“I mean, how do you write about that?” said the woman sitting behind me, extending a hand toward the yellow plastic baseball bat and ripped-up cardboard boxes strewn across floor—the deserted aftermath of Kota Yamazaki’s duet with Masanori Asahara.
“What do you even say?” the man to my left asked me, as the people around us began filtering out of the studio-theater and into the humid night. “What’s important is the doing of it.”
In spite of the pen and notepad in my hand, I had no satisfactory answers for my fellow audience members after Kota Yamazaki’s IRUKA and July 13, 1987, the two works that the Japanese-born, New York-based choreographer brought to the Mount Tremper Arts Summer Festival on Saturday, August 4. I was asking myself those same questions, turning over the same contradictions in my mind: that perhaps “the doing of it” should just speak for itself, that full sentences and structured paragraphs and logical, sequential thoughts couldn’t wrap themselves around such a fleeting and thoroughly physical phenomenon. Something had happened here. But what?
I often use the word “poetic” to describe a phrase of movement or a choreographic idea. But that weekend in the Catskills, the connections between dance and poetry were particularly clear, the two forms in close conversation. The night before, I’d found myself in the same yawning, bare-bones space, under the same wooden beams, amid the same serenity that I felt all weekend at this rural outpost of contemporary performance (where I was hosted by its founders, Aynsley Vandenbrouke and Mathew Pokoik), for a poetry reading by Ana Boičević, Bianca Stone, and Joe Fletcher. They were three of maybe a dozen poets, writers, and founders of small Brooklyn-based presses participating in that night’s event, “Pork and Poetry: Brooklyn Arts Press and Friends,” which brought together art, food, and conversation—all of it delicious.
I rarely hear poetry read aloud, and I was struck by how similar it felt to watching dance, at least dance of a certain abstract kind: both require a surrender to not-knowing. That surrender is at once frustrating (how badly we want answers, how incompetent we feel when we “don’t get it” or “miss the point”) and a gift (how often, in our daily lives, do we give ourselves permission not to know?). To see the poems on the page would have been different. The succession of fragments; the intertwining of ideas; the overlapping of beginnings and endings; the multiplicity of meanings; the possibility of no meaning at all—in concrete form, perhaps these could have been analyzed, parsed, like a dance seen on video, with the options of “slow-motion” and “rewind.” But heard just once, they were too multifaceted, too mysterious to fully comprehend.
And so my mind wandered into a different kind of space, where a single phrase, a single image, would jump out from the rest, embed itself in my consciousness, its surrounding images and phrases dropping out of relief, into a kind of atmospheric backdrop. At one point, my brain told my hand to jot down this line from Fletcher’s “Ben Nez the Winged:”
I threw a handful of gravel at the mirage, which stayed.
Why do certain images stay, while others slip away? The most persistent would call up memories, associations—an accelerating stream—until a particular arrangement of syllables would jolt me back into the present, and I would re-enter the poem to find that it had surged ahead without me. At the end—as with Yamazaki’s work the following night—I was left not with a story or a message so much as an overriding feeling, that sense of definitely-something-but-I’m-not-sure-what.
I may not know what that something was in Yamazaki’s dances, but I can tell you a few things about it. In July 13, 1987, it was violent, aggressive, a flirtation with danger and with the edges of control. It began abruptly: Asahara, in a loose-fitting white suit, stormed in wielding a bulbous yellow baseball bat—plastic, hollow, so that when he slashed into the six or seven boxes scattered about the space, a flinch-inducing “boom” resounded throughout the room. His blows were cold, decisive, the flimsiness of the materials contrasting with the purposeful execution of every swipe. Seated on the floor in the front row, a mother embraced her confused child, but you didn’t have to be four-years-old to crave some comfort, some reassurance, during this senseless yet eerily measured tirade.
That eeriness was only heightened by Yamazaki’s presence; throughout all of this, he sat in a chair against the back wall, a silent, motionless witness. And then, suddenly he was on his feet (where was my mind in that moment when he went from sitting to standing?), his own dangerous object in hand—a silver butcher knife, glinting in the soft light. Whereas Asahara had seemed completely in control of his blunt weapon, Yamazaki appeared to be under the feverish spell of his sharp one. It danced in the air before him—a mad, slashing, jittery blur of a dance—coming millimeters from his flesh and the fabric of his billowing brown shirt, always just on the verge of slipping from his grasp.
Who or what was in control of Asahara when, lying on the floor at the front of the space, he somehow flopped his way to the back—a kind of involuntary spasming, propelled as if by a yanking or shuddering force outside himself—then stood up, ran to his starting position (this choice was his own), and did it all again? And were we meant to cede our own desire for control—to stop holding on so tightly to our hopes or fears of what would happen next—when the two men laid down their instruments and just danced, devouring the space in calm, sweeping unison? And did they mean to startle us out of that calm, thrust us back into the precarious world of the knife and the bat, when they flung their bodies up against the back wall with one final, conclusive thud?
Whereas July 13 plunged us into its turbulence, IRUKA, a solo for Yamazaki that came first on the program, established a gentler flow, a current that we could ride at our own pace—a meditation both for him and us. At times, I felt as though I was inside the serpentine patterns, the pulsating, flickering rhythms of his movement with him; at others, I watched from a definitive remove.
Yamazaki is a riveting performer. Even the subtlest gestures or adjustments of his skeletal alignment—and they can be almost imperceptible—seem to spring from deep reserves of physical wisdom. With a penetrating, inward concentration, he shifted between states of subdued contemplation and heated fury, as if uncovering different facets of himself. Perhaps he was trapped somewhere in-between them, trying to find a way out. Within his compact frame, opposing qualities coexisted in uncanny harmony. A rigid shuffling motion carried him across the ground, at once weighed-down and weightless. Crouching deeply, almost seated on the floor, he was at once firmly rooted and expansive, free, as he sculpted the space in front of him with fluid, weaving arms.
Short-lived swells of music—now classical, now trance-like, now a strange, melodic pop song of sorts—came and went. Whatever he was looking for, he couldn’t seem to find it. At the end, dripping sweat, he lowered himself to the ground, one leg extended forward, the other folded underneath him, facing two windows that looked out over dusk in the Catskill Mountains, but gazing out of neither.
SIOBHAN BURKE is a writer and dancer based in Brooklyn. She contributes regularly to the New York Times and Dance Magazine.