Japan's Dairakudakan conjures a mindblowing Paradise

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      A Dairakudakan production. A Vancouver International Dance Festival presentation. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday, March 10. Continues March 11

      A mindblowing carnival of unearthly delights, Paradise is a formidable contender for Vancouver's dance event of the year. If you've got nothing to do tonight, or you just want to get your freak on, this is a rare chance to see one of the most outlandish shows to hit town... well, since Dairakudakan first came here in 2015.

      The production—from Japanese butoh legend Akaji Maro—is exotically terrifying, with ghostlike forms, echoing screams, and possessed laughter. But just as the epic, stage-filling visions of life, death, ecstasy, and torment reach their zenith, the sparkly-suited roller skaters arrived.

      The maestro himself appears at the beginning, rising dramatically from a convulsing, huddled mass of bald, white-caked, near-naked forms. Maro wears a long green gown and a green-streaked white fright wig, anchoring the other dancers by long chains clamped to their necks, heads, arms, and legs. They pull out and circle him like lost, trapped souls, spokes on a wheel of hell.

      Maro is deeply, cynically interested in how we define paradise these days as the earth teeters on apocalypse. The visions he conjures sometimes suggest different religious and historic notions of utopia. Recurring images of flower petals and projections of Henri Rousseau's lush, leafy paintings nod to ancient Persian ideas of paradise as a garden. There's also a scene where neon-red, -blue, and -yellow-maned Eves and their Adams are tempted by fruit—and by two nightmare-inducing serpent-dancers with flicking red tongues and undulating arms.

      But Maro is also interested in the fictional paradises we try to construct: note the grinning, satin-clothed roller skaters with the John Travolta moves. You get the sense the choreographer also seems to hint that we sometimes escape into a better place through drug-induced hallucination, which is exactly what a lot of his head-spinning spectacle feels like.

      Still, you don't have to overanalyze everything to enjoy Paradise. This is a show that's entirely entertaining on a purely visual level. Scenario after scenario unfolds on a stage where tall boxes cleverly shape-shift to create absurd new worlds. At one point limbs jut and bend out of the tops of those rectangles. At another moment, two eerily smiling heads poke out of other small holes. An electro synth score that sounds like a John Carpenter '80s horror movie adds to the creeped-out atmosphere. 

      Amid the spectacle, the skill and commitment of Maro's 18 honed dancers make it all work, each mastering the crouched, primal, zombielike moves of butoh, but bringing individual demons to their personas. An early scene finds the ghoulish figures throwing off their chains and lurching around Maro, each one twisting his or her face and body up into a different, detailed kind of pain.

      The show all builds to a frenzy of colour, then circles in on itself. Paradise's giddy, chaotic roller-skating party gives way, again, to the chains. The smiles were a a ruse; we delude ourselves by chasing paradise.

      This is dark stuff from a darkly funny genius, and we can thank the Vancouver International Dance Festival for bringing him and his big troupe of dancers here. On opening night, Maro and his dedicated group received a standing ovation and several dramatic curtain calls; now robed in white to match his pancake makeup, he met the applause and whooping with a bow, pleasing everyone with his deadpan killer death stare—the kind that could chill your blood. 

      If you're lucky enough to catch the show, we can't promise those searing eyes, white pancake makeup, and frankenwig won't revisit you in the middle of the night.