Dancer, choreographer and artist Saburo Teshigawara works in a time zone of his own. In the 24 years since he came on the dance scene, Teshigawara has transformed the definition of movement. His work with his group Karas and major international companies, including the Frankfurt Ballet and the Opera de Paris Ballet, have captivated audiences around the globe.
“Kazahana,” his most recent professional work, is no exception. Embodying an unearthly calm his dancers alternate between speedy movements and sublime expression with breathtaking ease — from melting undulations to jagged, limb-swinging abandon. Now back in his native Tokyo to present a re-creation of “Kazahana,” Teshigawara took time off from rehearsals to tell The Japan Times about the concepts behind his work and where he sees himself in the world of dance.
What is “Kazahana” about?
The name of the piece, “Kazahana,” means snowflakes falling from a very blue sky. It’s an unusual image, and it made me think about special moments in time that appear unexpectedly; small miracles, in a way. The image of snow in a sky without clouds, just a very blue sky, makes me feel the fragility of beauty, and behind it, an unusual hyper-energy, beyond human control. So I think fragility and high power make a pair, with a very thin boundary between them. It’s about sense of time in life as well, not just in dancing. Sense of time is very, very important in creating dance movement and building up the concept itself, and it is a main theme for this piece.
How do you use those concepts in “Kazahana”?
Fragility has a special timing. If two powers meet with equal energy, they cannot move. But if they are unequal, it creates an energy stream that will flow forever, although in nature something always disturbs or resists it. The human body works with this kind of energy source, I believe. Our condition is not without limits; we are limited by age. But if you focus on your actions in just one hour or 10 minutes or one minute, it’s part of eternity. You don’t think you will stop. You might be stopped, but while you’re doing something you don’t care whether you’ll stop. Even if nothing resisted us, we might be stopped by our life’s limit. I don’t care about how we finish things. What’s important is how we continue, so the dance’s source can be produced more richly. It’s an individual stream with a special essence. And it’s not just there, it’s living. It’s moving with a special energy in a special time. It connects the group and constructs the theme of the piece, like a musical composition.
Is the energy source you talk about related to ch’i?
I don’t know much about Chinese culture. I just focus on the dancer’s body or the human body. The important thing is breathing; it’s the most functional element. This is such a beautiful, big thing we have. We are so lucky we have breathing to create music, to design. Breathing isn’t just an up-and-down thing. It’s so complicated, so multidimensional and multidirectional. It’s like architecture or sculpture, but with breathing you can create body movement, and each body movement needs a breath to continue to the next movement. Nothing is final, since our breathing is always going on. Using breathing you can make many steps — walking and turning, pausing or stopping. But breathing is a part of movement, so stopping an action doesn’t stop the flow of life.
The movement in dancing isn’t just the figure; it has special qualities around it. After one makes a move, that special quality will remain. And someone else’s movement will come over and mix with it.
What do you ask your dancers to think about when they are dancing?
I make them empty in body and in mind, too. But that is not easy. At first, I ask them to release physically, to not be scared — to feel they are strong enough to be released, to be “weak” in a way that no one will knock them out. By breathing and releasing and trying to move more, you can feel things more richly and clearly. And you can see the preciseness of timing and movement. If you can find your own fragility, you can be yourself and be fragile. Or, you can be strong, dark, dynamic. Fragility is like fabric — it’s flexible, so it’s the strongest state to be in.
I know your background was in classical ballet. What kind of background do most of the dancers have?
Their backgrounds are very different. For example, there is a French-Vietnamese who had no dance training at all, but his father is a master of martial arts. It ranges from those who are classical-ballet trained, to those with modern-dance training, some with nothing at all, and some who are actors or actresses or singers.
I know that you do the lighting and set design yourself, and that you’re also involved in visual art. How much connection would you say there is between your visual art and your choreography?
When I choreograph, I try not to be influenced by the visual aspect. It’s more physical, like a musical composition. When I create a dance piece, I start from a physical composition. The two do not mix, but at the same time, on a different level, I am already starting to build up the set design, so that gives me ideas for the lighting as well. On another day, I might start to make a video. So I have many rooms in my mind, but they never mix at all.
What particularly large outside influences have there been on your work?
Films from when I was young. Drawing and painting and music and, of course, social happenings too. All of creation.
So where did the inspiration for “Kazahana” come from?
Just from the one word, “kazahana.” But on a different level, I’m constantly making notes, or drawing, or reading. I just have interests in things, for no particular purpose. And that’s very important. Having no purpose gives you the freedom to make any action. Like small kids — they don’t think about things, they don’t worry. So worry-free interest provides an action or a special focus; sometimes just a small line of paint or some movement. I’m very interested in small things, details. I find them so stimulating.
Where do you see your work in comparison to other contemporary dance groups, in particular in Japan?
I’ve no idea. I don’t care about contemporary things so much. Of course, this is a new work, but I don’t care about how contemporary something is, or what the newest things are.
So you wouldn’t classify your style as contemporary?
Never. Journalists and people in the theater business love to categorize things. It’s like a Christmas cake: It could be just a cake in any other season. I’m not a seasonal artist (laughs).