A cell phone went off near the end of MoBu Dance Group’s “Illusion 2” on February 2, the second-to-last night of its two-week run at SomArts Cultural Center. The audience was in the round, and the man answered the phone and took the call, appalling everyone. Then he yammered away, first heading for the door but soon circling back to stand center stage as MoBu’s four angelic dancers, in white silk dresses, swirled around him. For a moment the women really did look like apparitions, figments of the audience’s collective imagination, and we had to ask ourselves if perhaps the man was real and the performers were not.
Unfortunately this arresting coup de theater took more than an hour to arrive. On grounds of professionalism, this six-year-old company, led by the single-monikered choreographer and central dancer Takami, must be applauded. The performers (Monique Tajiri Goldwater, Mai Shimizu, and Roberta Marguerite Chavez) were fluid, finished, and finely trained. The evening was beautifully produced, even including a thoughtfully curated gallery exhibition to browse pre-show. But in the end, any real ideas behind the dancing remained as filmy and elusive as those dancers swirling around that planted cell-phone offender.
In large part, that’s because Takami combines two dance forms in a way that, rather than creating a thought-provoking friction, tend to mute each other’s power. Despite her attraction to Butoh, Takami is clearly more rooted in modern dance, and modern dance of a certain generic style: harmonious, centered, full of lush reaches, the kind of standard Graham-Taylor-Limon technique mash-up you might find taught in a college dance department. Her duets and quartets are prettily sculpted and easy on the eye; even when one dancer is throwing herself at another with sharp, gasping breaths, the effect seems studied rather than raw. Meanwhile, the Butoh part of the MoBu style remains cordoned off in sections that replay Butoh clichés: diabolical, delirious laughter, anguished screaming. They never get truly gritty; even when Takami and her dancers double over cackling, they do so with that kind of college-modern-dance control.
“Illusion 2” is seamlessly staged, even if its pretensions to innovation seem tame. Besides the audience in the round, the stage is divided into an upper and lower half with a staircase between; the stairs are flanked with Kana Tanaka’s glass sculptures, a thicket of long stems topped with round bulbs that rise like reeds from a swamp. I’d thought more might have been done with these throughout the dance, but they don’t come into play until near the end, when they glow. Tanaka also contributes a glass sculpture created on a wheeled platform—when placed in front of a screen, it reflects an image of a woman with cradling arms. Lighting designer Stephen Siegel’s silver cones hang from the ceiling and spin, sending thin parabolas of light around the room. Jorge Bachman is credited with the sometimes gently eerie, sometimes heaven-like sound score.
Takami’s program note talks of how sometimes “we know only one face (or one side) of a person. Our impression, our perception of the person is not always true…we also create illusions for ourselves and sometimes we create illusions for other people so they believe we are a certain way…” I can’t say the choreography brought me into these ideas in a complex or challenging way. There were shadow duets, two dancers on the higher stage, two below, but these never evolved, and in the end, rather than the kinds of primal, potent images good Butoh can leave you with, I walked away with a blur of lyricism.
I don’t believe I’m merely projecting my stereotyped ideas of what Butoh should be here; if Takami wants to make something beautiful out of this so-called “dance or darkness,” I can appreciate that. To make her idea of beauty more than banal, though, she’s going to have to use all that pretty lyricism as a foil to reveal something deeper. That man on the cell phone could have been a starting point, not an ending one.