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Friday, Dec. 3, 2010

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An all-female corps de ballet create an undulating sea. KIYONORI HASEGAWA PHOTO

Dancing on Mishima's waves

Special to The Japan Times

Childhood, a time of purest innocence, is also a spring of dark imagination. Maurice Bejart, French choreographer and collaborator with the Tokyo Ballet in the 1990s, took the childhood and life of writer Yukio Mishima as his muse when creating the original ballet "M" in 1993, but his imagination of the title "M" also evokes "mort" (death), "mer" (ocean), and "mythologie" (mythology) to create a metaphysical allegory not intended as pure biography.

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Death, the ocean and mythology: Juichi Kobayashi (left) as Shi in Maurice Bejart's "M."

This month, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Mishima's death, Tokyo Bunka Kaikan is showing Bejart's "M" with most of its original cast. Former Bejart Ballet Lausanne star, Juichi Kobayashi — whose retirement from ballet seven years ago due to intervertebral disk degeneration left many fans disappointed — will reprise the role of Shi, while Naoyoshi Nagase, a rising soloist, debuts in the role of Saint Sebastian.

"M" has particular meaning for Artistic Director Munetaka Iida, who himself danced Shi and sees the importance of passing on Bejart's works to new audiences with the "fresh colors" of new dancers. "Even if you don't know Mishima's works, you can enjoy 'M,' its unique choreography, dancer's technique and beautiful sets. It describes love, solitude and death, which everyone experiences," he said.

Most have at least heard of Mishima (1925-1970), who, as a writer, philosopher and personality, permeates modern Japanese literature like no one else. With the success of his novel "Confessions of a Mask," Mishima asserted his ability to render the taboo — violence, homosexuality, masturbation — with resonating beauty. Structured as a series of dance sequences, Bejart, a fan of the writer, structured "M" to follow a discernible timeline of Mishima's life.

The ballet opens with the sea — evocative of rebirth and an important symbol in Mishima's writing — represented by a graceful, all-female corps de ballet. A schoolboy enters wearing the uniform of Mishima's alma mater and led by an enigmatic grandmother. The narrative reverberates between imaginative worlds as Mishima's spirit, represented by the schoolboy, revisits his past. His conflicted relationship with his grandmother and his love / terror of the sea, culminate with the introduction of Bejart's four stages of man: Ichi (one), Ni (two), San (three) and Shi (four, which also means "death").

Shi emerges as an intermediary between these worlds, and the grandmother sheds her kimono for a white-faced mask of death. Meanwhile, Saint Sebastian — based on the 15th-century Christian saint depicted in Guido Reni's painting as a nubile youth shot by arrows, and an early influence on Mishima — casts a guileless homoerotic sexuality across the entire staging.

Bejart's choreography effortlessly matches the challenges of the varied musical score — a mixture of Western compositions and original Japanese music by the late Toshiro Mayuzumi, himself a friend of Mishima's. At turns avant-garde and modern in movement, such as in the brilliant pas de deux between Ichi and Woman, Bejart's steps also shift to the light frolic of classical waltz.

Silences throughout the work — the patient, measured pace of the samurai archer preluding the entrance of Saint Sebastian — echo the Japanese reverence for emptiness and reveal an authentic appreciation for Japanese culture. Steps reminiscent of noh and kabuki exist in harmony with classical movements, and motifs favored by Mishima — mirrors, masks, the outsider, observing — feature throughout the ballet.

"M" mirrors Mishima's emotions as it moves through the ennui and frustration found in his work "Kyoko's House," his triumphant jubilation at discovering power in "Patriotism" and his hopelessness when marooned by his own ideals like the sailor of "The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea."

Mishima shocked the world by committing seppuku (ritual suicide) at age 45. But in Bejart's hands, the paralyzing sadness of suicide is diffused by a tender grace and transmuted to triumphant beauty: The sea and the military converge as cherry blossoms, that ephemeral flower, rain down eternally.

After a red ribbon symbolizing Mishima's enduring kokoro (heart, mind, intelligence and soul) entwines all the dancers, the final scene of "M" revisits the ballet's opening sequence. The return to the sea and the schoolboy's laughter evokes the cycle of life, leaving a lasting impression of childhood's terrible beauty and the tragic yet uplifting experience of human existence.

No matter how controversial, Mishima transforms the sludge of the human psyche into something golden in all his works. And Bejart's "M" accomplishes the same, making it a tribute truly worthy of his muse's genius.

"M" plays Dec. 18 and 19, starting at 3 p.m., at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan; tickets range from ¥10,000-¥4,000 and are available from the NBS ticket center, 03-3791-8888 (Japanese only) or can be ordered in English by e-mail to english@nbs.or.jp. For more information, visit the NBS website www.nbs.or.jp.

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