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Okinawa Kumiodori

Presented by Japan Society and World Music Institute at Japan Society, 333 E. 47 St., NYC, Sept. 30-Oct. 3.

Kumiodori is an art form for those with great patience. It blends melodically spoken Japanese text, formal dance movements, and instrumental and vocal music performed live on stage into a stylized presentation that appears to unfold in slow motion. A simple leg lift or promenade may last for minutes, while an actor's cross from one side of the stage to the other seems to take forever. Extended passages of inactivity abound as, each time a song is sung, the performers stop what they're doing and listen in stillness. Or so it seems. What they are really doing is a kind of acting, expressing the sentiments of the lyrics through the tiniest of head tilts, facial tics, and minimized gestures. Characteristic of Kumiodori is the juxtaposition of subtle emotional expression and highly charged dramatic content.

"Nido Tekiuchi," the Kumiodori play presented at Japan Society on a bill with traditional Okinawan court music and dances, uses extreme subtlety of kinesthetic communication to tell the story of two brothers who avenge their father's wrongful death by murdering the tyrannical king who killed him. There is more "movement" in the lively fabric designs and boldly contrasting colors of the performers' stunning costumes than in the show's choreography or staging. The deadly pace of the art form, clearly not an action-driven style of theatre—not as athletic as Chinese opera or as animated as Kabuki—can at times be almost unbearable. The musical tonalities of the Japanese songs can also be difficult for Westerners to appreciate.

However, the extraordinary physical control exhibited by the dancer-actors—two of whom are designated "intangible cultural assets" by the Japanese government—was easy to admire and oftentimes became mesmerizing. If you can let the individual images, colors, body shapes, and sounds wash over your aesthetic sensibilities while you contemplate the deeper ideas contained in the narrative, Kumiodori may prove a gratifying theatrical experience. The classical Okinawan dances that opened the program, however, were so slow, spare, and mechanically performed and constructed that they failed to ignite much artistic interest.

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