BWW Review: Contemporary Dance Theater Spins a Bleak View of Humanity in THE UNKNOWN DANCER IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD at the Japan Society
Glimmers of hopefulness can be found in this unique theatrical event. Disheartenment, however, permeates The Unknown Dancer in the Neighborhood. This contemporary dance theater piece is a commentary on individual lives amidst the ambiguously indifferent and disconnected mobs in a gloomy metropolis. Early on we hear that "hopeless people talk about hopeless things."
Suguru Yamamoto is a young playwright and director from Japan. His signature style uses projected words to communicate his character's thoughts. This use of texting alludes to the millenial generation's preferred method of communication. He then adds movement, photography, lighting and minimal props to tell the story.
Wataru Kitao performs all of the characters in this one person show. His first is that of a gorilla who is beating his chest and scratching his rear. He quickly transitions to photographer taking pictures at a zoo. A "trashy couple" is in the way of his photograph. They are comparing the gorilla's butt to a pomegranate. A "fat stupid kid" is overly excited by the gorilla and knocks down an elderly man. There are "no apologies from the snotty kid's stupid mother." Within the first few minutes of this show, the state of our society is put on trial. "This kind of action should be purged."
In a series of escalating scenes, characters will interact with each other. The story will broaden from the zoo animals to a girl being called ugly. The "old codger" is followed. He goes to a strip club. An analysis is offered about the similar nakedness found in strip clubs and zoos. Some dry humor is squeezed into this ever-changing tale.
The darkness of an uncaring world looms everywhere in Nagai, "the most dangerous place in Japan." At a train station, a young girl falls onto the tracks. A boy tries to help but no one will join him. Trains are packed with people and their indifference. Mr. Kitao even plays the train noting, "because I am a train, delivering is my pleasure."
A woman from the strip club is stabbed. There is a massive hostage crisis in the town's library which does not end well. The "ugly" girl will send an insulting text about her mother. Bleakness is pervasive. In Nagai, "everyone is equally worthless."
This commentary illuminates a worldview but confusion unfortunately emerges. There are many indiscernible characters. Stream of consciousness words are spoken or projected for reading. The flow is non-linear adding another layer of disconnectedness. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the dance choreography sometimes felt incongruous with the text. The movement is certainly emotional. This piece is very conceptual. The disparate elements simply did not come together for me.
I could appreciate the vision and themes being explored in The Unknown Dancer in the Neighborhood. Fully embracing this multi-media dance theater production was challenging. Fans of experimental work may find a treasure of interesting concepts to admire here. However, the muddled and shifting focus combined with the show's length pushed me away rather than pulled me into the story. The creatively assembled perspectives of a bleak view of humanity could not withstand the tedium of this production.
The Unknown Dancer in the Neighborhood is part of The Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival. The show is being performed at the Japan Society through January 14, 2020.