by Pamela Rogow
Early this year Mt. Airy choreographer Leah Stein began planning a dance performance at the Japan House in Fairmount Park for this year’s Fringe Festival. Then in March, a catastrophic earthquake struck Japan, and a tsunami poured onto the land. The nuclear disaster that is Fukushima continues to unfold.
Classic Japanese values have shaped the communal response to these horrific natural and man-made events: honoring time and space, orderliness and harmony. It follows that even the underpinnings of Stein’s planned performance were newly challenged.
The Shofuso Japan House in Fairmount Park was built 50 years ago with natural materials in a 17th century style appropriate for a member of the upper class, such as a samurai warrior, government official or wealthy scholar. Its serenity is reinforced by the adjoining tea house and ornamental garden.
There, the Leah Stein Dance Company will present an hour-long work several times during this year’s Fringe Festival. It was created in collaboration with Roko Kawai, whom Stein has known since the 1980s when they met at a movement artists’ workshop at Swarthmore. Today Stein lives in Mt. Airy and teaches at Bryn Mawr College. Kawai lives and works in the Bay Area; she bridges unusual genres, having trained in traditional Japanese and contemporary improvisational performance.
In an interview this week, Stein recalled her first trip to Japan in 2007. “Roko met me at the airport, and it was already so amazing: the use of space … the way they brought all the bags to us. Space management even for luggage! And the attentiveness to landscape and architecture and function! It is a small island with so many people. There is an economy of space and movement there. The lines they form! It is extremely orderly, all the time. It’s striking — and a huge contrast to the Wild West, the expansion that this country has been about.”
Stein was in Japan to create a work with Kawai in a 200-year-old Japanese house in a small town, two hours south of Tokyo. Singer Mika Kimula and dancer Hideo Arai joined them, a collaboration that continued the following year. “I had wanted them to come for this year’s production,” Stein says now, “but the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disrupted their lives directly. I have been Skyping and talking to them both regularly. Hideo has been traveling up to the Sendai region and visiting Fukushima to offer dance workshops for the children living in temporary housing. He is very shaken by the devastation.
“Roko and I felt the need to honor and acknowledge these monumental events that disrupt, shatter, shake one to the core. How does one recover and keep going? The Japanese House and Garden offers such a carefully considered place of grace and beauty and thoughtfulness. Immediately there is a sense of calm here. So our question in the performance is, how do these two worlds meet, co-exist? Hideo is not with us this year, yet he is part of the piece. He talked about seeing the rubble in Fukushima, the villages, houses and people … totally destroyed and washed away. But there were small items strewn about — a teacup, a record, an open book.
“We hope the performance will speak to all of this and connect with many people’s ordinary lives and the persistence, grace and strength to carry on in the face of great loss … We did not plan this, but our final performance is the 10th anniversary of 9/11.”
(Kathryn L. Speer of Mt. Airy, will also be performing with the Leah Stein Dance Company.)
The Shofuso Japanese House and Garden is in West Fairmount Park at 4301 Lansdowne Drive. The performances will be Sept 8 and 9, 6 p.m.; Sept 10 at 4 and 6 p.m., and Sept 11 at 2 p.m.
For tickets and information: www.livearts-fringe.org or 215-413-1318. The 15th Annual Fringe/Live Arts Festival runs through Sept. 17. More on the Shofuso Japan House: www.shofuso.com.