Once upon a time, in the works of Martha Graham and Jose' Limon, epic themes were the mainstay of modern dance. More recently choreographers, working in a time of disillusionment, have shied away from that which is larger than life to concentrate on that which is less. Cheryl Koehler, whose "A Japanese Tale" was performed by the Glen Echo Dance Company in its studio this weekend, may have found a way to make heroic themes work for post-modern audiences.
"A Japanese Tale" is based on a 16th-century play of the Japanese Puppet Theatre. It's a story of magic, a curse, ritual sacrifice and divine intervention that would undoubtedly be laughed off the stage if choreographed in the Graham or Limon manner. But Koehler uses puppets as her protagonists, and this diminishes and makes intimate that which could be grand and overpowering. In a curious way, the use of puppets, as well as the stylized movements of the puppeteers who sometimes enact, sometimes comment upon, the characters they manipulate, makes the story more real.
The choreographic vocabulary is a mixture of all-purpose modern dance for the human characters, slow and serene movements for Buddha and a violent martial arts solo and cruel sword dance (both fiercely performed by Will Maier) that provide a virtuosic contrast.
Koehler's choreography makes a respectful bow to the Orient while accommodating itself to Western tastes and sense of time. The puppets she designed and constructed are very beautiful, as are the butterflies of Adrienne Baker. The entire production is small-scale, but excellent.
"A Japanese Tale" should be repeated. It would be even more interesting to see what Koehler would do with non-Japanese material in a similar performance context