‘Sleep’ dances toward another world

by Mika Eglinton

Special To The Japan Times

As a dancer, choreographer, philosopher and now professor in the Department of Scenography Design, Drama and Dance at Tama Art University in Setagaya, Tokyo, Saburo Teshigawara has been extending the range of his talents ever since he stopped studying visual arts and sculpture to begin learning ballet at the age of 20 in 1973. That was before he switched direction again, in 1981, to experiment with videomakers, sound artists and other performers in search of what he terms a “new form of beauty.

Now, whether through solo works or ones for Karas, the Tokyo-based troupe he founded in 1985, this unique artist continues to create new dance vocabularies that explore the limits of the body in space. In so doing, Teshigawara has forged an international reputation as an outstanding choreographer and director. This has led to him being commissioned by numerous leading overseas ballet companies to produce new works that he also integrates into his own company’s repertoire.

In creating his most recent piece, titled “Sleep,” Teshigawara has been working with the 41-year-old French ballerina Aurelie Dupont, who is soon to retire from her position as etoile (star dancer) at the Paris Opera Ballet — the top rank she was awarded following her stunning portrayal of Kitri in that company’s 1998 revival of Rudolph Nureyev’s production of “Don Quixote.”

“Sleep” marks the pair’s second collaboration, coming as it does after last year’s “Darkness is Hiding Black Horses” staged to wide acclaim at the Palais Garnier home of the Paris Opera Ballet, which commissioned the work.

In “Sleep,” Teshigawara and Rihoko Sato, his long-term collaborator and dancer, work with Dupont in a poetic exploration of the transformative qualities of sleep — a state which, in the flyer for the show, Teshigawara describes as “a mysteriously floating and twisted reality and an entrance to another world.”

In June this year, when Teshigawara went to Hyogo Performing Arts Center in Nishinomiya to inspect the venue ahead of the show’s performance there this month, I was able to talk with him for a while — and first off, I asked him what had inspired the piece.

“People usually sleep about eight hours per day, so a third of our lives is taken up by sleep,” he began straightforwardly enough. But then he said, “reducing it to a numeric value is not enough. I read it in a completely different way. While people are resting, there are a whole series of processes at work; biological processes such as the production of blood cells, for example. When you lack sleep, your skin tends to be dry. Or in the case of illness, sleep can be a more effective cure than chemical medicine.”

Moving on, he noted that “sleep is often a metaphor for death, as in expressions such as “sleep like the dead” or “death-like sleep.”

“In my case, I go to bed with a sense of having lost the battle to resist sleep. Some people love falling asleep while others fight against it. There are many different attitudes towards sleep, but at a fundamental level, sleep expresses a person’s character in an abstract and profound way.

“Also, to sleep means to become powerless,” he continued. “When I think about sleep, I often think about angels. For some people, angels are powerful creatures who can save you from your plight, but for me they are a presence who descend when you are powerless, when you are asleep.

“Thus, sleep is enigmatic and has a totally different quietness, powerlessness and value compared with activities in our waking lives. Sometimes, when people fall asleep they never wake up again.”

A sobering thought, indeed, but as the choreographer then elucidated, “On this stage, through tangible bodies, I would like to explore sleep, not as an enigma, but as something tangible in the body. I don’t want to present a concrete explanation of this enigma, but rather to touch it through the body and question it.”

As for the experience of working with Dupont, Teshigawara brooked no equivocation in declaring: “She is an outstanding ballerina. It’s clear that she’s not only devoted to this project, but to dance itself. This devotion manifests itself on stage.”

Indeed, in its creation, “Sleep” certainly seems to have owed more than a little to the French star who joined Paris Opera Ballet’s school at the age of 10 and will be dancing a principal role this time along with both Teshigawara and Sato.

As the Tokyo choreographer explained, “During rehearsals, I always talk about ideas with her rather than showing her actual movement. In addition to her physical skills, she has a very strong mind and she knows that rehearsal time is a precious entity, so even if she hasn’t fully grasped what I have in mind, she is able to trust me and keep up with me. She is an insatiable learner.”

And as one with several years’ training in classical ballet himself, Teshigawara was fulsome in praise of Dupont’s adaptability, saying, “Once you master a style of dance, such as classical ballet, it becomes very hard to work outside of its formalities. However, she has been very eager to work on a new style with new methods — and that’s why I wanted to work with her.

Yet, even with its world premiere now almost upon us, few outside its creators’ circle likely have any idea what form “Sleep” will take, though in concluding our conversation in Nishinomiya, Teshigawara intriguingly declared: “Through this piece, I hope to present a type of dance and method that has never been seen on stage before.”

Whatever else, it sounds as if there’ll be none in the audience nodding off during this “Sleep.”

“Sleep” will be performed Aug. 14–17 at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in Ikebukuro, Aug. 21 at Aichi Arts Center in Nagoya and Aug. 23 at Hyogo Performing Arts Center in Nishinomiya. For more details, visit www.st-karas.com/sleep.