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The Awesome Madneess of Hiroshe Koike

Previously published in the The Journal Register

by Tom Ferraro

November 29, 2007

The existence of the unconscious has been debated ever since Sigmund Freud discovered it over one hundred years ago. The unconscious is said to hold great creative and destructive power and can only be seen through dreams, symptoms and slips of the tongue. My guess is that the unconscious can also be seen in dance choreography. If that’s true, then whether they know it or not, choreographers will be dealing with these mysterious, intangible forces every step of the way. 

You do not have to be a trained psychoanalyst to see the unconscious unfold onstage. It is there in all its confused glory. In dance, the unconscious can be sublimated into the creative process, and then softened with aesthetics and with music. As a writer and practicing psychoanalyst who works the unconscious with patients every day, I thought that it might be interesting to search for evidence of the unconscious by interviewing and observing the work of a popular choreographer.  My mission this week was to see if I could find proof that unconscious regression exists in dance choreography.

After conversing with Hiroshi Koike and seeing “Ship in a View” as part of BAM’s Next Wave series, I could see quite well the existence of both individual and collective unconscious. The performance took place on a ship, and Freud always interpreted water as a sign of the unconscious. In this dance Hiroshi floated over his own unconscious and gave us a glimpse into his joyful and terrifying childhood.

The first and most conscious task for any choreographer is to produce appealing choreography that coheres with his concept, with the music and with his dancer’s ability. Secondly, he must deal with his own unconscious agenda, which often has a mind of its own.  In dance, the choreographer cannot hide behind words, and so the emergence of the unconscious is far more likely.

As luck would have it, I was able to speak directly to Hiroshi Koike, director and choreographer of world-renowned Japanese dance company Pappa Tarahumara, during the BAMdialogues prior to the show. He impressed me as open, bright and gentle, and I asked him what his view was of the unconscious process in his work. The audience laughed. He smiled and then went on to describe his creative process in some detail. He begins by writing a specific script. He follows this by putting poetry to each part and uses the poetry to help his dancers understand his feelings. During rehearsal, he sometimes asks his dancers to contribute their own impulses to the piece. Right away we see there is ample room for his and for the dancers’ unconscious to emerge during the creation of the dance. He readily admitted that he is often confused about the meaning of his work after it is done so that when asked to explain his work he joked, “To be a director is to employ the art of lying with great conviction.”

Armed with these insights, I took my seat in the Brooklyn Opera House and watched “Ship in a View.” The dance reflects Hiroshi Koike’s memory of the town of Hatachi, the place where he spent his childhood, and the performance was a display of regression into childhood with ample scenes of dependency, impulsive sexuality, and play fighting. In fact, the performance was so regressed that the performers seemed psychotic at times. He used the now famous Japanese open mouth silent scream that we first saw in the Japanese film “The Grudge.” This move showed anxiety, fury and neediness all at once. There were also images of passive dependency with the dancers sitting silently at classroom desks. The most salient images were of sexuality with women lifting skirts and a pregnant woman dancing on stage.

The great British psychoanalyst Alfred Bion wrote that all groups will regress toward either dependency, sexuality or fighting. With members of Hiroshi’s troupe flirting with each other and the audience, I thought of Bion’s work frequently. Many of the dance companies I have seen tend toward this idea of sexual regression and its promise of a new birth.  You could see that promise in this performance with the use of beautiful lights coming down from the heavens, and with the performers gazing upward to see if the savior is coming yet.

I recently talked to Hou Ying the famous Chinese dancer from Shen Wei Dance Arts who is now trying her hand at choreography. She told me that when creating a piece, it is very much like there are two choreographers working, one of whom is the conscious mind and the other is another voice which seems to have equal control. In the case of Hiroshi Koike, my guess is that he is handling his unconscious well. Perhaps of greatest interest to the dancers is how the group regresses into the piece and uses their unconscious sexual or aggressive impulses to produce spontaneous movement that will further the choreographer’s vision. All in all, the creation of a dance is a complicated affair, one which forces the conscious mind to meet its unconscious and then to engage the audience’s collective unconscious as well.

Hiroshi Koike’s choreography was like a disjointed dream, part awesome and part terrifying. The most vivid image of the night was of a lone dancer standing atop a mast in center stage looking off into the distance. It was a powerful image of longing and hope, reminding me of Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot.” As Bion said, some groups are formed to produce a feeling of hope that something is coming that will save us from our despair. Hiroshi Koike may not have offered us many answers, but at least he made a valiant effort.  “Ship in a View” is a thing of beauty and confusing power.

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