Robert Wilson’s Dance for a Friend

Posted on 07 August 2009

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By Mariana Levine

This Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m. Guild Hall will be presenting “KOOL – Dancing in my Mind” a multimedia dance event honoring the work of Japanese dancer and choreographer Suzushi Hanayagi. The performance will include music composed by David Bryne, film footage by Richard Rutkowski and Robert Wilson, and new dances by Jonah Bokaer and Illenk Gentile.

 “KOOL”, an English translation of the name Suzushi, was created by avant-garde theater pioneer Robert Wilson in partnership with Carla Blank, both of whom were long-time friends and collaborators of Hanayagi. The project came about when Wilson, who had worked with Hanayagi on over 20 performances starting in the 1980s, realized somehow along the way that he had lost touch with her, and wanted to reconnect and work with her again. On a trip through Japan he tracked her down only to learn she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and was living in a nursing home where she barely moved or spoke.

“I’m dancing in my mind”, the other half of the performance’s title, were the words whispered to Wilson by Hanayagi — her first words spoken in a long time — in response to Wilson’s request “remember, I want to work with you again.”

Jorn Weisbrodt, Creative Director of the Bryd Hoffman Watermill Foundation explains, “After this trip Mr. Wilson wanted to do something for her or with her but realized she probably couldn’t do it herself. So he went back a second time and filmed her. It is a really beautiful film.”

Thereby Wilson was able to include her visual presence in the presentation as well as having live dancers perform a collage of her choreography.

The filming, Weisbrodt relates, wasn’t easy as the family had to agree to it, something that was difficult to negotiate since Japanese tradition dictates suffering should remain private and within the immediate family. However, in the end the family agreed to allow it, and now it is part of the tribute to her life and work, Weisbrodt continued.

He also recalls when Wilson was filming Hanayagi in Japan, he would make simple gestures that she was able to repeat, and that she seemed to recall something of her life through the movements. A certain joy came back to her expression with the movements, Weisbrodt recounts.

Blank speaks with tears in her eyes when she says Hanayagi would want her whole life presented as such since, “she believed, as I do too, that life and dance are one. Some people are worried about showing her in her present state, but there is so much to celebrate, and Wilson and I want to celebrate this big energy she gave us to continue her work.” She mentions that she has known and worked with Hanayagi since the early 1960s, when both women lived and worked in New York City.

Blank had also wanted to create something that would call attention to her friend’s influence on dance and movement internationally. Blank notes that Hanayagi gave movement workshops through the world including the Paris Opera Ballet, and worked with Opera Star Jesse Norman on her gesture language.

 “For some reason Suzushi wasn’t as much of a presence, her name wasn’t as recognizable as perhaps Robert Wilson’s, and yet she was really the point of contact in terms of combining Japanese traditions with modern movement.” Therefore Blank was thrilled when Wilson contacted her to create “KOOL”. The two had only met once before, but were aware of each other’s collaborations with Hanayagi. The end result, a collaborative, multi-media project was not only a fitting tribute to their colleague’s work but also reflects Blank and Wilson’s preferred methods of working.

Blank recalls that Hanayagi was brave to break from the traditional roles imposed on Japanese women, even artists and dancers, back in the 1950s. Her break with tradition started when she begun combining the traditional Japanese dance she had painstakingly learned with the Modern Dance she was becoming familiar with at her college. “Starting around 1957-1958 she always performed using both classical and modern dance vocabularies.”

It was a program with New York’s Japan Society that finally brought her to the United States were she gave numerous dance workshops and created a lot of movement pieces alone or often in collaboration with others such as fellow immigrant Yoko Ono. She left New York City in 1969 in order to give birth to and raise her son in Japan, according to Blank. Thereafter she returned to the United States numerous times to work on several projects with Robert Wilson among others.

The “Performance Portrait” of Hanayagi was first presented at the Guggenheim this past April. Guild Hall, who co-produced the program with the Guggenheim and Wilson, will present a slightly evolved performance, as Weisbrodt notes, “Mr. Wilson will be rehearsing the dancers himself this week so he’ll probably be making some changes to the program.”

Blank, who is also rehearsing the group, agreed that the performance might change organically this week. The six member dance company for “KOOL” includes dancers Sally Gross and Meg Harper, both of whom have been coming out to the East End for many summers, as well as CC Chang, Yuki Kawashisa, Jonah Bokaer, and Illenk Gentile. Several of the dancers had worked with the late Merce Cunningham as well.

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