ALICE: Shinji Nakamura’s meditation on his Japanese childhood after World War II as seen through
the lens of Lewis Carroll.
“Dance is a tool to look at other things,” London-based Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter told an interviewer, but during the company’s US debut at Jacob’s Pillow last weekend you’d be forgiven for just looking at the fantastically virile dancing. In Uprising (2006), seven men lope along the floor on their knuckles like fluidly moving apes, wrestle, bang foreheads, and use contained fury as a way to shape and disguise their demands for closeness. Movement seems to shake out of them like restless ions scattering out of the ends of their limbs.
Emerging from haze and opaque shafts of light designed by Lee Curran that turn the stage into a smoky barroom or a claustrophobic dungeon, the dancing in both Uprising and 2007’s In Your Rooms is arranged with rare spatial sophistication. The delicate maneuvers of a twitching walk-on-elbows crawl is blocked by a tender lift that hogs the attention. It’s all hide-and-seek: you know you’re missing something, but there’s a thrill that so much is going on simultaneously.
Shechter says that Uprising is inspired less by the intifadah at home than by the youth uprising in the Paris suburbs in 2006. Still, if the piece’s closing moment, with its evocation of a bunch of young revolutionaries carrying a red flag and storming a barricade, has a smart-ass smirk, that’s part of Shechter’s reading of this culture of self-dramatizing hypermasculinity. You can tell he knows these guys. He’s been there.
Neither Uprising nor In Your Rooms speaks directly to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis — it would appear that Shechter left his native Jerusalem in part to avoid making all of his art in a context of permanent conflict. Nonetheless, it can’t help shadowing them. In Your Rooms incorporates a voiceover text about the challenge of creating harmony out of chaos, gibberish polemics studded with nuggets of truth and a stunned man who stands with a sign that reads “Don’t follow leaders” and then on the opposite side “Follow me.”
In Your Rooms, with its cluster of shifting episodes, takes place in a kind of crouch: the six men and five women freeze with their hands above their heads as if warding off a blow, and later they stride forward drumming insistently on their thighs. Argumentative, defiant, they pump their fists at the musicians hovering overhead, at one another, and at an opponent somewhere yonder. The dance is deliberately interrupted, its insistent rhythms pushed by a score that mixes growling electronica and Middle-Eastern-verging-on-Indian modalities performed live by a string quintet. Shechter, who once played drums in a jazz band, wrote the music with violinist Nell Catchpole.
Now 33, Shechter danced for his countryman Ohad Naharin in the Batsheva company in Tel Aviv. He’s a fine, compact performer, but his company is not a vanity project that showcases him as a soloist. During In Your Rooms he is the guy uselessly pouring a line of sand from a bulky bag across the stage. He’s also the one who gets the girl, but their embrace comes about only when he — and the entire ensemble — just can’t kick out at the air anymore. That kiss is way too desperate to be good news.
A less symbolic wall anchors Alice, which was presented in the Pillow’s Doris Duke Studio Theatre last weekend. It’s Natural Dance Theatre director Shinji Nakamura’s meditation on his Japanese childhood after World War II as seen through the lens of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. An ivy-covered corrugated garden locks a little girl into irrationality.
Mako Kawano is the Alice who, in a touch out of Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces, can almost jump rope with her shin-length braids and has them unceremoniously chopped off by an aging White Rabbit (the wonderfully named, and wonderfully expressive, Ravioli Tsuchiya). Kawano is a Gumby-rubberized mover, and that fits the sense of her being manipulated not only by the alarm-clock-checking Rabbit but by Forces of Unreason. She finds herself in a virtual house of mirrors where a crew of duplicate girls appear at the top of the garden wall surrounding her, doing classical ballet steps with girlish delicacy and occasionally soothing her into brief respite. There are wonderful low-tech effects, as when the dancers frolic away and leave their hands behind. But unlike her literary namesake, this choreographed Alice always looks distraught rather than curious about her erratic circumstances.
Nakamura has set Alice to a pastiche of Western music — excerpts from a Bach harpsichord concerto, lip-synched operatic arias, and Gavin Bryars’s ubiquitously danced “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.” That last choice seems anything but random. As Kawano opens a book, her astonished face is bathed in light emanating from its pages. Bryars, in crescendo, chants about his faith. Is that light atomic radiation? Is the book the Rabbit has left lying around a Bible? Does Western Christian faith lie just outside the walls of Nakamura’s Japanese garden?