Forget Toyotas. Forget Transformers. Forget sushi and sashimi. The strongest, most compact and esthetically on-target Japanese export to reach our shores has got to be choreographer Kei Takei.
A tiny troll of a woman with a beatific smile, Takei has spent the last 16 years creating and -- together with her New York-based company Moving Earth -- performing an ongoing magnum opus that she calls "Light." Now 19 sections in all, "Light" concerns itself with the hardships, harvests, rituals and games of a society of what appear to be peasants or farmers or both. Dressed in simple white tunics, trousers or loincloths, Takei and her dancers move with an intensity and almost clumsy deliberation that remind one alternately of Zen masters, oxen-hitched plows and exhausted but steadfast soldiers. Stubborn, stoic folk, they plod across the floor with packs on their backs, fall hard, drag themselves up and move on.
Experienced in marathon form -- on occasion, Moving Earth performs the work in its entirety, which takes about 15 hours -- "Light" becomes the history of an imagined civilization. Taken in parts, it is no less affecting. And although Takei's fierce presence throughout the epic is unforgettable, she, apparently, feels it is not essential. She has no qualms about teaching various sections of her masterpiece to those ready to learn. Hence her recent visit to Washington, during which she passed a small part of her history on to other bodies.
Deep within George Mason University's mammoth field house in a modern, oblong studio, three men and five women, all students in the university's dance program, stand center stage, big rocks in each of their hands.
"Ah Ha Ha Hmmm . . . " Takei, a miniature in forest green warm-up clothes and white socks, is giving the dancers their counts. Not in numbers, but in rhythmic breathing patterns. If you aren't aware of your breathing, these performers are quickly discovering, you won't be able to master Takei's moves.
They are learning "Light, part 11," a dance of celebration and formal simplicity, full of swinging arms, stomping feet, high jumps and the sound of rocks clacking one against the other. For this entire week, Takei is spending a chunk of each day with these dancers, guiding them through the basic movements, then shading, qualifying, shaking the kinks out. The performance itself is not until March; after these sessions, surrogate teachers and videotapes must suffice. So right now, all eyes are glued on the lady in green.
"Okay. This part fine, but turn should be like so . . ." Preferring gestures to words, Takei bends her knees, shifts her weight forward, makes a half turn and sinks into the floor. When the students try the same phrase, they look like dancers. But Takei lives the movement, using it to conjure up a peasant engaged in some mystical rite.
The group moves on to a partnering motif, vaguely reminiscent of a primitive patty-cake game with rocks as substitutes for hands. Three couples pass muster; the fourth needs work. That's where Laz Brazer, Takei's dancer-husband, comes in, to iron out details and provide more elaborate verbal cues. And that's when Takei's attention shifts to another part of the room, and her face takes on an even more luminous cast. Rayshun, her 6-month-old son, sits on a pile of blankets and prattles to his nanny, a young Japanese woman who is also one of Takei's students. Takei scoops the baby up in her arms, cooing to him in her native tongue, and then sets his sturdy feet flat on the floor. Supporting his arms, she readies him for standing and, eventually, for some dancing of his own.
"We went basket shopping the other day, and Kei was very particular about finding the right ones," dancer Don Zuckerman explains as he loops a thin rope through a cylindrical woven basket filled with pine cones, places it on his back and winds the rope around his waist. His partner, Helen Rea (together they constitute Duets, Etc.), goes through the same process. Now they are ready for "Light, part 14 -- The Pine Cone Field," which they will perform later this spring.
Takei walks about the makeshift rehearsal space, a round classroom at Sidwell Friends School. She looks even smaller today, and happier still. She has been through the preliminaries with this gifted duo and concentrates on finer points.
The kisses, for example. This is a dance of flirtation and courtship, one in which two peasants filch pine cones from each other's basket, embrace and engage in a most endearing form of love-play. Mouths cupped perpetually to form a "ho!" sound, they still manage to kiss each other's mouth, stomach and chest. The rocking, rhythmic movement, not to mention the burdens on their backs, makes this anything but easy.
"Ow!" Zuckerman yells. Rea's "ho"-ing mouth has just bumped rather than kissed his own. The pine cones are spilling wildly, their sharp edges cutting in to the dancers' bare feet. They look to Takei for counsel.
"It's coming," she laughs. "It's coming."