Mile Zero Dance’s annual Dance Lab Performance had an unexpectedly large audience for its informal showing of “Swept Away”, choreographed by Japan’s Mari Osanai. The result of a one-month workshop, this Dance Lab was exceptional because the work developed into a completed piece rather than the intended work-in-progress. The Lab process was facilitated by Linda Rubin, and the work was performed by Osanai, along with five Edmonton dancers (Theresa Dextrase, Jennifer McLeod, Joanne Messelink, Gerry Morita and Nancy Sandercock).
This was the first Dance Lab at the Second Playing Space, a studio theatre at the Timms Centre for the Arts, which seats 150 people. Well over that number lined up for tickets at the door, and some had to be turned away. Bobbie Todd, Mile Zero’s artistic director, was only partly surprised at the audience turnout. She said that Osanai is well known in Edmonton, having performed twice at Edmonton’s annual Fringe Festival to rave reviews. Osanai taught Noguchi Taiso during the spring workshop sessions at the University of Alberta’s drama studios.
Taiso is the Japanese word for gymnastics, but this technique resembles neither gymnastics nor dance, as I know them. The technique emerged as a reaction to the destruction of the World War II. Michizo Noguchi had taught gymnastics in Japanese schools before the war. When it was over and he returned home, he was devastated to find Tokyo destroyed. Realizing that nature and the sky are the only permanent things, he responded by adapting his gymnastics to incorporate the elements of nature, gravity and infinity.
In the workshops, the dancers explored images from nature, such as ocean waves or flowers placed at different locations on their bodies. Using the flower images, for example, the dancers would send energy from their feet into the floor and follow it’s return along a pathway towards an imaginary flower somewhere on their body. The body part would then move as if growing into the flower. “They internalize that,” said Osanai. “They can’t use the mirror during rehearsals to see how it looks.”
A sideways figure eight, the symbol for infinity, is adapted into the movement and every part of the body carves out its shape. Gravity is used quite literally. “We give in to rather than fight gravity. We don’t use strength or resistance, or force the body to move in a certain way,” explained Osanai. “Instead, the dancer lets the body melt — it’s tender and flexible.”
The inspiration for “Swept Away” came from its commissioned music. Chris Meloche and Herb Bayley of Ontario’s Outward Sound Ensemble wanted to evoke the atmosphere of the tragic events of the recent Tsunami and its aftermath. “Using prepared table-top guitar, trombone, cornet and found percussive objects, the recording was spontaneous, without preconceived ideas,” explained Meloche. They created a twenty-six-minute composition that was eerie, beautiful and perfectly suited for the choreography.
The performance began in silence, with each of five dancers lying on the floor under individual spotlights, transparent ribbons attached near their navels like umbilical cords. The ribbons hung from a centre point in the ceiling and detached as each dancer began to move, representing water floating around and between the dancers. The mesmerizing music began and the dancers, in oversized white shirts and dark pants, slowly came upright, their feet finding strange and unusual ways of touching the floor and their spines curving in every possible direction.
Their eyes looked inward, heads falling back or hanging forwards, hair falling over their faces. It was as though each was in a trance, searching. Their movements evoked water and, like ripples moving through a body of water, every movement reverberated through the whole body of each dancer. They moved slowly without acknowledging the others, individually or forming groups with a loosely woven sense of unison. They repeatedly collapsed, falling to the floor and rising together, creating a powerful image of waves.
Osanai moved differently from the others, quickly and lightly, more extrinsic, and incorporating other movement techniques. She was subtle, never detracting from the piece as a whole and allowing everything to flow naturally.
Gradually floating away into individual movement, the dancers became water creatures. Fingers were tentacles, wiggling and stretching. Bodies curled and reached, and movement was interspersed with momentary stillness that foreshadowed the upcoming scene. The pace changed subtly, building gradually, beginning with tiny infrequent twitches. One dancer’s twitches gradually accelerated into tremors. The impact was magnified as the others evolved into similar struggles, initiating the end of the performance.
The tremors were frightening; the dancers seemed to be controlled by the tremors as they eventually moved together towards the back of the performance area, then separated and fell to the floor. The piece ended much as it had begun, with the dancers lying under individual spotlights. The music had finished several minutes before, and the silence added another dimension to the ending.
The beauty of watching this piece wasn’t so much in how it looked, but in its magnetic pull. The performers became an exotic culture of organic beings, connected with the spirit world and primitive instincts, searching unseen landscapes. “Swept Away” worked well in the small intimate space.
Interesting as it would be to see the piece in a formal theatrical context, it may not be seen again, as plans for Osanai’s return are tentative. If the piece were revived, the choreography would develop differently, says Todd, as the chances of the same cast performing are minimal and the choreography is loosely based on improvisation. With the lighting design having been planned for a work in progress, it was therefore basic. A more developed lighting plan for a more formal presentation would likely enhance the performance, and provide counterpoint for the sense of constancy pervading this showing.
The slow, intrinsic nature of the work either connected strongly with the audience or not at all. With seating on three sides of the stage, two sides faced one another. Someone seated across from us played with his cell phone and conversed with friends in the audience. Sometimes he just stared at the floor, ignoring the performance. Strangely, he and his friends remained for the post-performance discussion. On the other hand, the group opposite us said they saw our group moving and swaying, slowly and in unison. The work’s rhythms let us flow into a unified breath that transported us to another world.