Born in Japan, Kenji Yamaguchi performed professionally throughout Asia before moving to the United States 2000 where he earned a B.F.A. from California Institute of the Arts. He performed with the Los Angeles based KIN Dance Company, run by Co-Founders Frit and Frat, before forming his own company, Ken Dance Company, in 2005. Yamaguchi’s production of GENESIS OF YAMATO was presented at the James R. Armstrong Theater in Torrance, California. It is a complex work that examines the ancestry, myths and literature of Japan.

To better understand Yamaguchi’s GENESIS OF YAMATO, one needs knowledge of Japanese lore and mythology. The work is divided into three acts, KOJIKI, GENJI and ASURA. Yamato is, per my research, the traditional name for Japan and it was the ruling dynasty of the 4th century AD from which all emperors of Japan are descended. It means “land of great harmony”. There is the spirit of yamato or the Japanese group spirit, or as stated in the program, “The Heart of Japan, Yamato, to be ONE.”

KOJIKI is the oldest surviving chronicle in Japan dating back to the early 8th century. It was composed by Ō no Yasumaro at the request of Empress Genmei. The Kojki is a collection of myths which include the origin of the islands of Japan and the spirits of the forces of nature.  GENJI is a novel of classical Japanese Literature that details the many love adventures of Hikaru Genji, son of an emperor. Finally, ASURA has different meaning in different countries, but generally appears to be among the lowest ranks of deities or demigods of the Kāmadhātu (the desire realm).

Yamaguchi’s GENESIS OF YAMATO is steeped in mythology, emotions of love and loss, and journeys into the afterlife, but here his movement vocabulary is limited. We see the same movement phrases and combinations repeated throughout the production, causing the storylines of each act to become interchangeable. By Act III, one myth melts into another. Only when Yamaguchi appears in Act III does this vocabulary expand. He has a unique ability to dance into and out of the floor with great ease, and his training in gymnastics certainly showcased his physical abilities. These acrobatics, however, did little to add any depth to the tale of ASURA.

Ken Dance Company – Photo by Michael Higgins

The cast of performers are very talented. They perform Yamaguchi’s well-grounded, and mixture of a host of dance styles with great ease and attention to detail. The ill-fated love duet between Yamaguchi and Kana Miyamoto is stunning, and the partnering is beautiful. Junji Dezaki gives a powerful performance in Act II as the lustful serial lover who is unable to choose just one woman until it is too late. Lucy Diaz portrays the Amazon-like deity with great strength and statue. But, the dancer whose stage presence, passion and fearless dancing deserves special mention is Norma Ann Taitano Phillips. She is stunning.

Per the company’s website, the Lighting Designer for Ken Dance Company is Gregory Fuller. There was no listing for Lighting Designer in the program, but if it is Fuller’s work, he deserves mention. The lighting is rich of texture and greatly help create the worlds of these characters. There was, however, an overuse of blackouts, which were probably at the request of the choreographer. The costumes by Miyamoto and Yamaguchi reflect the Japanese culture and are quite beautiful.

The other part of the production was the sound, which included music by Masami, Jeff van Dyck, Hirokazu Akiyama, Kashiwa Daisuke, Star Piano, Agatsuma, Saltillo, Yashido Brothers and Yantara Jiro. The recordings of these was extremely uneven. Some, mostly the drumming, came across very clearly and powerfully. Other recordings sounded as if they were coming through a tape recorder backstage.

The Ken Dance Company is populated by strong and talented dancers. Those not mentioned above include Risa Arisue, Natalie Emmons, Ashley Hu, Nekai Johnson, Hannah Odgers, Catherine Smith and Devin Shroll. The choreography is athletic, drowning in constant physical isolations, and ever-moving. GENESIS OF YAMATO is a good showcase for the talents of its dancers, but the actual content of the work does not remain in ones memory for very long.

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Jeff Slayton
Jeff Slayton has had a long and influential career as a dancer, choreographer, and educator. Born in Virginia in 1945, Slayton began dancing as a child in order to correct his condition of hip dysplasia. He enjoyed a performance career in New York dancing for Merce Cunningham, Viola Farber and others. In 1978 he moved to Long Beach, CA. where began teaching at California State University, Long Beach as a part time faculty member. He became a full time faculty member in 1986 and continued to teach at CSULB until 1999. Jeff Slayton was one of the faculty members that helped design the Dance Center at CSULB as well as develop and implement the BFA, MFA and MA degree programs. While in Long Beach, he formed his own company, Jeff Slayton & Dancers, that operated from 1978 to 1983. He continues to stage works in the Southern California area. He is also the author of two books, "The Prickly Rose: A Biography of Viola Farber" and "Dancing Toward Sanity". For more information on Jeff Slayton please go to www.jeffslayton.org.

1 COMMENT

  1. Did we watch the same show?! This show was stunning and though the sound quality needed to be improved, ability that kenji was able was to succeed with was totally entrancing the audience with his compilations of myths. With such skill that we know we were looking to see from the performers knowing the level of quality the company possesses the show was not to showcase skill itself. It was to tell a story, to tell art and I give them 5 stars for losing us in this traditional Japanese piece. I am still thinking about the show and how it was so different from american contemporary hip hop and jazz and became its own style of dance.

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