Los Angeles Times

Sep 2, 1990

"'Water Flame' in U.S. Premiere at Japan America Theatre" By JOHN HENKEN, September 03, 1990

Michiko Akao has been teaching flutes to talk, in ever more dramatic concerts that have become annual events. The process blossomed in "Legend of the Water Flame," a U.S. premiere and Los Angeles Festival program Saturday and Sunday at the Japan America Theatre.

"Water Flame," the creative work of composer Maki Ishii and poet Makoto Ooka, is a sort of reverse melodrama, with a narrator interpreting and enlarging on a story essentially delivered through traditional Japanese flutes. That is very much "The World of Michiko Akao," as the program is supertitled.

Akao's flutes--the ryuteki from Gagaku and the nohkan from Noh--speak with expressive ease at her bidding, highly articulate in a supraverbal language of sonic gestures. The sound can be quite pure, but Saturday at least, Akao emphasized its organic qualities, making living wind and wood audible.

It helps that the story is one of symbolic dualities and elemental contrasts. Accidentally slain by lovers light and dark, Akatoki, the Dawn Women who is the incarnation of transient beauty, enters the Land of the Dead. There she confronts her own nature and that of her elder sister Tokoyo, the Women of the Eternal World, who returns her to the cycle of rebirth and ephemeral glory, "life's delicate flashing."



Ishii has given the two flutes and two worlds discrete vocabularies. For the ryuteki there is a lyrical ascending pattern that peaks in wonderfully bent pitches or smooth glissandos, while the nohkan is all neurotic flutterings and wild shrieks.

Shadowing the music is a spoken part--in Japanese, of course--for actor Kayoko Shiraishi. Part Earth goddess, part storytelling crone, she both interprets and contests the tale of the flutes, and, as Akao makes her instruments speak, Shiraishi makes her words sing in a voice that ranges from childlike piping to low, hoarse croaking.

Mediating all of this, serving up dramatic punctuation, scene-change interludes and moody general accompaniment, is Yasunori Yamaguchi at a battery of percussion. Most evocative was his cideloihos, a large metal ball with a crown of tuned rods created with sculptor Kazuo Harada. Played with mallets, it sounds much like steel-drums, but bowed, it has an icy vocal quality that well served the ambiguous music from the Underworld.

"Water Flame" is staged by Akio Jissoji in an odd amalgam of stylized abstraction, wrenching emotionalism and hammy cliches. His affection for the fog machine amounted to self-parody by the end of the 70-minute, intermissionless show, but he devised effective ritual patterns for Akao and kept Shiraishi physically engaged in a gestural tour de force, hands and even feet popping out of her cloak at unlikely angles.

The flexible unit set is by Hiroshi Tomi, relying on mirrored panels to bounce around abstract patterned projections, and the lighting of Sumio Yoshii, heavy on the blues and stark whites as filtered through the omnipresent fog.

Takayuki Mori designed the simple, functional and elegant costumes, which reflected the respect for both traditional and contemporary perspectives consistent in all elements of the production.