Arts & Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe

Degrees of motion

Harvard-trained choreographer, 24, finds balance in debut

CAMBRIDGE -- It's 11:30 on a muggy Monday morning. Choreographer Ryuji Yamaguchi, stretched out on the floor of Green Street Studios, flicks on the boombox near his elbow and trains a video camera on three women rehearsing "Lullaby," a dance he made this year. The first things you notice are the hands: Hands spiraling upward, perhaps to pick a blossom. Hands cocked at angles, like twigs sprouting from a branch. Hands as leaves, twisting in the wind. The music, a Japanese lullaby by Ikue Asasaki, conjures up images of flowers and still lakes. Then the sky falls.

"This thing here has to come out of nowhere and goes back to nowhere," says Yamaguchi, standing, when the trio finishes. The "thing" he speaks of is a sequence he's crafted for dancer Adrienne Minster: Balanced in a lunge, she must stomp with her front foot while her back toes drag and her arm whirls with the force of a pitcher's on the mound.

Yamaguchi, 24, is similarly philosophical in correcting Vera Vine, who performs his solo "Sanctuary" (2003). "Even slowness shouldn't be at one speed," he says about Vine's opening circular walk. "The effect should be a collage of slow."

Yamaguchi's intelligent, often self-referential dances will be on display in a show called "Sprout" tonight and tomorrow as part of Green Street Studios' Emerging Artist Series, his professional debut in the United States.

The six pieces, many of which were choreographed while Yamaguchi was a student at Harvard (he graduated in June), were inspired by sources as varied as the plight of Japanese nursemaids from the 1600s, sandbox therapy, and Isao Takahata's animated film "Grave of the Fireflies."

What binds them together is an ironic, reductivist style and a preoccupation with how perception determines interpretation. "There's an inner sensitivity to Yamaguchi's work," says Claire Mallardi, a lecturer on dramatic arts at Harvard. "He always has something interesting to say, whether it comes from his head or his heart or both, and he searches conscientiously for the best way to say it. His choreography goes beyond just movement. He also has an innate sense of structure and form. He's a talent to be watched."

Raised and educated in the United States and Japan, Yamaguchi sees himself as residing aesthetically in two worlds. Physically, he's even more scattered: He rents an apartment in Brooklyn, but because of Boston dance commitments he's spent just two days there. For months he's crashed with friends in Harvard dorms. And his parents now live in Australia, a place he says he's been "two weeks total." Like his life, his art is concerned with creating not so much safe havens as imaginatively productive ones.

"I think of Japan and the New England area as home," he says, placing two slices of pizza on a table at the MIT Stratton Student Center in preparation for a chat. Yamaguchi was an athlete in high school -- he wrestled, played water polo, and pole vaulted -- and it shows. Everything about him is strong: his handshake, his broad shoulders, his slightly bowed legs. His eyes, though, give away his ironic bent. They always seem to be laughing under his shock of black hair.

"I'm really concerned with how I fit into society, how I define myself and feel comfortable in the environment, how I can contribute to the community so I feel more comfortable," he says.

In Japan, as a teenager, he resolved that question by street performing, riding a unicycle while juggling with torches and knives. On good days, he and his brother, his performing partner, might take home more than $1,000 -- all of which, after equipment expenses, went to victims of the 1994 earthquake in Kobo.

In the United States, he introduced dance to his high school, Deerfield Academy.

"My attitude toward modern dance was similar to how guys see break dancing: It was cool," he says. He was a persuasive ambassador. By the time he graduated, he'd choreographed 13 pieces and enticed more than 40 male students and 12 male faculty members to perform. He'd been a fan of Cirque du Soleil in his street-performing days, but his exposure to dance as an art form had been minimal. He attended the "Nutcracker" at age 6, but remembers only the Mouse King and falling asleep on the balcony railing. His epiphany came when his wrestling coach gave him a video of the troupe Pilobolus and suggested that he pursue the form.

"I started choreographing before I ever took a dance class," says Yamaguchi, who has since studied tai chi and Brazilian capoeira as well as modern dance at Harvard and with local teachers.

Like the man who makes them, Yamaguchi's dances embody a kind of fluid stillness. That's partly because of the choreographer's psychological makeup. An example: While in college he considered becoming a Buddhist monk and apprenticed at the Yakushi Temple in Nara, Japan, praying, chanting, and doing "a lot of chores," he says. It's also because he's strongly influenced by Japanese culture, especially in the way he uses time and relationships in space. "I'm very interested in the distance -- or the nondistance -- between people, the tension that brings to the relationship," he says. "It's also partly why I don't use music a lot. I tend to use silence or music that I can override with movement.

"I like pattern work as well, where one thing will set up another thing. Since time is sequential, everything that comes before is a setup for what comes after, and it's really interesting how your perception of a piece changes . . . because of what happened minutes before." Apparent opposites define Yamaguchi's emotional message: His dances are serene and eery at once. "Lullaby," for example, takes as one of its inspirations stories about Japanese nursemaids from the 1600s to the early 1900s. The nursemaids, 5 to 16 years old, came from poor families to serve the wealthy by carrying smaller children on their backs. Their remuneration? Food.

"The image is of children picking flowers in a beautiful environment, of doing something innocent and free -- except they have a kid on their back," says Yamaguchi. "Sanctuary," set to a screechy violin solo by Kaija Saariaho that recalls horror films, sprang from two sources: the book "Deep River," by Shusaku Endo, which describes the drive among contemporary Japanese to make a pilgrimage to India to seek enlightenment, and Takahata's film about postwar orphans in Japan searching for food and shelter.

For Yamaguchi as a choreographer, both the direction and the final destination of his path are unclear.

"I don't know what form my choreographic career will ultimately take," he says, "whether I will freelance or form my own company. Over the next few years I want to get a feel for what kinds of dancers and dances are out there, for what's happening in the dance world. I want to figure out what the most comfortable situation is for me. My hope is to first find a groove in terms of how I want to work and what type of work I want to make aesthetically before I think about format. Then I can take root."

Globe Archives Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months