DanceView Times, New York edition
Letter from New York
Mansaku Nomura, the John Gielgud of classical Japanese theater, performed with his son Mansai and his four or five year-old grandson Yuuki at Japan Society this week in what, for me, was the finest example of the actor’s art to be seen in New York since January 1982, when I last saw Nomura at Asia House. Mansaku Nomura is a master of kyogen (“crazy word”) drama: a six century-old, dialogue-based theater, comic in nature, that developed contemporaneously with noh and is often performed as an interlude between tragic or mystical noh plays. In this little season presented by the Nomura family, the nightly programs of two 45-minute plays were kyogen all the way—although, the night I attended, one of the two, Kawakami (translated as Kawakami Headwaters), evoked smiles through tears, and the other, Utsubozaru (The Monkey Skin Quiver), evoked laughter through horror. Kawakami is about an elderly blind man (Mansaku Nomura), who, to regain his sight, must promise to divorce his beloved wife (played by Yukio Ishida, a former student of Mansaku’s and now the head of his own noh/kyogen company). Utsubozaru concerns a samurai (Mansai Nomura) who, about to go hunting, insists on wresting a trained baby monkey from its trainer in order to skin it for its fur to cover the quiver for his arrows. The baby monkey, played by Yuuki Nomura, thinks that the stick being raised to brain it is actually a cue for it to dance. The samurai, astonished at the monkey’s skill, relents and keeps his quiver as it was.
Thanks to excellent translations, flashed on a screen, we could easily follow the dialogue, although the physical eloquence of Mansaku and his troupe is of such an order that one could tell what the large emotional changes were through the stage action, alone. Kyogen, as Mansaku has introduced it to the West (which he began to do with his father on a cultural-exchange tour in Paris, in 1957), is a highly physical actors’ theater of extreme elegance and understatement. The body is disciplined to move in such a way that one cannot see how it is propelled, which showcases every slightest change—every facial expression, every gesture, down to the crook of a fingertip. Consequently, every movement pops out and “reads”; and every movement takes on tremendous significance.
Furthermore, the control that Mansaku exerts over his voice has to be heard to be appreciated. He can infuse it with rheum or suction it momentarily. He can whisper to the heavens or shout in a closed chamber, so that one hears it as if through a wall. In 1982, he reproduced the tolling of bells. Two decades later, his virtuosity consisted of investing his Eureka! moment of miraculous sightedness with misery at the prospect of the price he would have to pay for it, and of addressing a samurai in formal language that slid through the air on a sea of intangible tears.
Yuuki’s little dance consisted of lighthearted, two-footed hopping and of circling his arm as he held a fan, while his grandfather-as-trainer sang and kept time with the stick fated to be the murder instrument, as he was observed by his handsome father-as-samurai and his father’s go-between servant (Hiroharu Fukata, a perfect wellspring of slowburning exasperation in the course of serving as a live telephone for samurai and trainer). It belongs with the tarentella that Nora dances in A Doll’s House as one of the key allusions in world drama to the idea of dancing as life.
Speaking of A Doll’s House brings me to Mabou Mines Dollhouse, the outrageous, piercing, head-wrenching production adapted and directed by Lee Breuer, for the Mabou Mines troupe, of Ibsen’s play, which has been held over at St. Ann’s Warehouse, in Brooklyn. My freshman lit class at Barnard asked to see it for their final art excursion. Some of them had read Ibsen; some hadn’t, yet that didn’t seem to matter in terms of their response to it. Opinions among them were polemically divided afterwards, and the one who hated it most passionately was the very drama fan who had recommended seeing it in the first place. Perhaps you’ve read about it: the women in the cast are all middling tall to very tall; the men in the cast are all of stunted growth. The set, designed as a “life-sized” doll house, is keyed to the men’s physiques, so that the women must crouch in walking through doors and scrunch up to fit into the furniture, and the men, whom the women sometimes pick up and carry or nurse, become, in effect, their own dolls. There are six dances (or dance-like numbers), choreographed by various individuals; Martha Clarke is also listed as a consultant to the “Tarentella,” which is presented as a nightmare in a nighttime lightning storm, and so is barely visible. A program note by Breuer reads: “Mabou Mines Dollhouse pays homage to an earlier adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House—Leslie Mohn’s White Bone Demon. Thank you Ms. Mohn for revealing the comedy of 'Bourgeois Tragedy,' the 'surreality' of realism and the politics of deconstruction.”
