Jiri Kylian’s latest production, East Shadow, which has just received its European premiere at the Monaco Dance Forum, is a very curious work. It was commissioned for the 2013 Aichi Triennial in Japan, dedicated to remembering the 2011 Fukushima disaster. To bring to life the horrors of an earthquake, a huge and destructive tidal wave, followed by an even more horrific nuclear catastrophe, poses an almost impossible challenge for a choreographer. It does not help the audience that it is often no longer customary in France for dance companies, or promoters, to provide a programme to accompany performances. A one-page sheet of paper is provided with a very brief introductory paragraph followed by detailed biographies of the choreographer/director and several of his or her collaborators. For East Shadow this brief introduction reminded one of the horrors of 2011 and questioned “what role art can play faced with this senseless tragedy”. It further tells us that the work is an immersion into the disturbing universe of Samuel Beckett. The connection between Beckett and Fukushima is not immediately obvious, so further research into Jiri Kylian’s personal website seemed necessary. Ominously in the introduction to his website he writes that he is “painfully aware of the fact, that whatever we do or make is doomed to disappearance, and that our Planet Earth will be burnt to ashes and then frozen to death”. Kylian finds inspiration in the absurd theatre of Samuel Beckett, stating that “everything we do is total nonsense”, and that the production of East Shadow is to be seen as a “tragi-comical” experience. With these aims, Kylian has succeeded with just two dancers and a pianist in less than a one-hour performance to create a work of ‘absurd theatre’, both serious and comic. Whether he succeeds with his intention to show that our everyday life with its problems and achievements, our relationships, our constant struggles for a better or easier life is ‘absurd’ in view of the fact that death and the annihilation of our civilization may happen at any moment, is not sure and may be up to each member of the audience to decide.
Kylian has two exceptional artists for East Shadow, his wife and long-time muse, the German- born Sabine Kupferberg, and the American Gary Chryst. Both are sexagenarians and worked together in NDT 111, Nederlands Dans Theater’s offshoot company for dancers over 40, and while both are still strong and supple dancers they have the maturity to sustain such a difficult piece. Gary Chryst was a ‘star’ with the Joffrey Ballet in the 1970’s, and since then has spent many years on Broadway, while working today with different dance companies in the USA. Kylian and Kupferberg have now both left Nederlands Dans Theater, but are active in reproducing his repertoire across the world and with other projects, such as East Shadow.
The performance begins on an open stage containing not just one, but two identical sets (designed by Kylian), side by side. There is a dull grey wall with a doorway, just too small to enter or leave by easily and a window just too small and too high to be able to look through. This follows Beckett’s stage directions for the claustrophobic room of his play Endgame and the dull, grey light over these rooms is heavy and foreboding. A text is read from Beckett’s play, Neither, which I found hardly audible and not comprehensible, and the pianist, (the excellent Tomoko Mukalyama) seated at an on-stage piano, plays a very gentle Andantino from a Schubert sonata. It soon becomes obvious that the right-hand stage is a screen and that when Gary Chryst leaps through the door the action is a film projection. On the left a ‘real’ couple are seated at a small wooden table. They are both dressed in black, he in a black suit with a bowler hat and the woman in a dowdy black dress with a lacy top, rather 1930’s or 40’s. The action continues with film clips and black and white stills, in the style of an old silent film; the couple enter and exit the room, they appear and disappear, they joke and fool around as in a slapstick comedy, while the piano accompaniment changes to a minimalist Steve Reich-style of relentless pounding of the piano keys. This continues for so long that one wonders if anything is actually going to happen (shades of Waiting for Godot?) but finally the action shifts to the other side of the stage where the dancers take over the action. With the film sequences still running the characters appear to be remembering an earlier life, while comforting each other as they grow older. This could be understood as being as ‘absurd’ as Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days reminiscing while buried up to her neck in sand, but the depth of their relationship and dependence on each other is touching and moving.
However, things do move on, initially with an ominous rumbling and shaking; the woman’s hands flutter and shiver while she attempts to look out of the window, and the noise of breaking masonry and crashing buildings is echoed with crescendos on the piano, followed by the rush of water and images on the screen of the tsunami which enveloped Fukushima. In the now darkened room they reach out to each other and relive the action of the beginning of the film while the waves become ever greater and finally there is the huge explosion of a nuclear disaster. Only now do they actually start to dance, flowing, reaching movements and one regrets that there has not been more dance to tell this story as they are both expressive artists. The work ends in darkness as the music fades and the performers disappear. Despite some reservations, and I fear that many in the audience in Monte-Carlo were left somewhat bemused, one must salute Kylian’s achievement in producing a serious, theatrical work which does stimulate thought and discussion.