It takes a high level of physical control to operate, and emote, in stillness. The spinning jetés of ballerinas might dazzle, the "fallap-ball-change" of tappers delight, but the detached, otherworldly movements seen in Nina Materialize Sacrifice are unsettling, mesmerizing and powerful.
Like unadorned mannequins, the female dancers of Japanese dance company Noism08 are manipulated at first by their brusque male partners. A power discrepancy, obvious at first in its lean, unfolds onstage. The men are in control. The women are dragged, by their arms, legs and heads across the stage, and forced to contort into impossible positions. The dynamic changes suddenly, midway, but throughout, it's easy to forget the beings onstage are, indeed, human.
"In a way, as dancers we sacrifice many things for the stage," says choreographer Jo Kanamori. "In our choreography and technique, we sacrifice for the audience what we're capable to express.
"In Nina, the way we tense our body, we let ourselves become material, like stone or wood. By accepting that we are not dancers, not people, but just a thing, the idea of material sacrifice comes out."
Kanamori, 33, is on the forefront of the blossoming contemporary dance scene in Japan. As artistic director of dance at Ryutopia, a regional performing arts center based in Niigata, he heads the only professional, government-funded contemporary dance company in the country.
After studying jazz and classical ballet in Japan, Kanamori moved to Switzerland as a teenager to learn dance, theater and improvisation under the tutelage of noted French choreographer Maurice Béjart. Kanamori performed with Nederlands Dans Theatre II, the Opera National de Lyon Ballet and the Gothenburg Ballet before returning to Japan in 2002.
He says, however, that he eventually tired of standard modern dance. No longer interested in producing "cool, nice" movements, Kanamori forfeited the weightless air of ballet to focus on the gravity of dance: Rather than having his dancers leap and twirl, the focus in this dance is, literally, weightier. By focusing on the physicality of the grounded and inert, he explores creating energy with little movement.
Kanamori's inspiration for Noism08 came from the staging of a drama by Tadashi Suzuki, one of Japan's most celebrated playwrights. "When I saw his work, the actors were just sitting there and speaking. The way they were sitting in chairs, completely still, not moving at all but expressing so much, was so strong."
Engaging the audience with stillness is no small challenge. The 10 dancers in Noism08 are vigorous athletes, with backgrounds ranging from ballet to interpretive street dance, which is important in this dance form. Keeping every muscle tense and unflinching for lengthy periods of time is grueling.
The aesthetic of the staging is minimal, but striking: blackouts, expanses of lingering emptiness on stage, with the subdued music of Vietnamese-French composer Ton That An rising and fading in the background. Though many of his previous dances, he says, were inspired by the musical score itself, this choreography is centered solely around movement — or, the anticipation of it.
"It has that gorgeous, Japanese design sensibility, although the stage is very simple, just one prop, a chair, in the entire piece," says Claire Rice, associate programming manager at the University Musical Society. She saw the troupe perform last year before inviting them to Ann Arbor. "The lighting is extraordinarily complicated; it takes a lot of really subtle sophisticated nuance to create the lighting effects."
Despite its simplicity and stillness, many themes engage the audience. There is, of course, the distinction between the human and the inanimate, the examination of submission and dominance within gender identities. And though he has never studied the art form, Kanamori says that some audiences draw comparisons between his choreography and provocative, genre-bending Butoh, which can be subversive in its use of calculated, angular movement to convey psychological intensity.
"Even though our training is European — in my company we do ballet — we go down, not up in the air," says Kanamori. "I think this idea of staying close to the ground, and having slow, deliberate movements, is something Japanese."
This is the second of only two Noism08 appearances in the United States. The troupe recently performed at Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and presents Nina Materialize Sacrifice at 8 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 15, at the Power Center, 121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor. Call the University Musical Society at 734-764-2538 for tickets or visit ums.org.Meghana Keshavan is Metro Times listings editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org