When I entered the seating area, the unlikely odor of a barnyard filled my nostrils. Beneath dim lighting, cows, goats and rabbits were leisurely wandering around the stage. My five senses were assailed at once by this abnormal spectacle, and the shock remained with me afterward like a slap to the face.
In 2000, "Raj Packet" was performed for the first time at the New National Theatre in Tokyo. The title is derived from a slang term meaning "lackluster" or "lackadaisical."
Saburo Teshigawara kept dancing indifferently, neither following nor directing the animals. The audience closely observed his movements as he flitted between light and shadow, while their concentration was frequently broken by bleats of "Baa!" It resembled Beckett's theater of the absurd.
"All forms of expression are born from a sense of incongruity," says Teshigawara. "I revel in worlds I cannot control, and express what I feel and what I interpret as my own reality."
Glancing at the audience, there were those who were laughing, and others who were crying. It was as if Raj Packet was taking the modern people's sensibilities, blunted by the likes of on-screen text on television coercing them into a reaction and releasing them into a weightless vacuum.
As audience members grow bewildered, they begin to direct their thoughts inward. Teshigawara's works become a mirror reflecting the mind of the viewer.
AN UNCONVENTIONAL TALENT
Not only is Teshigawara a leading figure in contemporary dance, he is also well known on the international art scene as a lighting designer, filmmaker and stage director.
However, he differs from the northern European concept of an artist, whose work is dominated by powerful individuality.
"He himself has a presence like a cell, and is able to permeate any kind of artistic genre in a natural way," says dance critic Tatsuro Ishii. "It's for that very reason that he can imbue every inch of the space on a stage with his individuality."
Teshigawara came up with "Luminous," the catalyst for his breakthrough, the year after he presented "Raj Packet." Pairing up with a blind British dancer, he unfurled a tranquil physical dialogue that gave the impression they were turning their ears toward their own inner voices.
Theater critic Tamotsu Watanabe wrote the following out of sheer wonderment: "How many will understand this world (depicted by Teshigawara) in our modern age, where people only try to believe that which they can see?"
"Luminous" was subsequently performed in Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and other parts of Europe, announcing his arrival on the world dance scene.
Teshigawara's unconventional talents were first recognized in France.
In 1986, he became the first Japanese to take second place in an international choreographic competition. His gestures, agile and bizarre, make it seem like he is toying with gravity and the air. Media in Western Europe developed a keen interest in the nonconformist physical expressions of this unfamiliar and diminutive Asian gentleman.
As it happened, at that time in France, new forms of bodily expression other than ballet and modern dance were being sought. Newspaper Le Figaro described the striking impact of Teshigawara's style, calling it "beautifully poetic" and stating that "the audience cannot help but be fascinated by the power of its expression and sublime technique."
Surprisingly, Teshigawara began his involvement with dance from the age of 20. He had been a fantasist from an early age, who would stare up at the sky absentmindedly. He set out to become an artist, and searched for a way to make a living from painting, literature, music and every other form of art imaginable. However, he realized that no matter what the genre, all turned out to have their own systems and restrictions.
"I came to realize that the only truth was that which I could actually feel physically. If that was so, then I knew that dance was my only choice."
The only form of dance he was aware of was classical ballet. He found a studio in the phone book at random and began taking lessons.
He absolutely hated being forced to learn basic positions. Even so, if he didn't make even a single form his own, he wouldn't be able to disassemble it. He made up his mind. "I'll do my own expressions once I turn 30. I'll master the grammar of ballet first, and then I'll do what I like."
Just as children can play with mud and sand for hours on end, he tried burying himself in soil and falling into gravel to become one with it, for no particular reason. Eventually, this time spent engaging in an in-depth dialogue with himself became the foundation of his later success.
"I discovered images in music and heard sound in paintings. It's interesting to search for the things running through and underlying various genres. Perhaps that's a privilege gained from taking so many detours and being a late developer."
A LIGHTWEIGHT 'REBELLION'
Teshigawara's curiosity and energy is impossible to predict. In April and May, he performed a new work in Japan inspired by the Great East Japan Earthquake disaster. In summer, he directed an opera by Handel at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence in southern France, and two months later he presented a new work based on Zeami Motokiyo's Noh at the National Noh Theatre.
He states unequivocally that he has "never" experienced frustration or come up against a wall. "That's because I believe walls are not created by other people, but by you yourself."
One such "wall" might be the act of consciously placing things on stage that obstruct his freedom, such as animals, or dancing upon shards of glass. This could be viewed as a kind of lightweight "rebellion," in order to prevent himself from being celebrated as an authority.
He admires painter Paul Klee, known for his use of bright colors. Klee gradually lost the dexterity in his hands in his later life, and despite only being able to create delicate line drawings, he still felt the urge to approach his canvas. Teshigawara finds such simple but unyielding determination compelling.
"When you're exhausted and completely lose the ability to resist, your skin begins to sense the thickness of the air. Then a rustling sound emanates from within your immobile body, and a new dance emerges. That's the way it feels to me."
* * *
Born in 1953 in Tokyo. Studied classical ballet from the age of 20, and later began creating his own works. Established dance company KARAS with dancer Kei Miyata in 1985. Won second place and an Innovation Award the following year at the Concours de Bagnolet, an international competition that represents a gateway to stardom for choreographers. Received an Asahi Performing Arts Award in 2002. Also active as a lighting and film artist. He is a professor in the Department of Body Expression and Cinematic Arts at Rikkyo University's College of Contemporary Psychology.
Favorite sayings: "Suspect the ordinary." "Prepare yourself mentally." His solemn belief is that all expressions begin by personally embracing a world of some kind. He says it is an important frame of mind for engaging in creative activity.
Dance company name: "KARAS" originates from the Japanese word for crow, karasu. A stuffed specimen adorns his rehearsal space. "They're thought of as savage birds, but I can't think of another bird that's as cute and clever."
Music: The pianists he often listens to are Yuji Takahashi and Glenn Gould. For his "Saburo Fragments," performed for the first time in Kawasaki in April, he used an unaccompanied piece for violin by Bach played by Sayaka Shoji. His favorite composers make for a diverse list, including Bach, Wagner, Ligeti and Xenakis.
Favorite books: He is drawn to the absurd, such as works by Kafka and Beckett. As for film, he cites Tod Browning's ode to sideshow performers, "Freaks."
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