Review: Teshigawara at Kennedy Center

Sarah Kaufman
Dance critic September 13, 2013

It’s with a sinking feeling that I read program notes about “conscience methodology” and “social-psychological restrictions.” When there’s also a strained, rambling poem on the page, written by the choreographer, I know I’m in for it. But with all that in hand, I still wasn’t expecting quite the level of punishment that Saburo Teshigawara/KARAS dealt out in its evening-length piece “Mirror and Music,” which the Japanese troupe performed Thursday at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.

God bless a dance audience. Are there any heartier theater folk around? Most of those present stuck it out for the hour and a half, ignoring the ones who, placing a high value on the future functioning of their ears, fled up the aisles. My sympathies were with them, but like those who stayed seated around me, I joined in the polite applause at the end — following a silent, defensive interval when our wary hive-mind wondered if the dance were really and truly over this time. (We’d been tricked before, you see; a false finale came about every 10 minutes.)

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, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

Well, the six dancers had worked very hard; they deserved recognition for that. Their grueling physical display ended with two of them jiggling and bouncing like electrocuted rag dolls for many minutes while a single electronic tone ground through the speakers, pulverizing the eardrum, the soul and any hope of deliverance to which you might still be clinging.

I feel for those so sensitive to the anxieties of the day that all they can respond with is darkness and despair — truly I do. I suspect that Teshigawara is one of these; in his poem printed in the program he writes of the world being broken and the sun smelling “of a burnt shadow.” The cinders of World War II shaped much of Japanese art: Butoh, for example, the slow-moving dance-theater form, draws on the more painful mysteries of contemporary life.

But the point of “Mirror and Music” seemed to be solely to inflict pain — and when not inflicting pain via howling audio feedback, then to do it through the dancers’ endless, random thrashing. To be sure, the aural unpleasantness was not the whole problem. After all, much of Merce Cunningham’s work with John Cage and other experimental musicians was carried on at uncomfortable volumes. But the difference is that Cunningham, in his best pieces, drew in his audience with a refined dance technique and subtle, canny and deeply thought-out ways of using it. Not so here. The random jitteriness quickly grew tiresome in Teshigawara’s work. And I’ve rarely seen a dance with as morose and distant an emotional tone as this one, in which the dancers hung their heads like teenagers suffering through a homework lecture.

Where was it all headed? Occasionally I glimpsed a silvery, slippery dance phrase that might, just might, transcend out of the trap that the theater had become, but it was only a mirage. No, not even a mirage, which implies promise. There were no promises here; all avenues led to dead ends.

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