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Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2001

Enter a labyrinth of dance and drama

Special to The Japan Times

From beginning to end, "Les Commentaires d'Habacuc," as created by Josef Nadj, is like a series of images from Salvador Dali's paintings brought to life through the flesh and blood of his dancers' movements.

Performers in Josef Nadj's "Les Commentaires d'Habacuc"

The work is loosely based on the Old Testament's Book of Habacuc (or Habakkuk), which describes the Judeans' suffering during the death throes of the Assyrian Empire, which fell in 612 B.C. It was premiered to huge critical and audience acclaim at the Avignon Theater Festival in 1996.

Nadj is now bringing "Habacuc" to Setagaya Public Theater for three performances next weekend. Stand by for the critics -- and those of you lucky enough to be there -- to echo the praises of Provence.

Nadj, who was born 42 years ago in Vojvodina, a Hungarian region of the former Yugoslavia (now in Serbia), is making his third visit to Japan. However, many theatergoers will still have fresh, exciting memories of his visit last year to the same venue with "Woyzeck." Based on Georg Bchner's drama about the poor soldier Woyzeck going mad because his lover is having an affair, that production entirely enchanted its Japanese audiences.

For their part, critics described what they saw as a "new-genre contemporary dance," positioned in a category between dance and drama. This label is hardly surprising given that Nadj, after studying art, music and drama in his homeland, moved to Paris in 1980, where he met some leading choreographers, including Mark Tompkins, Catherine Diverres and Francoise Verret. Putting aside his initial intention to do drama, he decided to be a dance choreographer and, in 1986, founded his own dance company.

The following year, his company debuted at the Bastille theater in Paris with "Canard Pekinois."

With his stage roots in drama, though, Nadj fits in with the contemporary dance world's trend. His debut work, with its new style for the performing arts -- "a fusion of dance and drama," as it was described -- was a sensation and propelled him to instant worldwide fame.

Since then, he has worked with vigor, continuing to develop his avant-garde and distinctive approach. This special world he creates may result in part from his formative years spent in the village of Kanjizain, in the religiously, geographically and politically mixed-up land at the Balkan crossroad of Europe.

The inspiration for "Habacuc," besides the Old Testament, came from the works of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). With the Biblical proposition that "people can live eternally together in harmony, keeping their own faith inside themselves, because God knows everything," Nadj combines Borges' ideas about the catholicity of life experience -- specifically, that people live in a labyrinth, where order and chaos, fiction and reality, the past and the present blend.

In "Habacuc," that "labyrinth" becomes a big thematic concern: Nadj has developed Borges' essence visually on the stage.

The visionary folkloric music of Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer -- who comes from the same area of former Yugoslavia as Nadj -- resounds through the production. The 10 brilliant dancers create an air of illusion simply by their ceaseless and often unexpected movement, forging their bodies into seemingly impossible shapes or breaking into slow motion. Animation, film or video have previously shown us the body moving in mysterious ways, but now, in "Habacuc," this "unreality" is there in a live-performance form too.

On stage, the dancers appear suddenly in unexpected places, sometimes coming up, sometimes down, from the right and the left, then bending every which way, or falling "asleep." The dancers' movements are not the stuff of perfect balance or the superhuman, high jumps of classical ballet, but nonetheless strong physical dance techniques underpin their unbalanced, completely new concept of dance.

Though some critics have commented on this form of dance performance as a pantomime or a play, this writer would dare to say strongly that this is a true contemporary dance performance, staged with consistent dance techniques and brought to life by the dancers' excellent expression.

Nadj has conjured this production from the maze of his imagination, and the fantastical succession of surprises will hold your attention to the end. It's not only the dancers' movements that are protean, but also the scenery: Tables, walls, furniture and boxes are manipulated so skillfully by the performers that they seem to change their very shape.

Perhaps, on reflection, it is because of Nadj's Balkan roots that he can handle the complicated mixture of ideas in his labyrinth. It will surely be a show to see if you can handle them, too.

Performances are on Nov. 9 (7:30 p.m.), 10 (3 p.m.) and 11 (3 p.m.) at Setagaya Public Theater (above Sangenjyaya Station on the Tokyu Denentoshi and Setagaya lines). Tickets cost 3,000 yen or 4,500 yen. For further details, call the theater, at (03) 5432-1526 or fax (03) 5432-1559.

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