Noism at Kennedy Center Terrace Theater


Press image of Noism performing "Psychic-incomplete threnody.” (Takashi Shikama)

In a blast of white light after a blinding blackout, the Japanese dance group called Noism took a hard turn into surrealism.

The dancers who had displayed great skill but little personality earlier in Thursday’s program now appeared as the most wonderful characters, caught in torqued, questioning and defensive poses as if they’d just dropped into the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater from Mars. Or were they refugees from one of Rei Kawakubo’s avant-garde fashion shows? Their billowy, tent-shaped costumes looked like Kawakubo with a bad case of static cling. As the dancers started to move, you saw that they were layered in all manner of frocks and tunics split apart and stitched atop one another.

One wore half a man’s suit jacket with a red velvet cocktail dress flapping from her back like a butterfly fillet of koi.

The heavily percussive music sounded like a Japanese garage band. The dancers collapsed like popped balloons, then rose and thrashed. Musical boundaries shifted; now we were hearing a klezmer tune, a crackly Caruso warbling “O Sole Mio,” then Elvis and Edith Piaf bleating “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien.”

As for moi, je ne forget rien. How could I? It was all too terrifically weird, especially when the dancing took on a boneless, melting quality. When their partners deposited them at the lip of the stage at one point, the women oozed over the edge and slid to the floor.

Nothing was easy for these folks, as much as they struggled to master their engulfing patchwork clothing, patchwork music, patchwork dance. They gave it a valiant shot, and that was perhaps the point of this piece, titled “Nomadic —a bond of gravitation.” Life’s fragmentation and disappointments are hardly a new subject for art, but “Nomadic” and the two works that came before it showed us the changes an artist can ring in treating a familiar theme.

The works formed a trilogy called “Zone,” created by Noism’s Artistic Director Jo Kanamori. Kanamori’s group, established in 2004 in Niigata, is Japan’s first contemporary dance company, but it is sophisticated beyond its years in technique and repertoire. It made an impressive appearance here in 2008, in a revenge-of-the-robots piece called “Nina — Materialize Sacrifice.”

Names are not Kanamori’s strong suit. When you read that you’re about to see a dance titled “Psychic — incomplete threnody,” as the middle section of “Zone” was called, you can bet it’s going to be a long evening. (If your recall of obscure literary terms is as rusty as mine, a threnody is an ode to the dead.)

Kanamori spoke the truth in a question-and-answer session with the audience following the performance. “Everybody has seen everything already. What is important is to choose.”

I hate to use the artist’s words against him, but as I watched “Psychic” and the piece that came before it, “Academic — solo for 2,” that was exactly my thought — I’d seen so much of it before. The dancers’ skill was extraordinary — so precise, so swift in the air. But the choreography was less so: a mix of melodramatic Martha Graham, some angular and jazzy Twyla Tharp, the stretch and lift of classical ballet, and the nervous agitation of Anna Sokolow.

“Academic” was an unemotional exercise in energy and form, elevated considerably by the supple live performance of Bach’s Three Partitas for Solo Violin by Reiko Watanabe. “Psychic” veered in the other direction, its urban alienation underscored in the dancers’ audible breathing, the flashes of aggression and trembling that came out of nowhere. (Part of the “incomplete” nature of the threnody, I guess.)

But if those sections felt more like promising sketches than a complete expression, in “Nomadic” the energy, music and drama came together in an original and transporting bit of theater. Kanamori may have isolation and darkness on his mind, but at his best he can switch on the light to a brave new world.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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