What remains culturally relevant over time is a mystery. Some traditions bring their purity with them into contemporary times, impervious to all manner of artistic tampering. Some invite tampering and yet retain a core of authenticity, participating in the creation of something brand new and important in the process. But some cultural fusions can also age badly; what once was exciting and progressive can seem dated and poorly conceived within a couple of decades.
A case in point might be the recent revival and North American premiere of Jirí Kylián’s Kaguyahime, Princess of the Moon by Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets. Based on the 10th century Japanese legend of The Bamboo Cutter, who discovers the Kaguyahime in a bamboo shoot, the ballet uses gorgeous stagecraft to frame a puzzling dance vocabulary blending the sinuous movement that Kylián is best known for with all manner of Asian-esque motifs. Some of it is striking – athletic dances for the men playing Kaguyahime’s many suitors (lusty pelvic thrusts and martial arts style leaps), signature moves and poses for the princess herself (balanced on one leg, foot flexed, arms to one side with hands tracing mudras). But it also feels messy, an Orientalized mash-up that just as often says ‘Bollywood’ or any number of other Asian dance styles as it does Japan. Kylián created Kaguyahime for Netherlands Dance Theatre in 1988 and it was largely well received, but his cross-cultural choreography is problematic in 2012.
The story wanders all over the place. Many of the standard tropes of the romantic story ballet are in place: a beautiful young woman (danced by Eva Kolarova at the performance I attended, alternating with Sarah Kingston), the men who chase her, a bad guy in black (Mikado), a good guy in white (the Bamboo Cutter). It feels like a generic overview, lacking in detail and context for all the references to one of the most sophisticated societies in human history. Instead of real narrative momentum, the ballet relies on an overarching sense of approaching danger to move things along. This is reinforced by the orchestration of Maki Ishii’s score and the central role played by drumming, of both the Kodo and European variety.
At several points the stage is dominated by the taiko, a great round drum that often symbolizes the moon. Its sound can fill the hall with the rhythms of heartbeat, the sound of an approaching army or thunder. In contrast, the more restrained and delicate sound of Japanese Royal Court music is rendered by a Gagaku ensemble performing live in full traditional regalia, perched on a raised dais in the orchestra pit.
If the dance is occasionally disappointing or puzzling (notwithstanding that the company looks great in it, especially Vanessa Montoya in a fast-paced celebratory duet with Edi Biloshmi and all of the men in general), the stagecraft is not. This production is simply spectacular.
From the opening depiction of a bamboo grove, long sticks swinging from on high, to the fabulous duet for Kaguyahime and Mikado that utilizes a stage-length golden banner, the sets and lighting are frequently breathtaking. At several points a more restrained editorial hand would have been welcome I suppose – when the strobes start up in the penultimate act and gigantic horses descend from the ceiling, it begins to feel a bit cluttered. But that’s not the real problem here. A ballet can really only ever be as good as its primary content: the steps and how they are put together. With Kaguyahime, Kylián has either pulled his punches or failed to fully absorb the tradition he is working with – leaving us with a choreographic response that is neither here nor there.