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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 7, 2000. All rights reserved.
West Meets East, and the Differences Resonate
People are people," says Randy James, the dancer,
teacher, choreographer, and artistic director of Randy James Dance
Works. Yet while James would like to bridge the isolation of peoples
around the globe, he recognizes cultural difference, particularly
when it is coming at him from all directions.
Randy James Dance Works presents "Looking East," a new work
inspired by the artist’s recent trip to Japan, at George Street Playhouse
Friday through Sunday, June 9 through 11. The work will be performed
by company dancers David Boyd, Elizabeth Frankel, Greta Parsons, Ricky
Santiago, Ying-Ying Shiau, Missy Pfohl Smith, Elizabeth Spatz, and
James spent three weeks as the guest of former company member Yukihiko
Kawashiro — whom he prefers to call Yuki — and has dedicated
his full-evening work to him. His intention is to portray his American’s
view of Japan and Japanese culture. He explores his impressions of
many facets of Japanese life, from Sumo wrestling and Kabuki theater,
to "subway pushers," Ikebaba (flower arranging), and Buddhist
and Shinto ritual.
"I grew up in East Brunswick at a time when it was very white.
That was my life," James says. "As I grew up, I broadened
my friendships. But until I started the company, I had never really
known Asians, and their culture fascinated me."
Kawashiro danced with James’s company for four years. Audiences may
remember him in the role of the lithe lion in James’s most successful
family dance work to date, "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe."
Last year the dancer reluctantly returned to Tokyo to help his family
in their restaurant businesses there.
"Yuki had only been in America for about three months before he
auditioned for me," James recalls. "As we went through the
four-day audition process, he was my first choice. But he could understand
me so well during the audition, and it never occurred to me that he
barely spoke English. So when I asked the selected dancers to wait
out front to sign their contracts, he left. He didn’t think I had
"Looking East" explores the differences between American and
Asian cultures. And although James believes these differences can
be effectively bridged, he marvels, nonetheless, at each culture’s
"This was the most different place I have ever been in my life.
I have traveled extensively in Europe and Eastern Europe, but I was
not prepared for how different it was. This is a foreign place. It
still resonates in me. It haunts me, it really does.
Both the music and movement of "Looking East" contrast the
stereotype of the serene, poetic Japanese sensibility with the fast-paced
energy associated with America and Americans. In presenting these
opposing images, James is working to reconsider and break through
ethnic barriers while preserving cultural and artistic identities.
"To be honest with you, language is really hard for me, —
that’s why I’m a choreographer," he says. "I was not prepared
for Japan’s language of symbols. So I just communicated physically
and emotionally. I tried to convey what I wanted with my body language."
James has no loss of words, though, when recounting his trip to the
Far East. "I went to a lot of performances from to traditional
Kabuki theater to modern Butoh, and took day trips every single day
by myself. I visited temples, Buddhist monasteries. Most of these
places have been rebuilt since 1945 — so it is not like visiting
the Parthenon in Greece. And it’s very commercialized. The old and
the new are so close. You’ll find Haagen-Dazs vending machines in
the middle of the countryside.
"I was also surprised to find this dichotomy of the old and the
new. I had thought of Japanese people as small and quiet — and
Yuki’s parents are like that. But the young generation! — women
in huge platform shoes, hair dyed blonde, high fashion — and everybody
has a cell phone."
Compounding the different look and feel of the country,
James was introduced to specific customs he never would have imagined.
"When I was at Yuki’s house, he did warn me: `Don’t compliment
anything in the house or my mother will give it to you — and she
will be offended if you refuse.’"
He also surprised his host by insisting on seeking out an exhibition
of traditional Sumo wrestling. "Ever since I was a little boy
and I saw my first James Bond movie that had a Sumo wrestler into
it, I had wanted to see Sumo wrestling. And I did. I had to take a
six-hour train ride to do it, but what I got was a 10-hour immersion,"
"The really massive wrestlers are revered as gods. They each have
five or more apprentices working for them. The goal is to knock them
out of the ring; it literally takes about five seconds. But the ritual
leading up to it is extensive."
"It cost about $200 to sit close; I had a cheap seat on the perimeter,
but I was near the dressing rooms and the warmup area, so I got very
involved in the preparation, the bows, ritual songs, and wrestlers’
"I was forever taking notes and sketches and I still have such
vivid memories," he says.
In "Looking East," an elaborate set, commissioned from set
and lighting designer John Lasiter, provides the environment in which
the dance takes shape. And the evening’s music was commissioned from
composer Jason Berg, a recent MFA graduate from Rutgers.
"I did not want to hire a Japanese composer, because when I was
there I heard not only Japanese music but I heard American, I heard
jazz, I heard blues — and I wanted to maintain the sense of fusion,"
says James. Berg’s score is for trumpet, sax, bass, vibes, and percussion,
as well as a range of Japanese instruments including Taiko, a large
barrel drum, Sakahuachi, Japanese flute, and the dulcimer-like Koto.
Costumes are by Kim Lennox and Nancy Swolensky, artists with whom
James has worked before. Lennox was the designer for "The Lion,
the Witch and the Wardrobe."
Founded in 1992, the company has grown slowly but steadily, touring
in a dozen states and in Europe. The latest dance is supported by
a major grant from the Geraldine Dodge Foundation. The company’s most
significant accomplishment of the past year was a 10-performance SRO
engagement of "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" last
December at NJPAC’s Victoria Theater.
James notes with satisfaction that "The Lion, the Witch and the
Wardrobe" and the "Hungarian Project" have brought in
new audiences. And his troupe will perform "Looking East"
at New York’s Kaye Playhouse in December and then he hopes to tour
it elsewhere. Says James: "I love modern dance. I want to bring
more people into the family."
— Nicole Plett
Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Seventh
home season features new choreography inspired by James’s recent trip
to Japan, performed by an ensemble of eight. $15; $10 students & seniors.
Friday and Saturday, June 9 and 10, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, June 11,
at 3 p.m.
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