Japanese dance full of unpredictable theater

Among all the exponents of Japanese Butoh that we've seen, Dai Rakuda Kan has proven the most bewildering to American audiences. I think one reason is that it comes laden with philosophical freight - words like ``transcendental,'' ``elemental,'' ``spiritual'' make Americans expect something heavy, and certainly not flamboyant or colloquial. But no one ever said experimental work has to be comprehensible, and Dai Rakuda Kan represents the most original theater form on US stages today. Butoh was developed after World War II from a combination of influences including Japanese classical and popular arts, German expressionism, and spiritual disciplines like Zen Buddhism. In common with Kabuki, it is extremely physical, often grotesque, and capable of breathtaking theatrical images. The dancer deals in a far more intense and concentrated kind of body work than Western dancers. Often this looks less like dancing to Western eyes than a very slow, almost immobile progression of twitches, shifts, and writhing distortions of natural line.

The dancers work for an inner mastery of outer forces, to approach a state of submersion in the image - they strive to embody concepts such as burning, struggle, or old age.

``The Five Rings,'' which Dai Rakuda Kan presented at City Center midway in a North American tour, comes with extensive metaphysical program notes. According to director Akaji Maro and the tour sponsors, ``The Five Rings'' has something to do with natural forces, silkworms, lacquer boxes, the Andes, food, ghosts, writing, Prometheus, flowers, swords, and I don't know what else.

It all gets transmuted, however, into a two-hour stage event of spectacular weirdness, a true work of the imagination. Unreal yet totally human, this is abstraction such as dance can almost never achieve, perhaps the equivalent of painters Paul Klee or Joan Mir'o in action.

The piece is a succession of scenes that evolve as the people/creatures mutate into new forms or give way to alternative incarnations. In one scene, four women hover in place above shapeless bundles of cloth. The women look a bit like English nannies at a mad tea party, in their floppy mobcaps and mother hubbards. Gradually the bundles on the floor come to life. They turn out to be four more women dressed exactly the same except they have their bonnets over their faces instead of the back of their heads.

The four pairs begin a dance in which they keep exchanging places, until you can't remember which group were the nannies and which the babies. Even more disconcerting, they don't always move in the ways these roles would suggest. The babies usually curl or squat on the floor - but at one point the nannies stoop over and nuzzle them.

Standing, the nannies quiver and jerk as if attacked by paralyzing consternation - but they could also be doing a stop-action cooch dance in a burlesque show.

A sort of elder or magician appears from within the ample folds of their costumes. He seems to be conjuring or praying; then he hunkers down like a hermit having a vision.

A lush symphony orchestra is heard playing ``On the Steppes of Central Asia,'' and a line of dancers enters on the diagonal, dressed like a chorus of Mongols in a third-rate ballet company.

They process across the stage shuddering and tipping on wobbly ankles.

Later three of the men do a dance with big teetery steps that might be derived from the ancient warrior dance form Gagaku. They sink to the floor, and when they rise, they've undressed down to tiny pink dresses and red hair bows, and they do a Betty Boop routine, with knees knocking coyly, fingers plucking at their straggly hair, and ecstatic, adorable grins.

I love the total unpredictability of this kind of theater. I'm probably all wrong about it, but it seems to be a kind of vaudeville of the eye, where irrelevance and beauty, violence and farce, kitsch, noise, and sleep are all claiming your attention at the same time.

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