Until last night, I probably would not have believed in the possibility of an aesthetic minefield. At the climax of "Mandala," however -- the opus given its local premiere last night by Japan's visiting Matsuyama Ballet at the Kennedy Center Opera House -- I came drastically close to changing my mind.
In the passage in question -- the first of two scenes in the second, final act of "Mandala" -- the hero, Hokuba, a painter, is showing his beloved Moe, a "secret" Christian, around his studio, where he hopes to have her model for the Mandala (a Buddhist icon) he's working on. The two have just escaped a gang of bloodthirsty thugs, led by goons Oobengara and Kobengara, who had abducted Moe.
Hokuba unravels a scroll on which he's sketched figures, all of them attired as Buddhas, for the Mandala, and the figures come to life. What follows is a scene of awesome incongruity, as the figures disport themselves in dancing resembling a Radio City Oriental pageant, to music that sounds like a background for Armageddon. This is nothing, though, compared with the sequel, as a hundred demons from the Mandala also come to life -- for reasons beyond deciphering -- and do battle with the horde of thugs, who've arrived in pursuit of Moe.
The demons are dancers in flesh-colored unitards with leprously disfigured face masks and black, serpentine fright wigs. They surge forward on the floor in contortionist poses and writhing gestures, assailing the thugs as a monstrous bedlam of fortissimo drumming, groaning brass and incessant cymbals issues from the orchestra. For sheer vulgarian histrionics, it makes the Soviet's "Spartacus" ballet look like a rococo idyll.
A bizarre choice for the opening night of a week's run, one is tempted to think, for a venerable classical troupe from Japan. Presumably the idea was to show us something venturesome and distinctively Japanese, rather than a familiar classic, such as the "Giselle" the company will perform on the weekend. It is venturesome, in its way, and distinctively Japanese. It's also a mess, and one that affords scant opportunity to gauge the company's strengths, except in respect to gaudy stagecraft.
The company was founded in 1948 by Mikiko Matsuyama -- who remains its artistic director -- and her husband, Masao Shimizu. Their son, Tetsutaro Shimizu, is at once the troupe's principal male dancer (he's Hokuba in this production), and the choreographer, scenarist and director of "Mandala." In turn, his wife, ballerina Yoko Morishita -- well known to Western audiences through her performances with companies such as American Ballet Theatre, and in pairings with such danseurs as Rudolf Nureyev -- portrays Moe. The Matsuyama Ballet also has an extensive repertory that runs a gamut from such Western standards as "Swan Lake," "Raymonda" and "Coppelia" to such Balanchine staples as "Serenade" and "Allegro Brillante" to such specifically Asian material as "The Japanese Drum" and "Five Girls of Okinawa."
The troubles with "Mandala" begin with the story, which is convoluted in form, obscure in meaning and opaque in motivation. About the only things that are clear are that Hokuba falls in love with Moe and wants to paint her into the Mandala; that she resists because of her Christianity but is finally won over; and that she's murdered and he's blinded by the thugs at the end. But most of the exposition and many connective details are hopelessly confusing, and the central point eludes understanding. Is Moe's surrender to Hokuba's entreaties, for example, supposed to signify that love is stronger than faith? Why do the demons selectively destroy only some of the villains -- just so the plot can end tragically?
The scenery, by Hideyo Tanaka, and the costumes, by Kimiko Yaeda, are superficially spectacular, but the festival scene -- Act 1, Scene 3 -- exemplifies some of their failings. The eye is so deluged with such a profusion of lanterns, streamers, parasols, parapets and vendor stalls, together with a thronging populace and a corrugated green sky, that it's hard to see anything at all, much less a thread of action. As for the music, by Yoshihiro Kanno, it's a punishment that fits the crime. Fusing latter-day impressionism with kitchen-sink bombast and exotic flavoring, by way of some prominent Japanese instruments and Buddhist chanting (by far the most persuasive part of the music), the score suggests something Alberto Ginastera might have written on a bad night.
Under these circumstances, it's altogether remarkable that Morishita preserved so much of her riveting stage presence, elegance of line and sheer dignity. Shimizu also seems an attractive, interesting dancer, as much as one can tell from the prosaic, by-the-numbers choreography of "Mandala."
It's possible to admire, indeed to applaud, Shimizu's ambition in "Mandala" -- the breadth of the canvas on which he sought to work, his attempt to blend Western classicism with traditional Japanese elements, and the seriousness (if not the clarity) of his underlying concept -- and still conclude that the ballet is a bust. It is, moreover, an argument for the proposition that kitsch knows no national boundaries.
"Mandala" repeats tonight and Thursday evening. "Giselle," with Morishita and Shimizu again as the leads, plays Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. Whatever kind of "Giselle" it may turn out to be, it cannot help but reveal many other aspects of the Matsuyama company -- per se, a comforting thought.