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Illusion: Takami and MoBu Dance Group

by Jez Lee

February 2, 2008 -- SomArts, San Francisco

On a cold and rainy Saturday February 2, 2008, I took refuge at warm and artfully magnificent SomArts. The building, now dedicated to Jack Davis -- the much loved and missed past director of the venue -- still operates with gallery exhibitions nearly year ‘round, and sporadic performances of dance, theater, and festivals presented by the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center (APICC).

Though “Illusion” would surely have fit quite beautifully in APICC’s annual festival programming, it stood alone as an auspicious production for the organization and its presented dancers -- Takami, Mobu Dance Group and involved artists, namely Tana Tanaka and her gorgeous glass sculptures.

The majority of the audience arrived with time to meander throughout the gallery, comfortably observing approximately 20 works by various artists ranging from collage and photograph to mixed-media creations that played with well-focused lights, casting artistic shadow play on the gallery’s white walls. Entering the space, I was welcomed by a photography/photoshop project by Robert Jarrell, whose diagonally sorted images of MoBu’s dancers immediately introduced the notion of artistic integration of the art works of the gallery and the performance I was about to see on stage.

The dark curtains opened and ushers helped us to our seats -- an assortment of six symmetrical groups of chairs which formed an “in the round” arrangement. Takami’s intention was to allow for a unique perspective for everyone. I quickly found a center seat on a riser set upstage of the traditionally-positioned theater stage. Between upstage and downstage rested an elevated partition  near the gorgeous bulb-like glass sculptures that I recognized from a previous work, SHIMIZU/drop, which had inspired a nomination for an “Izzie” for visual design two years prior. On opposing corners, a tall white scrim promised more visual splendor, and hanging overhead, two mirrored cones slowly spiraled in the darkness.

This in-the-round seating and integration of stage design with gallery work is the best use of SomArts I have witnessed in a very long time. The closer seats provided an intimacy usually not granted with performers of this caliber. My eyes adjusted to the darkness as the work began; dancers in white dresses created by Akiyo Mineo approached their opening positions, and performed a solid introduction with vocal and audible percussion from their bodies.

What followed was a whirl of beautifully executed phrases, of a dance style not completely defined by a single genre. The performers of Mobu Dance Group are strong movers with clear lines and ambitious initiations of motion. Perhaps a mixture of Limon, Taylor and Ailey, the phrases were formal and the choreographic intention was quite present. Theatrical expressions from the performers kept with butoh engagement of a true emotion. This original combination of forms was most certainly Modern (mo) butoh (bu), and each performer did a splendid job performing this style with precision and accuracy. Roberta Marguerite Chávez has a generous stage presence and a supple spine; Mai Shimizu has executive control of theatrical dance ability – her sobs were almost heartbreaking; Monique Tajiri Goldwater has the energy and charisma of rock star proportions; and Takami is a strong dancer with exquisite articulation and an excellent grasp of timing. For a director to perform this well in her own work is a rarity; others would have remained outside the piece to keep an eye on design and production. It was a pleasure to see her perform with her company and I’m grateful to have witnessed her beautiful dance style as she danced solo, duet, and in unison alongside her talented group.

Performance happened on both sides of (and frequently through) the partitioned glass sculpture. Sometimes the separate areas acted as a boundary of emotional realms, where intense sorrow, anger or contagious bursts of laughter would ensue. A mover crossing the threshold where the two levels met would reach an emotionally altered state; sometimes switching roles with another performer onstage. At other times, events happened separately on either side. Glimpses of performers on the far corner of the room caught my attention and I took them for a memory of the part I had previously observed, or a foreshadowing of things to come. Occasionally, the mood struck just right and a narrative appeared of the characters’ inner turmoil. Was the figure in the background the physical appearance of our downstage dancers’ mental discovery? What powers did the glass bulbs hold that caused these beings such joy and rage?  Perfectly-executed lighting designed by Stephen Siegel, framed enough of my view to reveal wonderful dancing and facial expressions; in the background, I saw enough of the slightly-obscured performer to see and recognize her movements exactly.

At times, Tanaka’s artwork came to the forefront; a large slate adorned with glass decorations was rolled to lit areas of the stage offering visual displays of color and light that literally had the audience gasping in awe. Another time, side lights struck the suspended cones, and waves of curved reflection swept like a slowed underwater siren in 360 degrees producing another audible reaction from the admiring audience.

With different perspectives occurring simultaneously, I found myself seeing mathematical equations just as often as dramatic narrative or fantastical surrealism. Old geometry terminology of transfers, rotations, slides, and more came to mind as I watched the opposing sides of the stage shift. When one is so keenly aware of being aware, everything becomes a part of the work. On my left, a photographer quietly clicked a shot of a pose. In time with the music, the dancer switched positions and the photographer caught the reversal of the position on the exact downbeat of the music. The first click was only slightly distracting; the second click was entirely satisfying. Even the light drumming of rain on the old roof of SomArts added to the work. The sound design by Jorge Bachmann fit each moment excellently, lending an ambience that gave motivation and reference to the visual design and timing of the movement.

Set in a trance where every sound and occurrence became an artful extension of the performance, I was not the least surprised when a cell phone ring sounded behind me in the back row. The owner proceeded to answer the phone, with nearby audience responding in gasping whispers, “You’re kidding me!” In my want of natural accidents, I was almost disappointed when the man circled the audience, stood on stage in the midst of the performers to finish his conversation, and exit the theater. However possible it may be  to predict such occurrence, this staged interruption provided yet another perspective and another bridge between life and art.

After the exit of Keith Caramez (the man), the dancers again gained our focus and in the calming, surreal light of the bulbs, found their way within the stems of glass, which now seemed eerily like a Tim Burton version of the BBC’s “Planet Earth.” The performers took solace among the art, listening to bulbs and slowing in their movement as if to become a picture of a memory of the night’s performance, with the vision of the audience on the other side of the mirror, a distant reflection, and a reminder of, ourselves.

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