In Greek mythology, the beautiful Narcissus discovered his image in a pool, fell in love with himself, and not being able to find consolation, died of sorrow by the same pool. While the myth may be imprinted in our collective unconscious, Montréal-based dancer and choreographer Mariko Tanabe’s “Narcissus” is hardly conventional.
In the intimate theatre of the MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels), a thin white line of light separates the audience from the playing space. At the centre of the stage is the set, made up of a large vanity with a four-panelled mirror: three large panels angled in standard mode offer three views of the artist, and a fourth panel angles downward from above the configuration. As the house lights go down, the deep and mysterious entrance into the realm of theatre begins.
A dancer for over twenty years, including twelve as a dancer in Erick Hawkins’ company in New York, Tanabe and co-creator Jan Komarek bring “Narcissus” to the stage with great imagination. The story of Narcissus is evoked rather than re-told and Komareks brilliant designs are integral to the overall concept. Komarek escaped from Czechoslovakia to the West in the late 1980s, made his way to Toronto, and eventually directed the Sound Image Theater for twelve years with Rainer Wiens. A few years ago, he returned to the newly formed Czech Republic and currently directs Alternativa Mozna Company.
The work presents sharply evocative dance theatre that is stripped, visually compelling and profoundly personal and psychological. Audiences are treated to a plotless dance, full of illusion and allusion. Together, Tanabe and Komarek sculpt a poetic journey in a very tiny space. Another outline of light evokes a small room; the mirror serves as an aperture, or a portal into another dimension.
Out of the darkness Tanabe appears seated, looking pensive; legs open, feet apart, hands clenched. She is draped in an impressive full-length red gown and, in that marvelous fabric she calls to mind a figure drawn from one of Martha Grahams mythical creations, minus the tightening muscles. Her long, dark hair is pinned up. The lighting sets the tone, and contours the forty-something dancer-choreographer making her look considerably older. She sits in contemplation. An abrupt exhalation wedges deep in her abdomen, and she cuts the air with her breath. Then she silently mouths a story with her hands telling the tale in a kind of sign language. There is a sense here that its not just abstraction but a personal story that propels the action. There is a plaintive sadness in her eyes. Throughout this interlude we hear the sound of carts and traffic.
The lighting intensifies, and she starts to speak in Japanese. The language sounds effortless, and as she speaks she begins to work her fingers playfully, spider-like, over and around her shoulders and head. Later she faces the mirror and whispers, in English, about the beauty of her face, her eyes, her lips, and gives a lingering kiss to the mirror.
The lighting registers with expressive impact, caressing her skin. She undoes her hair and disrobes, at first topless; the lighting becomes discreet. As she sits, she again punches the air with her exhalations — with each breath she doubles over in her chair — her hair flinging onto her face. She pulls out another mirror and with it, strokes her bare back. The set goes to black.
The visual dimension of the piece unfolds in a cinematic way. When the light comes up for the next ‘scene’, she is standing stark naked. She steps toward the vanity, sits to the side, and covers her head in a scarf. She picks up a drinking glass and toasts herself. “Forever young, forever beautiful,” she coos. There’s a comic ring to the line reading. But when she later says, “Please love me,” there’s a more wanting tone to her voice. Fighting demons and past history, reflecting on other days; a changing body, an anguished spirit, a reminder of what could have been or might have been, a fading past — Tanabe is clueing into living, human experience. The fragmented imagery, created by the four-sided mirror, accentuates the fracturing persona. The movement is fluent and subtly nuanced.
In another sequence in the nearly hour-long work, Tanabe kneels to turn on a TV monitor positioned on the floor and a montage of vintage photographs appears, each image fracturing in kaleidoscopic Rorschach-like patterns. While we watch the sequence, Tanabe props up a mask resembling her own image — a mix between Japanese face mask and death mask.
More a theatrical role in this piece, the duality of Narcissus is particularly difficult and subtle to play. This is a dark work. In the way that Tanabe and Komarek have devised the performance, it requires that the interpreter occupy the emptiness that is her ‘room’ — and she must maintain line, control, definition.
The notion of distillation can be powerful. From Hawkins, Tanabe learned how to move naturally, without strain, without tension, without artifice. The free-flow dynamics of Hawkins dance is certainly the precursor to Tanabes movement invention. She brings vitality to her dance, even if the energy is flat in some sections. The sensuousness and the matter-of-factness she brings to her scenes of nudity seem complete and appropriately understated — they are not excessive, nor contrived.
What people will be impressed by — and carry away in their minds eye — is the appearance of Narcisse. Komarek, through his lighting and production design, has given the work a self-conscious but never self-satisfied beauty. As the piece moves along, the visual design breathes, nothing is obvious, and theres the thrilling sense of artistic risk. (Apparently, rather than computerize his lighting calls, Komarek runs the board each night.) There is a hush to this dance work, an inscrutable quality at play, and one that veers toward maddening but is intriguing nonetheless. No doubt about it, this is an ambitious production. Tanabes challenge is exciting and fearful — as in the myth itself. She is probing the dignity of the human soul.