Robert Wilson traffics in memory, controlling the passage of time and playing around with it—with us—by juxtaposing temporal spheres. In a fascinating tribute to his collaborator, Judson movement alum Suzushi Hanayagi, Wilson created with choreographer Carla Blank KOOL: Dancing in My Mind, which premiered at the Guggenheim’s Works & Process series last weekend. It was mounted in conjunction with the museum’s thought-provoking exhibition, Third Mind. The just-closed show focused on direct and implied Asian influence on Western art over the last century. KOOL is the perfect example of this in performance.
Hanayagi, immobile and incommunicative, suffers from advanced dementia. When Wilson visited her in Japan recently, he found that by making old gestures or small movements of hers, he elicited some reaction. KOOL incorporates imagery of Hanayagi’s face and gnarled hands and feet, expressive symbols of a long life approaching its end. There’s also footage of her in early performances and rehearsals.
Six dancers performed recreated excerpts taken from over 30 collaborations by the trio; some mirror action in the videos. Then there are sections of new dance by choreographer Jonah Bokaer, who Blank mentioned was instrumental, with Illenk Gentille, in recreating sections of dance from those early videos.
The highlight was a duet—really more two solos performed on two halves of the stage—by Gentille, in traditional classical Japanese theater whiteface—and Bokaer, in jeans and a tee, doing a remarkable extended quicksilver dance laced with both formal and scatalogical movements. The parallel dances underscored how Hanayagi merged the traditional and post-modern in her New York performance. These solos were new, but it was difficult to tell throughout the performance what was new or reconstructed when there wasn’t video to reference. Wilson created the structure of the entity, which was filled in piece by piece with reconstructed and new parts. (Bokaer has choreographed several Wilson-directed operas recently, in addition to creating his own work.)
Many of the other parts of this dance-driven work featured the performers clad in white suits, moving rhythmically to David Byrne’s jangly music. The start/stop phrases were punctuated with angled lunges, sweeping arms, heads thrown back. One scene seemed to represent the passage of time itself, with one slow-moving dancer the hour, another quicker group the minute, and Bokaer the second hand, running quickly across stage. The dancers’ silhouettes popped against Wilson’s gorgeous signature polar dawn or mouth-of-hell lighting schemes.
Wooden slats served as metaphors for life, for sanity. A short stack sat downstage with some slats askance. The performers manipulated three other slats, letting them drop, scattering them violently, restacking them, or trying to gather them up neatly, as one might a life’s detritus.
Photo: Works & Process at the Guggenheim. Jonah Bokaer, Illenk Gentille, Yuki Kawahisa and CC Chang in Robert Wilson’s KOOL – Dancing in My Mind with images of Suzushi Hanayagi’s hand in the background. Photographed by Pavel Antonov.