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Flash Review 2, 4-16: Anniversaries
Ichinohe Fetes Legendary Relations and a Legendary Artist

By Tom Patrick
Copyright 2004 Tom Patrick

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NEW YORK -- Well, how refreshing to break away from current politics, and join people celebrating! In this case I was privileged to attend (in a packed auditorium at the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse Tuesday) a commemoration of the century-and-a-half that the Japanese and American people have shared each other's lives. Since before the U.S. existed, Japan had been closed off in a rigid blockade for centuries. No Japanese got out, no others got in. The whole business conjures up so many tantalizing possibilities and limitations. Germane to this particular evening in this anniversary year was a special program of work by the Japanese choreographer -- and cultural ambassador -- Saeko Ichinohe. Presented in one seating, we were to see Ichinohe's 1984 "Stars & Stripes and Cherry Blossoms" and the New York premiere of her "Utamaro," inspired by the 18th century woodblock artist. How nice that such a relevant piece of 20 years ago could get such a special revival for the occasion, coupled with a dynamic new work as well.

"Stars & Stripes and Cherry Blossoms" opens in a world thoroughly Japanese, after three centuries of isolation, circa the mid-1850s. Village life, though active and vital, is thick in its own traditions without a glimpse of any other kind for generations. So early on we see the various aspects of a typical village scene, satisfying in their surety and performed here with all the grace of second-nature. Once a rushing banner passes through, though, it reveals a stranger: improbably tall, ginger-haired, this new figure in the wide stance wearing gleaming white breeches couldn't be more of a jolt given the scene. Jeff Moen is perfect as the bounding and beaming Westerner. He stands with his feet apart, he rushes up to others and offers his handshake, bold and happy; it is as if dog-energy itself had walked into a country of more refined and decorous cats. Were it not for the truth of the events and the sincerity in performance, it might seem a platform for broad cliches, but it is fascinating to see this cultural collision as the sharing opportunity it would be.

As events turn from initial meetings in the public square to private domains, things get even more interesting. Moen's character (Commodore Perry?) has his introspections, contemplating the intricacies of such a different world, always enveloped in broad easy grace and enviable balance. Elsewhere, a young couple (Rie Fukuzawa and Tetsushi Segawa) try on bits of this stranger's motifs, by turns amused or disturbed by them. They wonder, through twists and turns, whether these disparate cultures can know each other....

As we now know, the match has proven successful, and in the concluding "Freedom" section both themes have room to play together. The economical movement style of Ms Ichinohe unleashes the broad exuberance of such a happy time.

In the pause that followed at Tuesday's performance, Tadao Fujimatsu (of the company's board) addressed us and gave a very charming encapsulation of these historical events, as well as a prelude to the following work, "Utamaro." Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) was a prolific artist in Japan, the foremost artist of the woodblock printmakers in the style of Ukiyo-E, or the Floating World. You probably have a reproduction of one of his prints somewhere in your home, so timeless and widely-used are his works. His work captured (as did Degas's) the daily lives of the people of his times, especially the beautiful courtesans, lovers, and children. (Click here to see some examples.)

This new work (credited here to both Ms. Ichinohe and Mr. Moen) on this topic is a beauty, and told with the simple strokes of a fine calligrapher. In the opening section we again see an indigenous environment, the bank of a river or lake, where ladies are cooling themselves and a boat is arriving. Passengers disembark, and the boatman tries his luck at flirting. The women eventually agree so far as getting into the boat and setting off again across the water.

Another vignette lets us peak at a lone woman (Shiho Miyazawa) diving to catch abalone. Yes, there are inherent limitations in a concert hall, but the choreographic minimalism walked the line effectively in suggesting the ripples and swimming involved, and moments from the artist's prints seemed to hover before our eyes.

The "Courtesan" solo is fascinating, as Ms. Ichinohe begins tethered by her costume (some seriously beautiful robes here!) to the upstage corner of the space. With aching slowness -- the true talent of the courtesan, I suppose -- she leaves her corner and through the smallest gestures and subtle expressiveness unwinds and unwraps herself towards us. Accompanied by mountains of subtext, she approaches on a slow diagonal, where she at last parts the innermost garment to reveal her elaborately tattooed shoulder and body... the last work of art within the frame. And true to that woman's station, her re-dressing and receding is an utter change in tone: clearly the body-language of "after." It was truly engrossing, and more than a little sexy as well. Ironically, it would take me pages to describe what Ms. Ichinohe was doing out there in this section (I took a lot of notes!) but it was so symbolic, so laden with suggestion and implication. It would make a terrific film, and I hope this is being considered.

"Kitchen Beauties" was also a favorite segment of mine. Simply put, it's a vignette where we see three adorable young ladies (Haruno Yoshida, Cho Ying Tsai, and Ms. Miyazawa) performing the most everyday event: cooking. After giving prayers to the ancestors (of course!) they get involved in a variety of girlish situations, always riding upon simple and evocative choreography. Truly charming.

Concluding the piece, "Lovers' Journey" is another section very heavily laden with images and messages. Chenault Spence, who contributed beautiful lighting to the whole evening (and who has nailed Utamaro's palette!) gave it a great opening effect, as Yukie Okuyama and Jeff Moen enter in a monochrome washout, only to have their richly colored costumes burst forth. In a beautifully slow and tortured ecstasy, these two couple evoke that famously languorous style, probably involving "picture-quotes" from numerous Utamaro prints. Truly this is an opportune meeting of influences and art forms, given the sly kaleidoscopes of the more erotic artworks of this style; one can't always tell -- among the raucous patterns of textiles-- whose foot is whose among the tangle! These two lovers are quite entwined so, pouring from one charged moment to the next, and it is marvelous and taut. Even though I'd read and put away the program and press materials, I knew from the tone that this was the section of the work which Ms. Ichinohe had dedicated to her teacher and mentor Antony Tudor. What a special (and unforeseen) homage and integration of his strong dramatic sense!

A very special evening of dance and culture on the East Side this night was, and a mystery solved for me.... I have in the past few months seen an intriguing figure gliding about the halls of the Metropolitan Opera, where I work. This small and graceful woman, always beautifully dressed in traditional Japanese "kimonos" I would spy from a distance, far down a hallway. I knew that the Met was reviving "Madame Butterfly" this season (it's a beautiful production) and figured that this elegant woman was perhaps a "consultant" of some kind. Now at last I've discovered/recognized that it was none other than Saeko Ichinohe, the gracious hostess of this fine anniversary celebration of Japanese-American culture and the one to whom I give my thanks. It was a very special evening, and I was very pleased to attend, satisfied on all counts.

(For more information on the Saeko Ichinohe Dance Company, please Click here.)

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