Times Dance Writer

At a time when American modern dance has grown dangerously balleticized--obsessed with formal structure, technical display, star glamour and the body beautiful--a generation of Japanese artists is embracing a dark alternative vision.

Called butoh , this uncompromising postwar movement to represent a type of experience increasingly excluded from dance expression has been glimpsed by local audiences in the work of Eiko and Koma, Min Tanaka, Kei Takei and others. However, its full power reached Los Angeles only on Thursday, when the Dai Rakuda Kan company of Tokyo presented the North American premiere of Akaji Maro’s visceral “The Five Rings” at the Wadsworth Theatre.

Unlike Sankaijuku--a Frenchified butoh company as enslaved to athleticism and demonstrations of mastery as American Ballet Theatre--Dai Rakuda Kan exalts deformity, imbalance, anarchy, hopeless suffering and despair.

Human frailty in the face of cruel and overwhelming natural forces is repeatedly, unsparingly depicted in “The Five Rings,” with Maro’s awesome 14-member company glorying in prolonged cycles and cadenzas of grotesque agony.


Early on, a group of women appear, shuddering violently as they tilt and twist from one variation of their initial contorted position to the next. Their legs are crossed, heads and arms in profile, but torsos turned front. Clenched hands bend up sharply at the wrists and as the shoulders shake, the arms flap lifelessly in one unit.

Warped and ugly, these bodies seem incapable of anything but the convulsive spasms and facial distortions that consume them, and there is no nobility, heroism or evident purpose to their endurance.

However, they are virtuosos, these hideous, quivering women in whiteface and tightly rolled hair, holding themselves in impossibly tense, broken body-shapes until your own muscles ache--in the same way that Kazuo Oaku’s pulsating soundscore makes you hear familiar industrial noise at volume levels crossing the threshold of pain. They bring you to the heart of Maro’s nightmarish Expressionist movement-theater creation: involvement.

Maro wants you to do more than see or understand the victims he shows: He wants you to feel with them, and not just easy empathy. Indeed, he makes conventional notions of compassion seem cheap, suggesting--in his triumphal march of wildly grimacing, twitching, flailing men and women dressed in mock-samurai attire--that we look on the afflicted as merely a colorful sideshow in our lives. As far as he’s concerned, they’re the main event.


Episodic and often enigmatic, spectacular in some of its scenic transformations and deliberately repellent in many of its preoccupations, “The Five Rings” ultimately asks profound questions about human responsibility.

We see women wearily carrying faceless living beings: human burdens that they find themselves unable to leave. They are locked into mutual dependency by something in their natures--just as later, with nearly the full company roped together like animals, Maro suggests that nobody can escape bondage alone.

Is the fellowship of the hospital ward or the camaraderie of the chain gang the most we can hope for? It is a start: Maro makes no promises. He simply shows us a world engulfed by illness and disorder, defying us not to recognize it as our own.

“The Five Rings” repeats tonight and Sunday afternoon.