I bet I’ve spent (conservatively) over a hundred hours looking at the blonde wood floor and white walls of Links Hall’s studio A. Every workshop, rehearsal period, tech week, and performance that happens in that space contends with these mostly-permanent visuals. Artists spend countless hours deciding how to make their work stand out or look even slightly different from the work of others in this well-used site for experimental dance and performance. We change the seating arrangements so the audience gets to view another front, we incorporate props and scenic elements to “dress” the stage, we perform in the lobby, in the dressing room, in the bathroom (I haven’t seen this but I’d be shocked if it hasn’t happened), and of course we use the transformative powers of lighting to alter the all-to-familiar look of this beloved performance home. Of all the design iterations I’ve seen, none have felt so stunningly, simplistically perfect as Kaori Seki’s in this past weekend’s performance of “water and tears.”
On the floor, emerging from the middle of the upstage white wall, crept a single stream of a mysterious soft white material. Its borders were meticulously drawn making its shape unmistakably that of a babbling brook. Or was it an unmistakably dense plume of smoke hovering low in the air? Or was it the residue of an oozed bodily fluid…?
The ambiguity was intentional. Whatever it was—it turns out is was powder, smeared on the edges to form a distinct shape but left loose in the middle for texture, density, shimmer and intrigue— it was gorgeous. Its presence did exactly what a good scenic design should do; create an environment that is both abstract and precise, allowing the work to situate itself in a real and imagined time and place but not limit itself within the confines of its own making. This single design element gave me a tremendous amount of hope in the work I was about to see. The piece had not yet begun and I was enthralled.
What followed was a hypnotically slow, kaleidoscopic duet of weight-sharing, shape-making, and hyper-flexible body sculpting executed predominately on the floor. Performed by Seki and Masashi Koyama, the duo conjured images of insects, embryos, lovers, and dust particles floating in air. They rolled away from, around, and on top of one another: their bodies often remaining connected in the inverse, like a pair of shoes in a shoebox. Upside down and inside out, the pair spent roughly an hour breaking apart and coming back together; sometimes staying connected by the hook of an outstretched foot or by sliding out from between the other’s legs suggesting multiple births and rebirths. Occasionally they rested with their limbs crinkled above themselves, like upturned beetles on their backs.
The sound design (by Yuji Tsutsumida) supported this nebulous landscape with ongoing enigmatic crackling; perhaps the echo of running water, the sizzle of a burning fire, or snap of radio static. On at least two occasions the sound swelled to include the voices of a bustling crowd. When this happened, the dancers remained unchanged in their slow-motion sphere giving the impression that they were perhaps underground or far above the crowd, living a life separate and more essential from the rest. The lighting design (by Kiyotoshi Endo) also contributed to this effect by flickering on and off generating still snapshots of this particular little world. This motif suggested that we were perhaps seeing images of a life force oft overlooked.
Wearing identical gold-glittered, relaxed-fitting rompers (designed by Midori Hagino), the dancers fit together like delicate and detailed Russian nesting dolls. Koyama is just slightly taller than Seki although he likely out weighs her by fifty pounds of muscle. Yet the waif-like Seki exuded a subtle energetic dominance over her partner throughout the duet. Even when she was upside down—as she was a majority of the time in this piece—with her pelvis vulnerably exposed in the air, it was somehow clear that she was the instigator of these ever-shifting formations. My reading of this slight power dynamic can’t just be a result of her being the choreographer; there must have been something in her performance that gave it away. Perhaps it’s because she was more clear in her body, more exacting and confident than Koyama. In fact, it was almost as if Koyama tried to be invisible or, at most, tried to be as equal and quiet a partner as possible, asking no more of the audience’s attention than Seki. Ultimately, this dynamic worked insofar as it offered a much welcomed contrast between the performers in an otherwise unvaried plateau.
Seki’s “water and tears” was beautiful and mesmerizing for sure but it lacked a defining spark of choreographic ingenuity. Although there was a demonstration of physical mastery and a keen eye for design (the aforementioned powder trail maintaining its thrill throughout), there was something missing in its one-note montony. Seki successfully created powerful visual imagery, however the choreography—the potential for movement variation, shifts in timing, level, plane, and quality— didn’t quite hold up to the strength of the design. And we’ve seen work like this before. Pilobolus comes to mind as does—I’m sorry to make this rather obvious comparison— Eiko and Koma. That said, I certainly admire artists who fully and unapologetically stick to their vision even if it means we are expected to sit through the duration of their performance ordeal. I will definitely keep an eye on this artist in years to come.