Two weeks ago at New York Live Arts, choreographer Yasuko Yokoshi presented BELL, the premiere work of NYLA’s resident commissioned artist program. The program commissions a work from selected artists, and provides them with an office, rehearsal space, administrative support, a salary, and health benefits. The extended process that went into BELL was visible in the dancers’ excellent performances and in the mise en scène of the entire piece – costumes, set design, and music. This isn’t to say that well-designed and rehearsed pieces can’t be created without institutional support or substantial financial resources, but there was something very pleasant about watching a piece that seemed to have been given time and resources to grow and evolve over the course of a two-year residency.
In BELL, Yokoshi juxtaposed the Japanese Kabuki dance Kyoganoko Musume-Dojyoji (A Woman and a Bell at the Dojoji Temple) and the 19th-century Romantic ballet Giselle. The performance used the former as inspiration and as the main story, but also included elements of Giselle, showing how the tales from the East and the West share themes of rejected lovers.
BELL began with a projection of text on blue curtains in front of the stage explaining the tale of Kyoganoko Musume-Dojyoji, in which a woman named Kiyohime falls in love with a priest. Unrequited love causes her to become a serpent demon, and when the priest flees from her and hides in a bell, she coils herself around the bell and kills him with her fiery breath. BELL begins after this point in the tale, when Kiyohime returns to the temple. Beginning the piece with the tale displayed on the curtains made the story seem important, but the details were easily lost as the dance progressed.
The curtains parted to reveal a vocalist and a violinist (Gelsey Bell and Pinky Weitzman) on stage right and three dancers in long blue tutus with structured white bodices. (The bodices were eventually shed during the piece.) These Giselle women, Julie Alexander, Lindsay Clark, and Jennifer Lafferty, danced to a recording of Adolphe Adam’s original score for Giselle. Later, there was live music from the wonderful musicians stationed upstage: Sanshichiro Kineya, Yoko Reikano Kimura, Tadayauki Mochizuki, and Haruyo Housei.
When Kuniya Sawamura and Yokoshi came onstage, the three tutu-clad women acted as guardians of the temple, testing Kiyohime before she was permitted to enter. Here there was some text in English and Japanese which felt a bit strained and awkward, but was also amusing. This was the first instance of the Kabuki style of dancing in the performance. For the rest of the performance, the styles went back and forth, with the Japanese performers doing Kabuki dances, and the three Giselle dancers using ballet and modern vocabulary. About halfway through I had entirely lost touch with the narrative, which I gathered is not actually important to the Kabuki part of the piece either.
The juxtaposition of the two styles and plots was at times more jarring than intriguing. In an interview with Time Out New York, Yokoshi explained that she used Giselle as a point-of-entry for New York audiences who aren’t familiar with Kyoganoko Musume-Dojyoji: “Once Giselle kicks in the audience’s mind, they don’t have to worry about what Kyoganoko Musume-Dojyoji means. They go with it, because they understand Giselle.” The actual plot of Giselle did not appear in BELL, only some of the music and themes did. Even so, the Giselle elements did not contribute to what was interesting about the work. I was not frustrated by not knowing what the Kabuki movement and music meant, but rather wanted more time with these elements. Nevertheless, one of my favorite sections was a sort of abstraction of the “Mad Scene” from Giselle, with the tutu dancers each performing a solo embodying Giselle’s feelings of love and betrayal. Perhaps this was so enjoyable because it was so recognizable.
The different Kabuki dances were performed exquisitely by Yokoshi, Sawamura, and Kayo Seyama. Here, I use “exquisitely” to refer to the precision and delicacy of the dancing, rather than indicating a high quality in relation to the standards of Kabuki, of which I had no prior knowledge. Yokoshi wrote in her program notes: “If you wish to see the real Kabuki please travel to Japan. I hope you will wish that after seeing BELL.” I do.