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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
"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
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
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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