Pappa Tarahumara, a Japanese contemporary dance company

Frustrated resignation

As part of a short, two-city tour of Australia, the Japanese contemporary dance company Pappa Tarahumara performed Love Letter, its most recent work, at the Seymour Centre in Sydney. The production was one work in a series of pieces that explore what choreographer Hiroshi Koike refers to as the “Island mentality”—the concept that the world is comprised of social boundaries according to religion, ethnicity, language, geography and class. According to the program notes, Love Letter examines the numerous divisions that the artist believes separate people and define their existence—“men v.s. women, oneself v.s. others, war v.s. peace”.

The intellectual starting point of Koike’s dance, that society ought to be understood as the sum total of the world’s innumerable social categories, rests on the claim that such differences are fundamental and of equal importance in determining the human condition. The “Island” perspective emerges within his piece as a sea of pessimistic and ultimately limited images. Love Letter is a dance of fleeting impressions based upon what is a superficial assessment of human relations. It is as if Koike opened his eyes, took a glance at the world, closed them again, and then decided to make a dance on that basis.

In so much as it evokes a mood of troubled resignation, Love Letter is an effective work. The dancers—two men and three women—largely perform as individual figures. Focused on the audience, they appear to be sharing the same space almost due to happenstance. The dancers acknowledge each other only in a very distant manner, even when jumping into each other’s arms, walking in pursuit of one another, hanging over each other’s shoulders, or aggressively pushing themselves into another’s space. With stops and starts, their taut bodies alternately stretch out and then fold in on themselves. It looks as if their motions are controlled by something outside of themselves.

Striking variation in the dancers’ size added diversity to the brief sections of unison movement contained in Love Letter. Duets by two petite female dancers sometimes emerge out of the web of otherwise disparate actions. Stretching into the vertical space, their bodies explode into the air, legs tucked underneath them. Touching down onto the ground, arms whip and spin the dancers around themselves. In contrast, the full length and physical power of the human form emerges, the few times that one of the company’s tall male dancers performs similar sequences.

These moments communicate a sense of deep frustration. But these bursts of yearning anxiety take on an almost depraved character after a certain point because each time they emerge the dancers eventually morph back into slow, cocoon-like movement. Driven by an inner awareness, their bodies appear to melt through space even as their muscles remain taut.

During a discussion after the performance, Koike told me that the “slow, puppet-like movement” seen in his piece comes from his experience as a youth watching machines in the factories of his hometown, Hitachi City. The diversity in the five dancers’ body shapes and heights captures the many different kinds of people around whom he grew up—fisherman, farmers, factory workers, and coal miners.

Love Letter falls under the genre of modern dance known as Dance Theatre. With an extensive background in martial arts but no formal training in dance, Koike’s participation in the performing arts began during his years as a university student when he became involved in theatre. After working in this setting and in television for a brief period, he founded Pappa Tarahumara in 1982. Initially drawing upon his experience and skills in theatre, the company’s productions eventually used less and less voice. Instead, movement gradually became the primary expressive vehicle in the company’s repertory of 33 different works. After 1997, Koike once again began to incorporate spoken-text and vocals into his productions.

In Love Letter, members of the cast sing, howl, speak to the audience, change from drab gray to intricate red costumes, move chairs around, drag wagons with miniature human dolls onto the stage, perch upright inside a wooden frame that vaguely resembles a gallows, as different scenes quietly flow into one another. At times, the dance creatively builds conceptual threads by using theatrical elements.

An aura of intense desperation is effectively and consistently established by the long wailing cries of the male dancer that interrupt the chatter of a wide-eyed woman. The concept of fleeing finds various articulations in the dance, from a curious bird-like flapping motion in the dancers’ arms, to a section when the cast runs around the stage like an airborne flock. At the end of the dance, a man solemnly enters with a propeller attached to his back. Pulling the apparatus’ motor cord with futile determination, he climbs a set of stairs in pursuit of lift-off.

However, despite the clarity of Koike’s movements and his ability to creatively develop the dance’s supporting themes with theatre techniques, the dance is a scattered work. A significant portion of the theatrical material and images strike one as absurd, pointless, or simply confused.

The “love letter” concept is not well integrated into the dance. Functioning largely as a formal component within the piece, the “love letter” is personified in the words of a tall female dancer. The woman is the recipient of a love letter. Her dialogue with the audience, according to the program notes, is supposed to capture some aspect of her mood, thoughts and condition provoked by the note. “Oh, my. Anything wrong? All of a sudden... I would have come and met you had you called me first. Your shoes? Oh, just one shoe?” states the woman.

Despite the dedicated delivery of the performer, there is nothing that either penetrates the lonely mood created in the dancing or presents it in a fresh manner. While the “love letter” plays a central role in the overall formal structure of the piece, it appears to be largely without any thematic content. Given this weakness, the title of the dance strikes one as peculiar and confusing.

One then needs to ask, if Love Letter does not really articulate the idea after which it is named, what is the dance resting upon? In the program notes, Koike writes, “It is human nature to want to have others ranked lower than oneself. As long as humans are humans, there can be no end to this turmoil.” This bleak and disheartened view of human relationships forms the thematic core of Love Letter. The dancers, isolated figures conscious of their own separation, always prove unable to move beyond their own solitude. Instead, driven by an almost maddening desperation, they either attempt to flee the situation or enter into subordinate relations with other, more dominant figures on the stage. While expressing elements of frustration, the dancers appear quaint and foolish as they confront the constraints of their reality.

Such a perspective, while perhaps reflecting certain experiences on the part of the choreographer, does not yield a great deal to explore. Koike’s dance is not flat. In so much as the choreographer presents a single idea and emotion in a multi-sided manner, the choreographer avoids creating a one-dimensional piece. However, Love Letter never advances, it spins around itself but essentially remains in one place. The eclecticism of Love Letter, its misnomer of a title and stream of bizarre images, is an expression of the fact that the choreographer attempts to add an unsustainable level of sophistication to a static assessment of human nature and relations.

By maintaining that the existence of social difference is fundamental and that inequality is an expression of an inherent human need, Koike cannot develop a more dynamic work of art because he never examines the origins of what he seeks to portray. If a choreographer simply accepts his subject matter as unquestionable, it becomes very difficult to expand upon the theme of a dance other than providing conceptually uniform, if aesthetically diverse, imagery.