Kokoro Dance delves deeper into human existence with intense new piece Embryotrophic Cavatina

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      In Kokoro Dance’s subterranean new KW Studios space, four still figures are coming to life slowly, ever so slowly, as if they are emerging from the primordial ooze.

      Jay Hirabayashi stands, knees bent, with laser focus, while Barbara Bourget lies in a fetal ball; Molly McDermott is collapsed over her knees on the floor and Billy Marchenski is flat on his back, legs splayed. To the sobbing strings and horns of Zbigniew Preisner’s Requiem for My Friend, their seized limbs begin to move.

      We have witnessed the three-decade-old Vancouver company take on themes of birth and death before; as interpreters of Japanese butoh, that will always be the substance of their work. And we have seen Kokoro dancers move with this slow but intensely committed action over the years. But what Kokoro has never quite done before is choreograph four separate but simultaneous solos, as Bourget and Hirabayashi do here, in this section of their new, full-length Embryotrophic Cavatina.

      Kokoro Dance takes on themes of birth and death.
      Chris Randle

      “We’ve developed a lot of material and we have to figure out where it fits together, where there are resonances and interconnections,” says Hirabayashi, who explains that the four have built the solos as a group.

      “It’s something I remember early in my career that Balanchine did,” explains Bourget, who once trained at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. “It was really intricate and precise and complex at the same time.”

      Bourget was drawn by the metaphorical value of staging simultaneous solos. “In life we have different paths. We share some things and we don’t share others,” she says, still breathing hard after the rehearsal. “You’re born, you become a teenager, you marry and have children.…If you take our four children, their paths have been incredibly different, even though they’ve been interconnected. Now we have five grandchildren and we’re seeing it repeat itself.

      “Dance really does that the best: it’s really expressing what it is to be human.”

      In a way, that’s always what Kokoro has tried to express. But now, with Bourget 67 and Hirabayashi 70—both preternaturally youthful—the theme is coming into sharper focus. “You do get a certain wisdom as you age—even though you make the same mistakes,” says Bourget with a laugh.

      Embryotrophic Cavatina swirls with these ideas of mortality and the ups and downs of life—“pain and joy and everything in between”, as Bourget puts it. It’s a piece the duo has been working on, intermittently, for the past 20 years. A major inspiration was Polish composer Preisner’s moving score, which is split into two parts: the first, “Requiem”; the second, “Life”, as the dance turns back into the world of the living after dwelling in grief. Kokoro had created a moving short to the first section, but had always dreamed of developing it into the full 69 minutes of Preisner’s score. That goal was reignited last year, when Bourget and Hirabayashi were teaching a workshop at Cuba’s Danza Teatro Retazos and performed the briefer version of Embryotrophic Cavatina.

      “They were so moved, we knew we had to do a full piece,” Bourget says.

      Back in Vancouver, the company’s been able to find added inspiration working on Embryotrophic Cavatina in its technically superb 3,802-square-foot production studio beneath the atrium of the Woodward’s Building—a space where Preisner’s haunting score immerses them.

      They’ve been creating it with two of their long-time dancers, McDermott and Marchenski, who have by now absorbed the duo’s profound approach to butoh-inspired movement.

      How difficult is it to move so determinedly slowly, as they do off the top of this section? “I think after working with them for 10 years I move slower each day,” McDermott says, smiling. “But even though it may appear we’re moving slow, inside we’re moving really fast.”

      “Barbara and Jay talk about trying to say the most with the least amount of effort,” adds Marchenski. “As you pare things away emotionally and psychologically, the obstacles to expression get stripped away and you’re expressing in a really deep level.…So you’re moving in a small way but you’re full of sensation.”

      Billy Marchenski searches for expression on a deep level.
      Chris Randle

      In the first part, “Requiem”, Kokoro has also stripped down the set, with the dancers performing nude except for loincloths, wearing the familiar ghostly white body paint of butoh. The second part, “Life”, fittingly comes to life with artist Tsuneko “Koko” Kokubo’s colourful costumes and projected paintings.

      Creating with its collaborators, Kokoro, after two decades of working on this piece, is circling back on its own history and finding new life—and loss—in it.

      “If you’ve gone full circle, then you start again, and I don’t really feel that we’ve completed any cycle,” Hirabayashi stresses. “We’re still finding new things to explore.”

      Embryotrophic Cavatina is at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre from Wednesday to Saturday (September 20 to 23) and from September 26 to 29.