Present in the Absenceby L.J. Sunshine
Dance aesthetics, as encoders of meaning, are like IT storage devices: They must upgrade or become obsolete. Judging by a showcase of works by young Japanese artists shown at Japan Society in 2011, the Japanese dance aesthetic of previous decades—glacial pace, micro-action, austere design—went out with the floppy disk. Yet it continues to influence Raimund Hoghe, who was born and raised in Wuppertal after the war, and became a journalist and Pina Bausch’s dramaturg before making dances himself. Praised for a style of spare eloquence, Hoghe has won acclaim in Europe since the early 1990s. His Pas de Deux had its New York premiere at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, a co-presentation with French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line 2012 festival.
Hoghe is a notorious musical scavenger, and in Pas de Deux the eclectic soundtrack becomes a third performer, continuously present even when the dancers are not. At least 16 musical selections with intermittent voice-overs are heard: German lied, love songs from old Hollywood musicals, fado, tango, Gregorian chant, and a full recording of Rhapsody in Blue. This playlist coexists with scenes of activity and stillness that, Hoghe has said, he organizes through collage. Idiosyncratic and often opaque, Pas de Deux is an uninterrupted two hours rich in cultural appropriation and historical report.
The opening—stately, ceremonial—is a précis for the scenes that follow: From behind the audience’s right emerges Takashi Ueno; from its left comes Hoghe. The men enter opposite sides of the black performance space, framing it with their steps. They’re dressed in black and wear geta, the Japanese sandals with wooden soles supported by blocks. As Ueno walks, he tips a Japanese ladle over his outstretched arm, splattering water to the ground. Hoghe paces to the far corner, carrying a black Japanese parasol that casts him in shadow. He retreats, then returns. Ueno arrives. The men stand face to face, sheltered by the parasol’s graceful, ribbed dome.
Empty, full; apart, together; young, old—these dualities surface in a landscape where a feeling of dissociation and absence prevails. What slows the men down—the stiff shoes, or a burden we cannot see? And why does this robust young man seem so physically resigned? Why is his gaze not just lowered but withdrawn? Why can’t he look about?
So convincing and sad is Ueno’s lack of affect, that when he does start to dance, it’s a shock. Suspended in off-balance arabesque on the tip of his geta, he’s a heron in flight. Dancing a tango solo, he’s a sinuous stud. Launching himself high above an earth-bound Hoghe, he’s liberated—a vessel of joy.
Soon, task-like rituals resume: The dancers fold and unfold obis, wrap them around their bodies, and lay them on the ground. One man rests his head on the other’s chest. Separately, they walk. But when a voice-over in Japanese commences, they stop and listen. Hiroshima, the woman says, Nagasaki. An English speaker recounts the horrors of nuclear fall-out to which Hoghe softly adds: After Chernobyl, people in Europe, they’re scared of the rain.
The mysterious sense of blight in Pas de Deux is finally revealed. The wet trail Ueno had poured from his ladle an hour and a half before mourned this contamination and these deaths, as with tears.
L.J. SUNSHINE is a writer living in New York. Her dance articles and interviews have appeared in the Rail since 2009. She has also written about Italian history and culture for Oggi Sette.