Poetry in motion … Saburo Teshigawara performs Miroku in 2007
His company’s name means “crow”, but Saburo Teshigawara is more of a magpie – bringing together different elements of movement, text, design and lighting into performances of symbols and senses.
Born in Tokyo in 1953, Teshigawara studied visual arts and sculpture before beginning ballet at the age of 20. Though admiring its technique, he felt dislocated from the style, and in 1981 began to experiment with more interdisciplinary projects, working with videomakers, “noise artists” and performance art in search of what he called “a new form of beauty”.
In 1985 he founded his company Karas with Kei Miyata. With no formal dance training, but a keen interest in physical expression, Miyata had quickly become a key artistic partner for Teshigawara – and she remains so to this day. The company took off in 1986, when their entry for the Bagnolet international choreography competition sparked considerable international interest. Soon, they were dividing their time between Tokyo and European bases, first in France and then in Frankfurt. International tours increased, and Teshigawara also received commissions from well-established companies, including the Frankfurt Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater, Paris Opera Ballet and Geneva Ballet. Alongside his own performance work, Teshigawara also put considerable energy into the company’s educational wing, STEP (Saburo Teshigawara Education Project), founded in 1995; it gained acclaim for its choreographic work with blind people.
Teshigawara’s creative scope goes a long way beyond dance and movement: often, he’ll do the stage, costume, set and lighting design too. He has also worked in opera (Turandot at the 1999 Edinburgh festival, for which he was director, designer and choreographer), in video, produced a number of art installations, site-specific works and several books. Since 2006, he has been a professor in expression studies at the College of Contemporary Psychology, Rikkyo University.
“I don’t live to make dance,” he once said. “When there is something I want to express, if I hold a pen it will be poetry, if I have a canvas in front of me it will be a painting, and if there is space around me it will become a dance.”
Prime movers … Karas founders Teshigawara and Kei Miyata perform together
Watching Saburo Teshigawara
Teshigawara turned away from established dance styles to find his own path. His meeting with Miyata – who had no dance training, but possessed an intense physicality – was a turning point. For The Point of the Wind (1986), their breakthrough at Bagnolet, they had explored ideas of the body being empty. “An empty body would crumble and fall,” recounts Teshigawara. “Miyata immediately understood intuitively … she crumbled to the ground. And it wasn’t a crumbling from the legs, but a crumbling from the head.”
The idea of an “empty body” was Teshigawara’s point of departure for developing his own style of movement, for which the idea of air – both as space and breath – became central. Indeed, there is something aerial and avian about Teshigawara’s dancers: poised and alert, their bodies animated from within by gusting, eddying energies as if by invisible currents. A sense of “innerspace” interacting with exterior space also intrigued Teshigawara in his work with blind performers, Flower Eyes (STEP, 2000) and Luminous (Karas, 2002).
Though he’s a choreographer, Teshigawara is also a writer, painter, lighting and set designer; dance isn’t always to the fore. His sets are often very striking, mixing natural and man-made materials: a floor of broken glass (Glass Tooth, 2006), walls of books (Bones in Pages, 2003). In Green, 2003, he performed with animals (learning in the process, he says, that “a goose is pretty big” and “a chicken is stupid”).
Think of Teshigawara’s pieces not as theatrical events but as sensorial experiences, more poetic than dramatic, interested in symbol rather than story, with nebulous meanings but vivid sensory effects.
Teshigawara’s most longstanding collaborators are Kei Miyata, his co-director with whom he founded Karas in 1985, and Rihoko Sato, a performer who joined the company in 1996 and went on to become his choreographic assistant.
Double vision … Teshigawara and Rihoko Sato in 2008
In 1985 Teshigawara buried himself up to his neck in earth by a river bank, for eight hours – an exploration, apparently, of the relation between air and the body.
In his own words
“My body is here, and my heart is on the moon.” – Interview with Michael Kurcfeld, LA Times, 1990
“Dance is not a form for the purpose of communicating information. What is important with dance is whether it is alive or not.” – Interview with Maimi Sato, Japan Foundation, 2008
In other words
“Japanese choreographer Saburo Teshigawara is a consummate artist of surfaces – brilliant, inventive, precise – but chillingly impenetrable.” – Judith Mackrell, Independent, 1993
“Dancer, choreographer and artist Saburo Teshigawara works in a time zone of his own.” – Natasha Brereton, Japan Times, 2005
“Teshigawara’s choreographic interest often focuses on how the body changes in reaction to outer elements … and how our existence corresponds to our environment.” – Akiko Tachiki, Ballettanz, 2008
“The air outside the body is the same medium as the breath inside it. Wow.”
“I’ve lost the plot.” (There never was one.)
Symbolic readings … Teshigawara’s Bones in Pages, 2003
Though Teshigawara is a very idiosyncratic choreographer, he has something in common with other highly individual Japanese experimental performers such as Kazuo Ohno, Sankai Juku and Kei Takei, who all tend to emphasise symbol over story, mix images of nature with technology, and treat the stage as a kind of environment.
As a multifaceted creator (choreographer, video artist, writer, lighting and set designer), Teshigawara has sometimes been compared with American stage director Robert Wilson.
Now watch this
Absolute Zero, with Kei Miyata (2002)
Para-Dice (2002) for the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève
Bones in Pages (2003)
Glass Tooth (2006)
Double District, a film installation from 2008 (watch it here if you have 3D specs)
Where to see Saburo Teshigawara next
See the Teshigawara/Karas website for performance dates.