Noism is a veritable supernova in the rapidly expanding universe of Japanese contemporary dance. It burst on the scene in 2004 as the residential company of the Niigata Ryutopia Theater, two years after its founder, 30-year-old Jo Kanamori, returned from Europe.
Kanamori studied classical and modern ballet and improvisation for two years from age 17 in Lausanne, Switzerland, under the revered Maurice Bejart. He then joined the Netherlands Dance Theatre where, under the masterful and magnificent Jiri Kylian, he blossomed both as a dancer and an innovative choreographer.
Fortunately for Kanamori, the contemporary dance scene in Japan evolved a great deal during his absence. Thanks in part to a constant flow of tours by foreign troupes — as well as a surge in popularity of hip-hop and street dance — it has grown into a hugely popular art form attracting an ever wider audience to ever more major venues.
So, when Kanamori returned to found Noism and take up the reins as artistic director, Japan’s contemporary dance Big Bang had already happened, and he was primed to become one of the brightest stars in a rapidly expanding universe.
The name of Kanamori’s company — pronounced “no-ism” — conveys the meaning of “no restrictions,” and as its latest staging at the Setagaya Public Theater in Sangenjyaya memorably demonstrated, the company — in presenting a program titled “Triple Bill,” with colorful works from three very different leading contemporary dance choreographers — is amply living up to its name. The master dancer himself also proved why he is one of the most charismatic stars in the world of Japanese dance.
Wraithlike in the penumbra
When the ebony curtain rose on the first piece in the triptych, “Door Indoor” by the Italian choreographer / dancer Alessio Silverstrin, the audience were at once transported into a misty cosmos of dim lighting playing off gray walls broken only by a bold gray swath of curtain hanging from the ceiling. Then, as the colors seemed to swirl slowly and dimly before our eyes, seven dancers in tank tops and short tights burst forth in a blur of movement, dancing wraithlike in the penumbra as the sounds of a storm gave way to the intense opera music of “Bluebeard’s Castle” by Bela Bartok.
As all this was almost surreally overlaid at times by the indistinct narrations of a Japanese female voice, the sounds of book pages turning and occasional exclamations from the dancers, it soon became clear that the 20-minute program was to feature no clear story-line. Instead, what Silverstrin served up was a fantastical abstraction from Bartok’s opera in which the seventh bride of Bluebeard sought to find the “real” man behind the mysterious monster she had married, who had killed her six predecessors.
So it was that the dancers — five men and two women — jumped into each others’ arms, performed short pas de deux, and crawled and leapt with ceaseless energy, their bodies never more than blurred outlines in the swirling grayness on a stage that quickly became a marvelous illusionary world into which the audience was mesmerically drawn.
Then, after a short break to perhaps give us time to come back to earth, we were spun off once again into the outer reaches of sensation with the second program, “Last Pie,” a dance trip of historic delight by Ikuyo Kuroda, founder of the all-women Batik company.
As the piece opened to the deep, primitive sounds of recorded taiko drumming with live acoustic guitar further intensifying the rhythm, all present at once felt something very special in the atmosphere, even before the ebony curtain rose again to reveal guitarist Jiro Matsumoto playing atop a ceiling-high black iron tower to the right of the stage, while a spotlight to the left picked out Kanamori, clad only in a black ethnic-style skirt.
From then on, as Matsumoto’s fingertips provided an almost flamenco, gypsy-like backing, Kanamori turned and stepped at high speed on the spot, his long arms swirling gracefully and his body stretching freely and elastically as he continued to dance for the next 40 minutes in the highest gear.
Only occasionally slowing a little with the music, or collapsing for a split second onto the floor, he was like a man possessed — or, for those who know the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Red Shoes,” like the heroine who dances until she falls down dead from exhaustion. Here, though, it isn’t Kanamori — the veritable incarnation of dance — who dies, but the other four dancers who come out together in gorgeous black and orange ethnic costumes,and, one after the other, expire as they try in vain to approach this seeming spirit.
Soon, though, we see these four reincarnated as they return to the stage in a troupe of 11, who fill the right-hand side of the stage with motion as they seem to reach out toward Kanamori, only to be thwarted by what seems like a force field he creates with his unending movements. Finally, exhausted, the 11 all slow down and collapse in heaps on the stage, while only a sudden blackout ends Kanamori’s virtuoso stint stage left.
That could have been the end, but instead, in an epic piece of theater, the lights come back up and the 11 revive and walk up the tower in line, while Kanamori dances even faster than before to a sublime climax that’s reached as the lights again black out just before the first in line reaches the top of the tower.
What an extraordinarily intense 40 minutes that was — but a period so pure and astonishing that it seemed to go in a flash. Five curtain calls followed, and I am sure every one in the audience felt as I did, that here we had been witness to something miraculous — truly, a work of genius.
A hard act to follow, as they say — but wittily, after such huge excitement, the last tableau in the trio, “The Life as a Dog,” started with the voice of its choreographer, Ryohei Kondo, who is also the founder of the all-male Condors troupe, coming over the speakers saying: “Thank you for being patient and staying on for our final program after that. We will start now, so please be a bit more patient, I hope you’ll enjoy this short piece to relax to. So, let’s go!”
Where “Door Indoor” was abstract, and “Last Pie” intense and powerful, “The Life as a Dog” came as a comical, colorful and joyful conclusion to the evening. Set to various kinds of music, from Japanese pop and Latin to Disney animation tunes, the 12 dancers in cheerful, candy-colored costumes clap their hands, speak short lines, form human letters and throughout move playfully around in a series of group sketches in which they take on different dogs’ characters before a backdrop upon which a simple, childlike animation of a dog is projected.
Though the show drew lots of laughs from the audience, and the dancers made their work look easy, in actual fact the dog show on stage — with its bullies and wheedlers, faithful pooches and spoiled toys — afforded an insightful look at human society, while in their beautifully controlled group movements and the eye-opening quality of the solo turns, Noism’s dancers here again lived up to their rapidly growing reputation.
And, amazingly, they did show that it’s possible to follow even the most spellbinding of stagings and send the audience out into the night sated with a three-part spectacle in which — despite its contrasts — there was not one weak link.