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Hiroaki Umeda

'Temporal Pattern, 'Haptic'

by David Mead

March 15, 2013 -- Experimental Theater, National Theater, Taipei

36-year-old Japanese avant-garde artist Hirako Umeda intended to follow his father into a career in photojournalism, but while studying at Nihon University, he realised he was more interested in movement than taking pictures. He took lots of classes in lots of styles, including with prominent Japanese dancer-choreographers such as Saburo Teshigawara and Kota Yamazaki. Despite not finding a dance style he felt suited him, and undeterred by his lack of a dance background, he decided to take up choreography. Discovering that music and lighting for shows was expensive, he decided to learn how to do it himself on computer, which brings us this double bill, choreographed, lit and scored by Umeda himself.

Premiering here, “Temporal Pattern”, the fourth work in Umeda’s Superkinesis choreography project, was co-commissioned by the Taipei’s National Theater and Singapore’s Esplanade. It brings together Taiwanese dancer Cheng Yu-jung, Hema Sundari Vellaluru from India and Cambodian Rady Nget. Umeda says his goal was to connect their bodies and dances while retaining their uniqueness and personal dance styles.

As an idea, it promised much. “Temporal Pattern” opens with the three dancers spaced diagonally across the stage. Each shows snippets of their home grown styles. Despite each showing different force and dynamic, and despite the physical space between them, there was a sense of connection. I wanted to see if, and how, Umeda could bring them in closer proximity and what effect that would have on their bodies and on me as a viewer.

I was never to find out, because it never really happens. Instead, the electronic light show takes over. Frequently using multiple parallel lines of light, that show is visually impressive. Although the light never actually engulfs the audience, Umeda gives the impression that it does so, and so draws us mentally into the performance space. As a piece of visual art, “Temporal Pattern” has points to commend it, but as a work of dance choreography, it could have been so much more.

“Haptic” is a 25-minute solo work premiered in 2008 and in which Umeda is the sole performer. Here, he dispenses with video projections, although lighting is still integral to the piece. The focus is instead on colour and line. The stage is sometimes washed with the changing colours of a prism, alternately glowing blue, green, yellow and red, while at other times it is lit only by a single beam. In the midst of this, against music that is all pulsing experimental electronic beats and rhythms, sometimes little more than a silhouette, sometimes a solid shape, Umeda ripples and shifts.

His dance is invariably initiated by his lower body. His legs move at a great pace. It reminded me of frenetic high speed scribbling. It often looked uncontrolled, although I am sure it was anything but. That movement transmits itself into his torso, which is often surprisingly more graceful. When his lower limbs do provoke robotic jerks and shifts in the upper body, they are altogether clearer. It all clearly has elements of hip-hop, but lacks the same clarity or whole body dynamism.

Dictionary definitions of ‘haptic’ relate the term to non-verbal communication, the sense of touch and tactility. Initially, “Haptic” is boring. Umeda’s body does not command you to watch. But slowly, Umeda does start to communicate the effect of colour and different lighting states on his movement. Sometimes it highlights one part of the body; sometimes it makes him appear and disappear. At one point he dissolves beautifully into a marine blue.

As works of choreography as usually assessed, both “Temporal Pattern” and “Haptic” fall short of the mark. But on reflection, perhaps they should more accurately be seen as art installations that combine light and movement. Looked at like that, and considered as works that one should experience rather than merely watch, a somewhat different view starts to emerge.

Even so, quite where Umeda can go with his ideas, I am not sure. Dance performance that relies so heavily on, admittedly wonderful, lighting ideas and brutal music is likely to soon become tedious.

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