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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

Michou Szabo.

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

hired him."

"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

unique characteristics.

"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,"

he says.

"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

Looking East, Randy James Dance Works, George Street

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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