Dancing about architecture – Teshigawara Saburō

Coined to express the impossibility of describing one art by the means of another, the quote I used in the title suggests what I will attempt to do in this article, namely to describe in words a dance performance. It’s not only difficult, but it is to some point even meaningless, especially when the artist is none other than Teshigawara Saburō 勅使河原三郎, a leading figure of the contemporary dance scene in Japan.

Active as a dancer and director, founder of the contemporary dance unit KARAS, Teshigawara Saburō is an internationally acclaimed choreographer, with intense activity overseas. He has developed an original method of training the dancing body, which stresses the importance of the breathing process. As an artist who feeds on challenges, he is taking the body to the limits of its physicality, while his experiments with light, sound and reflecting surfaces result in a visual transfiguration of the performing body. Recent performances of KARAS include DAH-DAH-SKO-DAH-DAH, inspired by the work of writer Miyazawa Kenji, presented at Festiva/Tokyo 2012 (you can read here an insightful article on this performance by theatre blogger William Andrews).


Poster for the performance “Haru, ichiya nishite” at Theater X, March 4th-5th

One of Teshigawara’s latest works is Haru, ichiya ni shite (“Spring, in one night”), performed at Theater X (Kai) on March 5th. This work was inspired by “Spring”, a short story by Polish writer Bruno Schulz, who is known in his country as a “painter of words”. Schulz actually professed as a painter until the end of his life. His prose has the distinct atmosphere of mystical landscape, against which human characters act and live their lives, always at the risk of being drawn in and destroyed.

The beauty of the flow of words and the tension that exude from Schulz’s prose have reached the audience of Teshigawara’s performance directly, as fragments of the text in an excellent Japanese translation were being read by a narrator. In fact, the voice of the narrator and the occasional nature sounds – rain, flowing water and wind – together with long, uneasy silence formed the entire auditory background of the performance. There was actually no place and no need for music in that tension laden space, defined solely by the bodies ready to give themselves at any time to movement.

Teshigawara chose to represent the main character of “Spring” as a ningyō shintai 人形身体 – a puppet at the mercy of history’s brutality. There was something childish and helpless about this body, reminding that, indeed, Schulz’s “spring” is not only the season of all possibilities, but also the young age, the time of youthful enthusiasm and passionate search for a deep meaning to every encounter.

The boy’s infatuation with the white apparition of Bianca (played by Satō Rihoko) takes center stage, imbuing the story with warmth and hope. In deep contrast to her, the rest of the characters are representations of violence – dark, disproportionate bodies, whose appearance and acts fringe the absurd.

Last but not least, nature itself is present on the stage: the dancers’ bodies seem to become themselves the wind, the storms and the clear, flowing water that accompany the arrival of spring. All the energy latent in this season, busting out in a single, critical moment, is given expression through movement.

The flow of events, in which humans are mercilessly trapped, escalates to a point that physically annihilates the main character. However, in the nearly surreal settings imagined in Bruno Schulz’s prose, death is only the entrance into a higher realm of existence. After the light, the colors and the sounds have disappeared, the character played by Teshigawara renounces his puppet shape, transcending into a new self.

Although inspired by a painting-like story, in this performance Teshigawara Saburō does not dance about architecture, but I am convinced he would do it brilliantly, if he would ever set his mind on it. Due to the high acclaim it received, “Spring – in one night” will be performed again this year (from June 25th through 27th) at Theater X in Ryōgoku, together with another work inspired by the prose of Bruno Schulz, Dodo to kichigaitachi. For more information visit the website of KARAS.