11 June 2010, Opéra Bastille, Paris
Kaguyahime is Jiri Kylian’s poetic, choreographic reflection on an ancient Japanese prose text, The Bamboo Cutter’s Daughter. This story tells of Kaguyahime, the moon princess who comes to earth—she is discovered inside a stalk of bamboo—and astounds everyone with her radiant beauty. Many vie for her attention but she eventually and reluctantly takes leave of her adoptive parents and returns to the moon.
The work is divided into scenes that reflect the story: the descent of Kaguyahime from the moon, the dance by the village men who compete for her attention, the celebration of her coming of age, a violent combat and eventual war between the villagers and rival aristocrats who have heard of the beauty of Kaguyahime, the Emperor’s interest in her, and her final return to the moon.
But, rather than attempt to follow the story literally and make a quasi-oriental work, within the structure he set up Kylian chose to focus on what he understood as the universal themes emerging from the story—envy, rivalry, the desire to possess, and war set alongside more humanistic ideals such as love and peace. The result is something truly remarkable, which is neither but both oriental and occidental and in which the visual and aural accompaniment to the choreography sets up a surreal (or magical) environment in which our deepest sensibilities are awakened.
On opening night, the role of Kaguyahime was danced by Marie-Agnès Gillot and her execution of Kylian’s choreography for this role was beautifully controlled, reserved and tremulous as she moved around the stage during her descent and final ascent, yet seductive in its curving movements of the torso and limbs. A highlight was the duet between Gillot and Mathias Heymann as one of the men of the village who sought her love. It was a duet in which they seemed rarely to touch each other yet with every movement there was implied and imagined contact.
Other scenes, the celebration of Kaguyahime’s coming of age, the combat and the war for example, were filled with explosive movement, fast turns and strong jumps, which the dancers executed with breathtaking skill.
Kaguyahime was danced to music by Maki Ishii performed by seven artists of the Kodo Ensemble playing Japanese drums, the Gagaku Ensemble, a trio of musicians playing ancient Japanese wind instruments, and a group of seven French musicians playing an assortment of percussion instruments. The shimmering music that accompanied Kaguyahime’s descent from the moon was in stark contrast to the fire cracker sounds of the music for the combat between the villagers and the aristocrats and the insistent and dramatic rhythms of the onstage drums during the war scene.
Sets, costumes and lighting were simple and powerful. Use was made of expanses of silken cloth—grey at the end of the war scene when a complete curtain fell leaving a solitary figure, Kaguyahime, in front of it as it rippled through the air; gold during the scenes with the Emperor. Other devices, such as mirrors and shadowy projections continued the surrealistic mood opening up the work to subconscious thoughts and feelings.
If anything illustrates the notion put forward by Merce Cunningham that speaking (or writing) about dance is ‘like nailing Jell-O to the wall’ Kaguyahime is it. But I can think of few other works that have encapsulated so much, so brilliantly, so simply and honestly, in such a moving manner. A true masterpiece in my opinion.
Michelle Potter, 13 June 2010
Postscript: Kaguyahime was originally created on Nederlands Dans Theater in 1988, when Kylian was the company’s director. My one huge regret is that I had the opportunity to see this remarkable work, and an equally remarkable performance of it, once only. It would make sensational addition to any of the many Australian arts festivals.