) were handsome.

Ethnos's lecture/demonstration, Nippongaku, was a panorama of the history of Japanese theater styles. There was too much lecture by the company's founder and director, Mannojo Nomura, and too little of demonstration. Yet the scenes shown were intriguing. First came the directness of early masked entertainers and acrobats. Then the Kyogen manner, the comic counterpart to Noh, which functions as relief, like the satyr plays do for Greek tragedy. There followed the elaborate stylizations of Kabuki's highly made-up, complexly costumed performers and (on screen) Bunraku's equally adorned and hauntingly manipulated dolls. Nomura introduced more than touch of 20th Century street theater into some of his reconstructions of the older forms, but always with an eye for theatricality.

If you didn't catch the Kennedy Center performances, there are no repeats. The cherry blossoms, though, should last a few more days.

Photos: Saeko Ichinohe

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 13
February 9, 2004

© 2004 George Jackson




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