The acting, particularly by Maude Mitchell, who plays Nora Helmer as Billie Burke gone bonkers, is quite absorbing; I’ll never be able to read or see the play again without thinking of Mark Povinelli, as the deeply wounded Torvald Helmer, pawing his way up the steps of the audience bleachers in the dark as he bays for his lost love. The production history of the play is skewered, but there are whole scenes so unsettling they make the work seem to have been written five minutes ago. I found an extra dimension of surprise in certain moments of staging, too, which looked as if they had sprung, jack-in-the-box fashion, from famous ballets. “It couldn’t be,” I thought. “That isn’t the set of theater boxes from Cotillon, or the final moments of Night Shadow, or the first idea for the ending of Le Baiser de la Fée, or the Grossvater dance from The Nutcracker. Oh, no! He’s not going through the canter on the scarf in Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi. . . .” Still, when Nora, in her lingerie, stands up in one of the opera house boxes and declares her independence by ripping off her wig of blonde curls to reveal a “bald” head, she does look exactly like the doll Coppélia, after Swanilda has revealed her as a doll instead of a living girl. Coppélia deconstructed? I walked out thinking about much in the ballet repertory as a feminist with a very spooky sense of humor and a heat-seeking-missile appreciation of cruel subtexts might look at it. An interesting world to visit for an evening, as long as you know your way home.
It was a very happy relief to attend, the next day, a matinee of Francis Patrelle’s Yorkville Nutcracker at the Kaye Playhouse, with its lovely deportment, its gracious dancing (particularly by Jenifer Ringer, with James Fayette, in the Sugar Plum pas de deux), its marvelous snow scene for ballet ice skaters, and its battalions of children, so happy to be on stage making illusions to the best of their ability for family and friends, all for the sake of beauty and love.
One word more: There is much to commend in the traditional staging, by Jack O’Brien, of the adaptation of Shakespeare’s pair of Henry IV plays, now at the Vivian Beaumont theater in Lincoln Center. It’s tough, slick and affirmative, like a speech by President Bush. Indeed, when Prince Hal (Michael Hayden) assumes the ermine and makes his first address to the assembled with a glittering eye, he resembles Bush. I was a little sad that the adaptation, by Dakin Matthews (who also plays Chief Justice Warwick and Owen Glendower), eliminates the closing words of Part II--an Epilogue, which Shakespeare has "Spoken by a Dancer" to the audience. ("If my tongue cannot entreat you to acquit me, will you command me to use my legs? And yet that were but light payment, to dance out of your debt.") However, I'm glad to report that the deathbed advice of Henry IV to his namesake, on the verge of becoming Henry V, includes those immortal lines, "Therefore, my Harry, / Be it thy course to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out, / May waste the memory of the former days." Dana Ivey’s Dana Ivey's Mistress Quickly and Audra McDonald’s Lady Percy are larger-than-life creations. As for Kevin Kline’s Falstaff: Whoa! Heartthrob in a fat suit! The ominously efficient stage mechanisms of Ralph Funicello's tower-and-tunnel set are full of their own surprising choreography, and the momentary vistas into deep, dark space they provide are what Shakespeare's histories are all about—Mindy Aloff
10, 12 December
Skin Quiver (Utsubozaru)
and Adaptation (from Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House,
with snippets from Ibsen’s The Vikings of Helgeland): Lee
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