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Japanese troupe places equal value on dance, staging

| Sunday, Oct. 3, 2004

To understand Pappa Tarahumara ...

On second thought, forget the understanding part. When the curtain goes up Friday on the U.S. premiere of "Ship in a View," literal understanding will be left to cool its heels in the lobby of the Byham Theater.

To open its 35th season, the Pittsburgh Dance Council gives the audience an unreality check, courtesy of a surreal and singular artists collective from Tokyo, Japan.

"They were rehearsing their new piece in the state theater in Tokyo," says Dance Council executive director Paul Organisak. "They showed 15 or 20 minutes of their new piece. I said, 'Who is this company• What do I have to do to see more of their work and get them here?'"

The performance is also part of the International Festival of Firsts.

Pappa Tarahumara is a highly theatrical Japanese collective that affords equal importance to set design, video, architecture, music and dance. An "object designer" populates the stage with brightly colored bits of installation art. Former television director Hiroshi Koike, who founded Pappa Tarahumara in 1982, writes, directs and choreographs the productions.

"Ship in a View," which repeats Saturday, uses impressionistic sea imagery as well as choral music and futuristic lighting effects. A large, broken mast dominates the stage. A woman with long flowing black hair sings a keening lullaby as she bends over a broken bicycle.

"The Music Man" it ain't.

"He creates an environment and world where you're not quite sure where you are during the 100 minutes," Organisak says. "When I first saw it, I thought 'Are people on a shipwreck• Are they in a town?' You might wonder why the guy is sitting eating an apple or why the guy builds a hut using a hundred pairs of shoes. But it all sort of builds to some kind of whole."

According to production notes, Pappa Tarahumara endeavors to "liberate themselves from meaning," an aesthetic that echoes the manifesto of the man who indirectly gave Pappa Tarahumara its name, 19th-century French author, playwright and painter Antonin Artaud. A onetime member of the Surrealist movement, Artaud argued for theater that spoke a poetic and imagistic language free of literal syntax. In essays titled "The Theater of Cruelty" and "No More Masterpieces," he espoused anti-intellectual theater that was not in thrall to the spoken word.

Hiroshi Koike named Pappa Tarahumara after Artaud's writings on the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico.

Pittsburgh audiences may see a kinship with Nibroll and dumb type, two Japanese performance collectives that performed here last year. The Japanese approach is more akin to performance art than traditional dance, says Peter Kope of Attack Theatre, who toured Japan in 2002 with Nibroll.

"You can't look at it in the same way you look at a traditional dance companies in America," says Kope, who saw a Pappa Tarahumara rehearsal in Tokyo during the tour.

"The parameters are much more broadly defined," Kope says of the Japanese performance aesthetic. "There is equal value placed on the visual aspect, the costuming aspect, the staging. Everything carries a much greater weight."

Of the dancers, he says, "They are really physical. That was really exciting. It's incredibly disciplined as far as their technique. They just really go to town.

"This company is about allowing room for the audience to join in," he says. "It's definitely not easy, because it's an Eastern sensibility. They're a really warm company. I can't wait to see it."

Additional Information:

Details

Pappa Tarahumara

8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Admission: $20-$40

Where: Byham Theater, Downtown

Details: (412) 456-6666

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