The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Eisenhower Theater, Washington, DC: September 12, 2013
Saburo Teshigawara’s “Mirror & Music,” a work that premiered in 2009 in Tokyo, where his KARAS dance company is based, made me go, “Hmm.” I can usually find something to appreciate in a dance performance, and this was no exception. However, given the often aurally and visually assaultive piece, it’s understandable that many in the audience appeared to have given up on “Mirror & Music” before it had a chance to get going. Not a small number of persons exited the theater and didn’t return, as also happened at the Kennedy Center a few years ago during the performance of another Japanese troupe, the world famous butoh group Sankai Juku (Teshigawara, in a discussion session after the performance, disavowed any link between his choreography and butoh).
I don’t blame those who abandoned their seats, really. I had an urge to flee as well. The 75 minute work was challenging and maddeningly repetitive a lot of the time. I can’t say that I liked it, but I can say that I was glad that I hung in there. While the choreography, in general, didn’t particularly appeal to me, in the end, virtuosity, and maybe even genius, showed up.
In front of me sat a group of teenage boys who seemed to be speaking Spanish or Portuguese. The boys quite obviously were forced to attend the performance by a teacher. They whispered, giggled, punched each other, napped, and played with their electronic devices throughout the performance. While I found the teens distracting, the performance someone poorly chose for them to witness was one that I don’t think most people, especially those unschooled in contemporary dance, would tolerate well.
Physically, the performance caused a significant amount of pain. One can only assume that Teshigawara, who in addition to the choreography also contributed the lighting, set, and costume design, intended the discomfort “Mirror & Music” inflicted. The extremely loud music alternated between baroque and industrial (think of the whirring roar of a helicopter about to land directly on your head). The lighting design featured intensely bright lights that, through the clever use of mirrors at the front of the stage, dizzyingly looped around making, among other things, a flickering box of light that seemed to chase itself as it outlined the horizontal space surrounding the stage. For the patrons who left the theater prematurely and the boys in the row in front of me, who I could tell also desperately wanted to leave as soon as possible, I suspect the harsh music and lighting led them to have an unpleasant experience.
In addition, the costumes were overall plain and largely unremarkable, with the exception of the hoods worn at the beginning of the piece. Coupled with Teshigawara’s imaginative lighting, the hoods offered an eerie glowing orb from within instead of a face, reminding me a little bit of the Jawas from the movie “Star Wars” (but in the case of the Jawas it was only their eyes that spookily glowed from inside the dark holes of their hoods). Interesting? Sort of.
So, that leaves the dancing, which I thankfully appreciated far more than the other elements of “Mirror & Music.” Yet I can’t count myself a fan of the work. There were too few moments when I leaned forward enrapt and escaped my pain/discomfort/boredom. However, I can relate two moments that struck me as truly great. First, there was a very lengthy passage during which the dancers repeated elegantly curving runs, single hands rising outstretched, arms swerving, bodies twisting and turning and crisscrossing like cyclists jockeying for positions around a velodrome or leaves swirling in the wind. The audience had seen the same movement sequence countless times before, at varying speeds (and at warp speed, it boggled the mind to behold how swiftly and with what control the dancers, including Teshigawara himself, who was born in 1953, could swing their limbs about). Suddenly, for me, the movement came alive in a way it had not done previously. Strangely, perhaps, the repetition, almost ad nauseam, allowed me to see the same movement afresh, and to actually enjoy it. Mark Morris, a master of blending classical music with modern dance and creating delectable concoctions, probably would approve of this specific section, at least. Here, the baroque music complemented the dancing perfectly, and I had the impression that the audience took a huge collective sigh of relief. The sustained period of “pretty” baroque music and “pretty” dancing meant a break from the clanging musical attack that we knew was waiting to pounce on us again.
My other nearly rapturous moment occurred at the end of “Mirror & Music” when the six dancers of KARAS, including Teshigawara and his artistic assistant Rihoko Sato, began to teeter back and forth together with their arms dangling loosely at their sides. They shifted their weight in small side to side jogging steps, and their arms lightly fluttered, too. The program notes mention that KARAS’s aim when it was founded in 1985 by Teshigawara and Kei Miyata was to search for a “new form of beauty.” I discovered a new form of beauty in the dancers’ simple jiggling to and fro. Again, as with the lovely curving runs, this movement sequence was repeated for an incredibly extended interval. In fact, I felt the dancers deserved some kind of fitness award for doing the equivalent of dog paddle for so long. Teshigawara certainly stretched repetition more than any choreographer I’ve seen. To his credit, though, I found exquisiteness in this repetition. The dancers should have looked increasingly exhausted, but the more they continued to jiggle, the lovelier their tiny movements became. I welcomed this revelation of beauty after enduring a work that I feared would drag on endlessly.
Following the performance, in conversation with dance critic and scholar Suzanne Carbonneau, a professor at George Mason University, Teshigawara discussed his inspiration for “Mirror & Music.” Although Teshigawara disclaimed any connection to Butoh, I wonder if he would do the same with regard to Zen? With his bald head; his affinity for saying philosophical things like “Music is music” when explaining that he considers baroque music to be as “modern” as the music of Steve Reich; and his description of his teaching methods, which involve asking questions of dancers rather then demonstrating movement, Teshigawara definitely reminded me of a Zen monk.
I admit I was surprised when some friends who joined me at the performance expressed that they really liked it. I suppose, however, it’s fitting of Teshigawara’s work that the reaction to “Mirror & Music” was mixed. I uncovered similar reactions in London, where the critics in 2011 were divided. “Mirror & Music” is no riot-inducing “Rite of Spring,” but it strikes people very differently, with some shouting its praises and others decrying its existence. In my opinion, one should proceed with caution when viewing this work!