Suguru Yamamoto’s solo dance/theater work, The Unknown Dancer in the Neighborhood, was both incredibly disturbing and sublimely moving. Performed at the Japan Society as part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, Dancer related the aftermath reactions of at least ten people who were victims or witnesses to a fatal train accident, but did so with too many arbitrary tangential events getting in the way, such as a long visit to a zoo which began the work. The work was danced by a very energetic Wataro Kitao.
In that scene at the zoo, Kitao, wandering about a stage strewn with odd objects—a sword, a backpack, a canvas bag, etc.—imitated the gorilla as the teenage girl Megu whose attitude toward other zoo-goers was sarcasm squared finally left the gorilla to see the giraffe, where her tirade continued. Kitao beat his chest, wobbled about with his legs spread and made “gorilla” noises. Back at home in her bedroom, Megu spoke with guy pal Hiro on the phone while sassing her very indulgent mom.
Suddenly we were on a very, very, very crowded train. Kitao’s incarnation as a platform pusher stood out as he muttered and complained about the “dirty” masses of people trying to get on a train to Nagai. Megu was crushed when she missed her stop and was forced out of the train door only to land on the track where she died.
There followed a series of interviews of all those involved. The different statements provided a Rashomon-like situation, rival points of view clouding the reality. Despite each character’s name being flashed on the screen—sometimes along with city skylines—it was very difficult to figure out who was speaking and why. In the middle of everything one of the characters’ mothers dies just before her birthday.
The “sublime” mentioned above arrived in the ending in which a young man Ei fantasized about an evening out at a restaurant with his dead mom during which he gave her a birthday gift. The tenderness of this scene was, however, marred by underscoring it with a piercing, repetitious French recording of the pop tune “La Mer” by Charles Trenet, better known in English as the Bobby Darin hit “Beyond the Sea.”
However well-meaning and observant Yamamoto was, his storytelling flew in too many directions to make a cogent drama. Too many bits and pieces led the audience off on too many tangents even though Kitao was a nimble performer.
There was very little actual dance in Dancer. Most of the movements were exaggerated walks, falls, rolls, hobbles and runs. The biggest problem with this dance/theater work was that it was too often difficult to follow the character switches. With the exception of an elderly character who was clearly stooped over, the young ones were defined by subtle vocal changes too difficult for a non-Japanese speaker to fathom. (The dialogue was all flashed on the back screen in English and Japanese which sometimes confused issues even more.)
The coda found Kitao energetically flailing about the stage in an applause-generating manner. There’s nothing like seeing a performer exhausting himself to induce an ovation.
Whatever clarity there was in The Unknown Dancer in the Neighborhood was brought out with the help of Yuki Mori’s brilliant lighting and Junko Miyazaki’s pinpoint sound design.
The Unknown Dancer in the Neighborhood – January 10-14, 2020
Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival 2020
The Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-715-1258 or visit http://www.japansociety.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission