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Kazuco Takemoto

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, March 6-8

By Joseph Houseal

Kazuco Takemoto–appearing in Shinpi No Bi, the Dance Center’s ongoing festival of contemporary Japanese dance–is evidence enough that, with the world at our fingertips, national identities pale. Completely at home in herself, she unites the elements of this performance–klezmer music, Graham technique, expressionist improvisation, avant-garde live jazz, French chanson, the performance-art use of Plexiglas sheets–in her own intense, breathtakingly light being. When the creative mind plunges into the pool of cultural diversity, the focus turns to the artist herself.

Takemoto first trained in Japan, then in New York, then returned to Japan to perform. Her dance technique is Western, incorporating Graham and Limon release techniques, classical ballet, mime, and something called “modern ballet,” an English term for the early results of Japan’s grappling with ballet, beginning in the late 40s. But butoh–which Takemoto asserts cannot be understood as a single entity–has no real voice in her work, which is not about shadows but about the full experience of the moment.

It’s significant that Wigman-style German expressionism, which clearly and forcibly defines Takemoto’s captivating solo presence, found a home in Japan well before the New York schools of Graham, Ailey, and Limon. Yet it’s impossible to watch Takemoto without recalling the legendary Graham dancers Yuriko and Yuriko Kimura, to whom Martha Graham first entrusted her own roles. What we see is not so much Graham technique, of which Takemoto uses only a smattering, but a typically Japanese inner journey articulated in movement foreign to Japanese forms, awakening the possibility of a deep, uncharted shared territory between East and West.

Takemoto is an articulate dancer, whether in an isolation that redirects the whole body like a shift in the wind or a triple heel turn that increasingly plies as the arms reach ever higher for some ungraspable memory. She’s also fluid: spiraling downward, she becomes an enfolded creature on the floor, then rises to a seated position of sculptural grandeur and spiritual composure. It is this composure–which bespeaks the spiritual maturity of at once living fully and letting go completely–that makes Takemoto’s performance both unforgettable yet too fluid for a static memory. The imprint is rather one of energy, of atmosphere. Like a great Kabuki performer, Takemoto has refined her mental art.

It’s clear she’s immersed in her own experience of the moment. In her first dance, Peace of Mind, she freely indulges innocent joy, punctuated by over-the-shoulder glances as if she sensed someone spying on her simplicity. Even this adds to the sweetness, for where is the cause for embarrassment? Her second work–a world premiere called Song of Memory: Garden-Niwa–is an hour-long inner song that traverses a range of expressions, from haunting allure to constructive power to madness, each with the transience of a truly spontaneous experience.

The work is actually a duet. The second performer, Kazutoki Umezu, is a jazz saxophonist of rare skill and a seasoned performance artist: everything he does has a Zen levity. Appearing and reappearing with different instruments–a tenor sax, a baritone sax, a kazoo, a clarinet, a ten-foot plastic tube–he plays music as articulate yet indefinable as Takemoto’s dancing. At one point his bursts are so outrageous that she flees offstage. Increasingly the piece becomes “outside,” to borrow a jazz term–more and more extreme and unusual. However, the performers’ charm carries us with them to a heightened actuality somehow connected to earlier actions and to some spontaneously generated inner narrative. The piece ends with a serenely constructed pathway of light set onto the Plexiglas surfaces that Takemoto has in turn marveled at, stood upon, wrestled with, used as a mirror, and finally reconciled with.

The garden in Song of Memory is not a Japanese garden, nor an English one. It’s a garden of the mind, suggested by artistic elements drawn from throughout the world and joined in a recognizable reality. Together Takemoto and her collaborators–lighting designer Hisashi Adachi (whose lucid work was the best thing about Uno Man’s performance the previous week); costume designer Rumiko Homma, who walks a fine line between elegant fixed images and fabric to be trashed in performance; and sound designer Kyoko Yamada, whose subtle interweaving of disparate styles as well as live and recorded music creates an air of delicacy–demonstrate what may be most Japanese about this work: it’s an exemplar of Japan’s sophisticated grasp of the global. In the global context Takemoto is a pacesetter–and it’s her individual spirit, not an agenda, that’s setting the pace.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kazuco Takemoto photo/ uncredited.