Haruka Soutome and Takuro Watanabe in “Butterfly” by Motoko Hirayama and Satoshi Nakagawa. Photograph courtesy of NNTT

Afternoon of Fauns and Nymphs

A spectrum of dance performances showcase the quality emanating from the Japanese capital

New National Theatre, Tokyo: “An Afternoon of Fauns and Nymphs”
New National Theatre, Tokyo, Japan, March 26-28, 2021
Paul McInnes

It’s always fascinating when a production asks serious and intellectual questions of the audience. What is the role of dance? How does it reflect our lives and the world in which we live? How can it viscerally change us as human beings? 

“An Afternoon of Fauns and Nymphs,” at New National Theatre Tokyo (NNTT), is a production consisting of six performances (all double acts) by four pairs of contemporary dancers and two pairs of dancers from the National Ballet of Japan in “Butterfly” and “Danae.” 

“Butterfly,” a grandiose contemporary display of technical aptitude and savvy, was performed by two members of the National Ballet, Haruka Soutome and Takuro Watanabe. Seemingly unleashed from the stricture of ballet, “Butterfly” was one of the most dazzling contemporary performances in recent memory. With choreography from Motoko Hirayama and Satoshi Nakagawa and first seen in 2005, it reflects renowned Japanese fashion impresario Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons assertion that “I would like the audience to feel their heart beat. I want them to feel something when they wear my clothes. If they don’t feel anything when they wear my clothes my creations are meaningless.” 

Haruka Soutome, who was promoted to a soloist with the National Ballet of Japan in 2014, is one of the most electrifying and technically accomplished dancers in Japan, and representative of the quality emanating from the modern-day Japanese dance scene. When she tucks her partner, Takuro Watanabe, under one arm and holds him like a baby for what seems like minutes, you realize the sheer strength and balance involved for both performers. It was beautiful and it touched me, to the core of my soul, the whole ten yards, and that is ultimately what great performances do. 

The six performances canvassed a range of genres, including comedy seen in “Kasokeshi” performed brilliantly by Hana Sakai and Mirai Moriyama with live guitar from Koki Fujimoto, classical ballet in “Danae” performed with great compassion and emotion by Yuri Kimura and Takafumi Watanabe, and “Let’s Do It!,” an homage to American jazz, danced with amazing kinesis by Un Yamada and Llon Kawai. So, essentially, “Fauns and Nymphs” was a bill suited to all fans of dance and one which interacted beautifully with music from Louis Armstrong and Cole Porter, to live contemporary scores and a simple mise-en-scene and lighting design.

Hana Sakai and Mirai Moriyama in “Kasokeshi.” Photograph via NNTT

The final piece, and only about five minutes in length, was an excerpt from the heartstopping “A Picture of You Falling” choreographed by Crystal Pite and performed with superb emotion by Ema Yuasa and Kenta Kojiri. With narration looped over the dance, with words such as “take three steps, look behind you, this is how it ends,” it is reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s seminal “The Hollow Men,” which ends with the devastating coda, 

 This is the way the world ends
 Not with a bang but a whimper. 

One of the stylistic through lines of “Fauns and Nymphs” was symmetry versus asymmetry. Especially in the comedic “Kasokeshi,” the suddenly jump from perfect symmetry to off-kilter moves highlighted the beauty of imperfection. The particularly avant-garde live guitar accompaniment by Koki Fujimoto who scratched, thumped and screeched on his instrument was straight from the backstreets of Nakano and Koenji or the dazzlingly experimental productions of Akaji Maro’s leading butoh group Dairakudakan. 

Ema Yuasa and Kenta Kojiri in “A Picture of You Falling” by Crystal Pite. Photograph via NNTT

“Butterfly,” on the other hand, tapped into Sturm und Drang. Soutome and Watanabe’s profoundly affecting dance incorporated the distortion and mingling of torsos as well as epic displays of strength and acrobatics. What Soutome and Watanabe achieve in “Butterfly” is the physical realization of Susan Sontag’s contention that “to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” “Butterfly,” then, does exactly this. The subtle tableaux vivants mirror our sensitivity, our deficiencies, and our humanity.

“An Afternoon of Fauns and Nymphs” is quite simply an absolute creative accomplishment. Drawing on humour, tributes to classical art forms and philosophies, it’s a production that contemplates and explores our innate experiences and memories, and one which encapsulates the pathos of daily life.