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Flash Review, 4-18: Slow Down, I Move too Fast
The World's Oldest Novel at the Kaye

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

I don't know about you, but my feet, well, they race, as anyone who has tried to keep up with me on a Manhattan street will tell you. Confined to a seat, I sometimes fidget; those feets want to move. Last night, I found myself in an even more rushy mood. More than once I stepped in front of a fellow citizen--only distinguished from nudging them aside because they stepped aside so I could barrel through. Racing to pick up the webmistress for Saeko Ichinohe Dance Company's one-night only performance of "The Tale of Genji" at the Kaye Playhouse, I cut in front of a beautiful brown-skinned young woman. We both said sorry. 20 yards later, her perfume still hovering around me, I looked back and then mumbled to myself: "Sorry I didn't stop!" :( All of which is to say I'm not of the best temperament to judge a piece, like 'Genji'--based on the world's oldest novel, written a thousand years ago--which lets its tale unfold at its own lingering pace. Definitely not racing, this is more like a series of slow-motion tableaus.

I'm going to start with what I didn't like--with the caveat that my dancer companion, the webmistress, disagreed with me, for reasons I'll include. This novel, by Lady Murasaki, concerns one prince, Genji, and the six main women in his life, all of them in some manner or another, as schematized by Murasaki and Ichinohe, reflecting his search for his dead mother. Jeff Moen, as Genji, seemed in his face too impenetrable, too impervious, too impassive, from the moment where his first wife is being wracked with demons and he sits placidly downstage with what looked to me like a silly grin on his face, to the concluding section where he reunites with the love of his life, also called Lady Murasaki, and regards her like he just saw her yesterday. My friend thought his immobile expression a stylistic inevitability, but I'm not so sure. Yukie Okuyama, as Murasaki, carried a world of understated but still plaintive expression in her face. Whether yearning for Genji while she is alive on earth, or dissolving into his arms when he arrives in Heaven, Okuyama's face gave us a vision of her soul, of her heart.

Having given you the caveat that I'm not always a patient watcher, I found myself particularly fidgety during this dance. Part of that has to do with me. Even with the legendary Nohgaku-za (see Flash Haiku, 4-4: Nohgaku-za), confirmed masters of Noh drama, I became restless--due more to my attention deficit than any performance shortcomings. Still, I think part of the reason I found it hard at times to focus last night was that Ichinohe's stylistic approach, her metier, seemed somewhat amorphous. I'm not saying it needed to be one or the other--say, Bugaku or Modern Dance--but even if the style was a hybrid, her own definitive, it would have been nice to see some coherent style emerge, and we didn't get that. Or, heh, at least I didn't. In the choreographer's defense, it might be useful here to quote Audrey Ross's press release: "Preparations for the project began several years ago when Ms. Ichinohe wondered 'How would the noble ladies in Heian period (794-1185) have moved in Junihitoe? (the sumptuous multi-layered heavy robe used for formal occasions).' This inspired the choreographer to research ancient dances of that period and to create solos that expanded upon the traditional movements while maintaining the beauty of the robe and elegant mood of the ancient dances."

Reading this afterwards I understood a little better what drove the movement choices. But my understanding of those ancient dances is that they are usually executed more precisely than I saw done by some of the cast, particularly Moen. Indeed, I am guessing that the reason this evening didn't cast quite the spell of Nohgaku-za is a certain imprecision.

I got more than a hint that this may have been the case--that it was the execution that in some cases was lacking--when Ichinohe herself slid under a hanging piece of scenery upstage, enacting the part of Murasaki's soul entering Heaven. For what seemed like the first time, we got to see naked feet, delicately posed, intricately flexing their toes, emerging teasingly from a purple swath of clothing. Ichinohe was deliberately slumped, bent really, afraid of or regretting something that had happened, until the final moments when, erect, she crossed stage left towards a bright light, which slowly blacked out. In this solo I saw the emergence of a balanced, if hybrid, style. The slowness of traditional Japanese movement, and the downtoearthness of Modern.

At a more beginning and not so deep phase as Ichinohe or Okuyama was Carolyn Roslund, who nonetheless had her moments as Lady Aoi, Genji's first, possessed, and ultimately prematurely dead wife. The demons were at first hard for me to take seriously; entering in skin-tight light tan leotards, with "demonic" curlie-cues painted on the legs, they one-by-one entered into the white robe Roslund, standing with her back to us, held up. A tussle for her soul ensued. I was reminded of college kids trying to play serious. I was only mildly scared. I was also perplexed as to why, when she herself emerged from the robe, Roslund wore the same costume as the demons. And this very Modern costume seemed out of synch with the traditional Japanese robes worn elsewhere.

What started to get my heart going, tho, was Roslund's response to the demons. After an exorcist in Kimono has finally gotten rid of them, she recovered enough to remove, from the depths of her cloak, a folded piece of cloth which, unfolded, turned out to be a baby. She held herself stoic, as if nothing was wrong, handing the baby to Genji. But the moment his back disappeared, she contracted, slumped, crumbled, and died. As my friend put it, all that had kept her going was that she had to do her women's work.

But the center of this story is Genji, and not being able to empathize with Moen's portrayal of him is, I guess, what kept me somewhat removed the story. The women were beautifully etched, and, particularly in the case of Murasaki, I couldn't see what drew them to their stony lord. I said imperious a bit earlier and it wasn't just that; I can see the dramatic justification for playing someone of royal blood with a certain aloofness. But the implication in concentrating on his love affairs was that this Genji had some hot blood in him and was something of a tempestuous fellow, and I saw nary a hint of that.

There's another issue, here, which I should mention and on which I'd like to get your opinion. In this very Japanese dance based on this most classic of Japanese novels, the actor playing the central character is, well, white. Ditto some of the female dancers. In a dance which is so utterly identified with one culture, and presented in a style from that culture, I have difficulty believing white actor-dancers in kimonos in the roles. What do you think? Drop me a line at paul@danceinsider.com.

While you're pondering that question, for those of you who appreciate a glimpse at the audience at these events--oh, did I mention that this was indeed an Event, with an introduction/synopsis given by no less than the great actress Celeste Holm?--I have one salient detail to report.

Shortly before the show began, who should the webmistress and I see making her way determinedly to her seat but our pre-eminent living dance scholar, Selma Jeanne Cohen. (Though referring to Ms. Cohen as simply a dance scholar understates the case. Let's make that, "dance pillar"!) Cranky me ("I already did two Flashes this week, why do I have to do another? Waaahhhh!") was humbled. After a lifetime of dance-going and dance-chronicling and dance-explaining and dance-contextualizing, Ms. Cohen could certainly be forgiven for not making her way through a rainy, wintry, miserable night to one performance on the Upper East Side. But I don't think it was that she used to teach at Hunter College, where the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse is located, that inspired Selma Jeanne to make the trek from downtown. I think it's simply that she has the long-view perspective. If a performance is of note, she has to be there. She has given her life to dance; considerations of personal comfort are secondary. Selma Jeanne is not alone in this--most dance writers are legion in their self-sacrificing devotion to The Dance--but she is definitely the standard-bearer. And one who, I'm told, also has the ultimate respect of dancers. So let's conclude this one with a shout out to Selma Jeanne Cohen who, by her very presence at an event, gives it luster and cache as a seminal, once-in-a-lifetime dance occasion. Oh, and she doesn't fidget, but, at 80, continues to give the stage her full, unwavering, devoted, perspective-laden attention.

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