Justa ter Haar

SHIROKURO a dance concert
by Justa ter Haar (dance dramaturge) September 2012

A black form creeps slowly onto the stage, a dark and indistinct space. Searchingly, a furry creature, its face hidden from view, moves jerkily but resolutely towards a monstrous black grand piano standing centrestage. ‘SHIROKURO’ has begun.
SHIROKURO sees choreographer Nicole Beutler, pianist and artist Tomoko Mukaiyama and artist Jean Kalman explore the relationship between music, dance and space. The subtitle ‘a dance concert’ refers to both the beginnings of post-modern dance in the 1960s – when the experimental Judson Dance Theatre came to view their performances as dance concerts – and the two basic ingredients of this production: music and dance.

This work presents both principles on equal terms, with pianist Mukaiyama, the ‘master’ of the music, going up against the dancer Mitchell-lee van Rooij, the ‘master’ of movement. This competitive struggle leads not only to combat, but also to mutual affirmation – something entirely in keeping with the Japanese notion of shirokuro.
Shirokuro is a Japanese term denoting ‘white black’, with the emphasis on the contrast between the two; the white can accentuate the black. These two extremes can affirm each other’s existence and underline each other’s presence when presented together. The parallels with the ingredients of this production are clear: the music makes the dance ‘visible’ and the dance ensures that we are better able to ‘read’ the music. Lighting designer Jean Kalman also makes extensive use of the shirokuro principle, such as when a tiny amount of light emanating from the floor emphasises the darkness enveloping Mukaiyama as she makes her way to the piano.
The creature arrives at the piano and at the sound of the first powerful strikes on the keyboard, the stage seems to become even darker. The audience sees how Tomoko Mukaiyama draws on immense physical reserves to call up the dark, pulsating rhythms of ‘Piano Sonata No. 6’ by Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya.

Ustvolskaya’s music plays a central role in this production. Her music is direct, even brutal, and this is reflected in the title of Josée Voormans’ 2006 documentary about her work ‘Schreeuw in het Heelal’ (Scream in the Universe). Performing this sonata requires physical strength, with entire clusters of notes being struck simultaneously as Mukaiyama throws her fists and elbows at the piano. The score also requires of Mukaiyama that she screams just as loudly as Ustvolskaya did in her own incantation to the universe.
Ustvolskaya’s direct and uncompromising approach is the foundation for the scenography, which places a clear and visible emphasise on the centre. “She doesn’t try to fool us around; she goes straight to the centre of her spiritual preoccupations,” says Kalman of Ustvolskaya and her work, adding that he believes the music offers, “no space for frivolity.”

And then, for just a brief moment, the strains of ‘Piano Sonata No. 5’ seem to crack open the world. The slender slivers of light breaking through the Earth’s crust gleam on glistening sidewalls reaching up to the heavens. Now, all becomes clear: we are in an isolated space far removed from the real world. For a moment we can feel what it’s like to be in Ustvolskaya’s mind, as this lonely figure rages at an empty space.
Without our having noticed his arrival, there is now a dancer on the stage. At first he is little more than a frail scrap of humanity on the floor, but then we see how the sound writhes in his body, straining to burst out.
“Each cell in the body is a recipient; they are constantly primed to receive,” says Beutler as she explains to the dancer that he can listen with his entire body, not just with his ears. “That’s what’s so intriguing about the relationship between music and dance: it’s all about listening and embodiment, about how music can become part of the body. If you use all your cells, it allows for a kind of three-dimensional listening that puts the whole body in a state of heightened readiness. Don’t dance to the music, don’t enter into a dialogue with it, don’t comment on it; just let the music enter your body.”
After briefly acknowledging one another, Mukaiyama and Van Rooij are now performing Piano Sonata No. 6 together – both the choreographic performance and the musical performance spring from a single source: Ustvolskaya’s score. In addition to the dancing pianist and the listening dancer, the almost ‘verbatim’ translation from the sheet music suggests a third relationship between dance and music: the kinaesthetic experience of music.
Following this second and perhaps even more powerful performance of ‘Piano Sonata No. 6’, the world briefly falls quiet. For a moment we find ourselves in a timeless continuum. It is as if both dance and music are searching for a new dimension; how can they continue together? How can they go on this journey together? And then the darkness is broken and we are gliding along to the melodies of Schumann; a few moments ago Van Rooij’s movements were taut and powerful, but now they are fluid, recalling classical ballet. But again this contrast exists only to accentuate the darkness, because just as we are about to lose ourselves in the magnificent world of aesthetic beauty, our reverie is brutally shattered and we are thrown back into the darkest corners of our own consciousness.

‘SHIROKURO’ grates and grinds till the very end. We go on a journey from darkness shrouded in mystery to a bright, light coda, but we are never caught in the quicksand of the grey zone in between. The white and the black do not coalesce. On the contrary, they are used to emphasise the purity of the two extremes. Perhaps it is because the performance started in an almost infinite darkness that the lucid white space in which we find ourselves at the end feels claustrophobic.
Mukaiyama describes ‘SHIROKURO’ as, “the darkness we would rather not see,’ adding that at the same time, ‘Ustvolskaya’s music provides an opportunity to present humanity in its totality, with all its apparent contradictions.”