- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2001

Seminude figures, with bodies and faces painted white, stand in a semicircle, joined by a taut rope held between their teeth.

So begins "The Sea-Dappled Horse" ("Kaiin No Uma"), the transfixing theater piece created by the Japanese dance company known as Dairakudakan.

The remarkable work, having its final performance tonight (Feb. 3) at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, is a journey full of startling images, surrealistic dreams and mysterious encounters. These are by turn beautiful, elegiac, funny, bawdy and haunting.

"The Sea-Dappled Horse" comes out of the modern but ancient-feeling movement known as Butoh, an intriguing and powerful form of dance and theater born in Japan in the post-Hiroshima era that strips action to primal impulses. It has become one of the most provocative approaches to dance during the past several decades.

Works already seen here that reflect the influence of Butoh are the small, delicate masterpieces of Eiko and Koma and the vivid theater pieces of Sankai Juku.

Dairakudakan is yet another distinguished example of this spare but dramatic form. Akaji Maro, founder and director of Dairakudakan, splashes the stage with memorable, startling images.

The work often is slow moving and mesmerizing in its cumulative repetitions. This approach is not for everyone. Toward the end of the opening here at the Kennedy Center on Thursday, a few members of the audience straggled out. They were either put off by the bawdiness or the slow pace, but the rest of the large audience gave the performance its rapt attention.

What audience members saw were figures with masklike faces — mouths often held open in a taut circle or grimacing grotesquely. The faces were disguised; but, even so, they exhibited significant individuality.

The women in the company, gliding like swift swallows in flight, suddenly advanced to the footlights and covered a range of emotions with subtle movements of their bodies and changes of expression.

They moved with exquisite, nuanced gestures in one section — traveling across the stage on their knees with surprisingly delicate grace.

At another moment, they lumbered on, hidden under dappled quilts. The women appeared to be the anonymous back ends of horses carrying male riders. Later, they burst out from the quilts wearing outrageous red and pink dresses, sporting wild black hair pinned with giant red bows and cavorting like raucous banshees.

The overall imagery of the decidedly nonliteral piece, performed without intermission, was a cycle of birth proceeding through phases of life. The approach to theater has something in common with the work of the Living Theatre of the 1960s in this country (which appeared at roughly the same time as Butoh emerged) and the work of Robert Wilson.

At the beginning of "Sea-Dappled Horse," the dancers appeared to be pierced by arrows, St. Sebastian fashion. The suggestion was reinforced by bent-arm poses reminiscent of a crucifixion.

The opening scene was dominated by two men standing at each side of the stage — one tall and lean, the other sturdier and squatter — and holding a rope taut and manipulating it. Later they approached the front of the stage and stamped in a basin of sand, finally pushing each other's cleanshaven heads firmly in the sand.

Later sections of "Sea-Dappled Horse" were dominated by Mr. Maro, who founded Dairakudakan in 1972. He not only created the piece but acts throughout in a variety of roles — some serene, some frightening, some humorous. He also appears as a transvestite, an honorable and highly evolved tradition in both the ancient Japanese arts of Kabuki and no and in modern Butoh.

At the end of the production Thursday, he entered wearing high geta (an elevated Japanese sandal). The entire company eventually appeared, all wearing long robes and carrying lighted Japanese lanterns. Mr. Maro, now without geta and with the others towering above him, sat in their midst. He became smaller and smaller until he almost disappeared.

The overarching impression of the evening is of the tremendous commitment and intensity brought to the production. This work obviously transcends any idea of mere performance for Mr. Maro and his company and seems literally bred in their bones.

The staging for "Sea-Dappled Horse," which begins a four-week tour with these Kennedy Center performances, adds much to the atmosphere of the piece.

The stage space is framed on three sides by door panels spaced slightly apart. These provide entryways for the dancers, a support to lean on or the frame of a distant view.

The costumes, designed by Kyoko Domoto, are as varied as the changing dynamics of the dance; the lighting by Kiyokazu Kakizaki is apt.

The sound accompaniment covers a wide range, from music composed by Osamu Goto, to what sounds like pneumatic drills, deep-toned drums, gale-force winds, snatches of songs of the Auvergne and two actors singing wisps of an American folk song.{*}{*}{*}WHAT: DairakudakanWHEN: 7:30 tonight (Feb. 3)WHERE: Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NWTICKETS: $22 to $35PHONE: 202/467-4600

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