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by Carmel Morgan

April 26, 2012 -- Terrace Theater, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC

Jo Kanamori, a former member of Netherlands Dance Theatre II, the Lyon National Opera Ballet, and the Gothenburg Ballet, left Europe in 2002 and returned to his homeland of Japan in order to pursue a career as a choreographer. In 2004, he founded Japan’s first public residential contemporary dance company in Niigata Prefecture, and called it “Noism,” referencing his desire not to avoid imposing a name to which his group would be compelled to conform (No “-isms,” get it?). In 2008, Kanamori’s dance company first appeared at the Kennedy Center during a festival celebrating Japan. Apparently, the performance left a vivid and positive impression. In 2012, on the 100th anniversary of Japan’s gift of cherry trees to Washington, DC, Noism returned to the Kennedy Center once more, presumably by invitation, and fans of their prior performance in the nation’s capital were among the audience members.

Having lived in Japan for a little over two years myself, and having even studied dance there briefly, I was not prepared for the quality and creativity of Noism1 (there is now a junior company, called “Noism2”). Most certainly, Kanamori’s training under Maurice Bejart in Lausanne greatly influenced his development as a dancer and choreographer. In a talkback after the opening night performance, Kanamori mentioned Jiri Kylian, William Forsythe, Pina Bausch, and George Balanchine as influences as well. What I witnessed on stage did not remind me much of Japan. Instead, although all of the dancers had Japanese names, the dancing of Noism was universal. Or, rather, the dancing was edgy, modern, and well, kind of European-looking.

The company performed “ZONE,” a 2009 trilogy consisting of three parts, titled “Academic,” “Psychic,” and “Nomadic.” I was immediately taken by the gorgeous bodies, lighting, costumes, set design, and sound. Reiko Watanabe, an esteemed Juilliard-trained Japanese violinist and professor at Akita International University, played J.S. Bach’s “3 Partitas for Solo Violin.” What richness the live music added to the beautiful dancing! Also of note were the unique golden chairs, designed by Dan Sunaga, which revealed themselves to have a crooked leg when the dancers seated upon them rose, and the chairs then tilted. The visual landscape was elegant and deceptively simple. The music and the chorography, however, provided delightful complexity.

The first section, “Academic – solo for 2,” reminded me of birds. I saw wings in the frequently outstretched arms and the soaring extensions of the dancers, and in the flutter of hands. The dancers breathed with the music and sailed gracefully into a partner’s grasp overhead, leaping from horizontal to vertical. The dancing was muscled, controlled, and although somewhat solemn, also filled with pleasant brightness. Kanamori created duets that repeated with different partners, and these duets often directly echoed the music. As for the partners, women danced with men, of course, but also men with men and women with women. One quartet suddenly and swiftly swapped partners, and did so exquisitely.

The second section of the trilogy, “Psychic – incomplete threnody,” had a completely different feeling. The costumes, lighting, and set again were spare. Silence was the music, in the beginning, so that was spare, for sure! More Bach was used as the work progressed (“The Art of the Fugue: Contrapunctus XIV”). This spare quality suited the piece perfectly. The dancers wore basic, unremarkable workout wear. One dancer among five sat in a dark hooded sweatshirt with his back to the audience. A large upright rectangle on the stage hid dancers behind it, but a tall light placed at just the right angle spread shadows showing us what was happening behind the pillar. The hooded dancer, however, remained unmoving.

The dancers communicated, but they seemed not to understand each other very well. One female, hunched over, shook like a possessed soul, or someone whose nerves got the better of her after imbibing way too much caffeine. Later, a rain of pink confetti like cherry blossoms fell. The dancers clutched each other tightly, crawled like cats, and dragged each other around. The atmosphere was weird, and definitely a little creepy, but also extremely intriguing. I sensed timidity, nervousness, and violence. At the conclusion, a dancer shook her head and whisked ear buds from her ears, or at least gestured like she had removed them. Kanamori confirmed during the talkback that the performers were dancing to their own music that we did not hear, symbolizing how we usually do not know what others are thinking, and how that leads to misunderstanding.

The final work in the triology, “Nomadic – a bond of gravitation,” was by far the most fun. Rather than simple and somber, “Nomadic” offered eclectic, lively, and thoroughly entertaining choreography, music, and props. Wow, wow, wow, when the lights arose from a total blackout, a row of dancers at the front of the stage appeared standing wide legged and staring hard at the audience. They resembled rock stars in wild costumes. They looked like pirates who had completed a vintage clothing store raid by piling clothing items atop each other, with color everywhere and layers upon layers of textured, printed fabric. Bravo for Yasuhiro Mihara’s imaginative costumes!

The music in the program is listed as being by “Various Artists.” No kidding about the various artists. Too many to mention is more like it! From Japanese rock, to Klezmer, to Irish folk, to sultry French vocals, the music took the audience around the world (Elvis was there). The costumes magically seemed to transform with the tunes, showing the brilliance of Mihara’s design. The dancers became quasi-actors, working in a great deal of humor, and their movement took on the character of the nations whose music filtered in through the onstage DJ, hooded and wearing all black like the “kurogo” stagehands in traditional Japanese theater. When the Irish music played, for example, the dancers’ knees picked up, and they trotted for a while like members of Riverdance.

Significantly, after a primal scream early in “Nomadic” dropped a curtain of rain, which was in fact many strings of silver metal beads of the same type that hold the stoppers for bathtubs.

Bravo, too, to the wonderful lighting design by Masakazu Ito and the scenography by Tsuyoshi Tane, an architect. The curtain of rain changed appearance with the lighting, bringing dancers to the foreground and pushing them back. More wows! It seems that Kanamori was exploring what it means to live in an increasingly borderless world, and what it means for us to be living in a world that together faces environmental disaster, thus his use of rain as a symbol, which unites us all, wherever we are in the globe. The journey of “Nomadic” really could not have been more enjoyable at every turn. In sum, “ZONE” is among the few dance works I’ve known right away that I want to see again. I hope I have that chance one day!

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