Sunday, May 18, 2014

Last night I attended the second in a series of three consecutive dance performances I will attend with students on this trip. It was fun to be joined this time by two former Deutsches Theater students, one from 2004 and 2005, who is now living as a musician in Berlin, and the other (from DT 2012), who is spending a year abroad in Munich. The show last night was "Existence" and it was danced by Minako Seki and her Accompanist on Cello. I will add that the role of the cello dancing was a major feature of the program.

I knew Minako Seki's work because I participated in a week-long series of workshops in the year before I brought my first group of students on a study program to Berlin in 2006. Since I was preparing for the 2006 program, it must have been 2005. She works and teaches in the style of Butoh, a Japanese form of dance/theater that is highly emotional and a dance form into which one fully escapes. This is the opposite of the style of theater I am most experienced with, a sort of eclectic method that grew out of Brecht's ideas for the theater.

Minako Seki is a fascinating and beautiful dancer, who has tremendous control of her movement on stage, yet appears to also at times disappear and become the dance. As my former student said, it is as if the dance takes on a life of its own and the dancer, herself, disappears.

I read the story behind "Existence" (which is at the bottom of this post) only after attending the performance; it is interesting that it confirms the things I sensed about the performance, even though I didn't always understand what I was witnessing at the time. The tension between the dancer and the cello creates an intense portrayal of fear, domination and a fight for survival that I experienced to be extremely beautiful and at the same time painful--excruciatingly so. As the dance took place, I found myself absorbed in watching it and also reflecting on my own experiences with health, survival, caregiving, and protection. Doing so both helped me to gain insight into the performance and at the same time made it hard to watch. The pace of the work accentuated the sense of nature's power and ability to prevail over any human attempts to change it. Minako Seki's expressions and her small, almost silent cries make the audience members feel like voyeurs witnessing attacks, while doing nothing to stop them. The cello is a character that physically pursues Minako Seki's character, intimidates her, and becomes her primary focus. The performance, as heavy as it was at times, also had several controlled, light moments including a comical section when Minako Seki sneaks around, having "stolen" the cello from the cellist. At times, this performance was as much about sound as about movement, or rather the sound and movement became layered on top of each other. At one point, for example, the cellist swung the cello around at different angles for several minutes, as if he were a whirling dervish, the amplified cello created the sounds of a storm and thunder. The lighting, incidentally was perfect in helping create a mood. Overall, I had a hard time watching and listening and a hard time not doing so.

Now that I have read a description of the origin of the piece I have a better appreciation of what Minako Seki achieved. Her show was just over an hour, I think (I forgot to check the time) and it flowed from section to section without a single break. Seeing this piece was also a refreshing reminder that an important part of witnessing art (dance, theater, music) is the awareness that we both know and don't know what we are experiencing. What I love about what I see in Germany is that I continue to think about performances long after they have ended. The performance continues in my head.

The blurb for the piece follows:
“Existence” is dedicated to life-determining issues: fear, hope, love, illness and death. The origin of the piece is an homage to Minako's early deceased brother and her sister enduring for a long time fatal disease. Drawing on this experiences Minako develops together with Willem Schulz an equally humorous as profound dance investigation
 of the vast landscape between life and death, heaven and earth.

The metaphorical imagery of the piece is inspired by an encounter Minako had once in an abandoned village:
Five young owls, short after they hatched, are crouching on the ground, one on top of the other. They have small, naked bodies, but enormous, huge heads with big dusty eyes, the color of their skin nearly pink. The one on the very top instinctively screams in a horrible raspy and piercing tone to be fed. The power of survival and at the same time the extreme vulnerability of existence manifest themselves at the same time.

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