The Onodera enigma

by Natsume Date

Special To The Japan Times

The name of the late great Pina Bausch’s acclaimed Tanztheater in the German city of Wuppertal may translate as “Dancetheater,” but its works often owe more to abstract emotional action and snatched dialogue than to dance. Over in London, meanwhile, Simon McBurney’s Complicite company has long been at the cutting edge of physical theater — so much so that its works have profoundly influenced the nation’s erstwhile style of speech-focused drama oft-ridiculed for its “actors who only move from the neck up.”

The world created by Shuji Onodera is akin to these exponents of performing arts whose work defies being categorized as either dance, theater or, indeed, dance-theater.

After training at the Mime Institute of Japan, in 1995 Onodera formed the award-winning mime-based company Performance Theater Mizuto Abura (Performance Theater Water and Oil), which was active at home and abroad until he disbanded it in 2006. Then, in 2008, he started Company Derashinera, whose ever-expanding range of works combines mime, contemporary dance, ballet, butoh, acting and more.

In the last year alone, Onodera, 47, has staged a total of eight original works with that company. Those included “L’ Etranger,” a work based on the epochal 1942 novel (aka “The Outsider”) by Albert Camus, but with dialogue pared to the bone; “The Mermaid,” performed with actresses on a beach by the Seto Inland Sea; “Kansyosha,” whose cast included deaf actors recruited from a workshop; a version of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film “Psycho” done with noh actors on a noh stage; and a work based on Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic “A Doll’s House” with a mixed English and Japanese script and an all-male cast.

Given that Onodera organized, directed and choreographed everything — and with each being so different in subject, casts and venues — it represents a mind-boggling output. But in addition, this human dynamo is in great demand to apply his skills to others’ productions — which he does.

When asked to describe his work, he said: “Many of my pieces have been called ‘dance,’ but from the outset I trained in mime for theater. And, as I can’t lift my legs so high, and I can’t pose as beautifully as they do in ballet — nor can I dance as rhythmically as in jazz dance — I don’t think of what I do as dance.”

Okay, so it’s not “dance.” What then?

“I’m not interested in beautiful form or movement itself, but the reason and meaning behind human movement. Luckily, I have many chances to see dancers who can really dance, so I can keep an idea of what dance is while maintaining an intensity that can match theirs through finding interesting movements and relationships.”

The first of his offerings for 2014 is a revised version of his acclaimed 2008 work “A Woman’s House,” in which the central male character (played by Kazuyuki Asano) meets a motherly woman who forces him to unwillingly confront the reality of “family.” That said, the narrative is sparse, and the drama will likely unfold as a speedy sequence of symbolic fragments typical of Onodera’s world.

At the start of the year, I dropped in on a rehearsal studio where the cast was lifting, moving, placing and replacing a house-shaped framework “in search of new perspectives.”

“I always have the theme of a ‘sense of absence’ running through me, and this work accords with that,” Onodera said. “I feel as though I am here now — but is it really alright to believe that I am here? That’s how it feels. A house is supposed to be the base for one’s life, and the major premise of a house is that it doesn’t move. Here, though, it is moving.

“This is because some kind of large power is at work, but we aren’t aware of that, and I think we may be in a state of being tumbled around in someone’s palm.

“This may sound like some kind of parable, but I think you’ll find many ways this connects to your everyday life. For instance, you see a house moving, and you might think: house = place where you belong = (someone) and yourself; or you might just enjoy watching the movement for itself.

“I find if I push what I want to do too much, it comes off as preachy, so I try to make something that allows people to imagine a variety of things for themselves when they see it. I certainly don’t begin with any kind of theme or policy — though I do have things that lead me to discover other things, and it grows from there.”

“Discovery” may, indeed, be the theme running through Onodera’s work — especially as he’s at pains to explain how he learns from experience, practice and experiments, and that it’s not possible to come up with something interesting by merely thinking about it in your head.

Like Pina Bausch and Simon McBurney, it surely won’t be long before Onodera finds himself — whether he likes it or not — widely quoted as an indefinable theater innovator in a class all of his own.

“A Woman’s House” runs Jan. 23-26 at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, Playhouse. For details, visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp. This article was written in Japanese for The Japan Times and translated by Claire Tanaka.