The Unknown Dancer in the Neighbourhood

Scott Wallace
23rd Mar 2017

Existing halfway between dance and theatre, the bold new work The Unknown Dancer in the Neighbourhood made its Sydney debut thanks to The Japan Foundation. The homespun, storytelling quality of the piece, performed and choreographed by Wataru Kitao, and written by Suguru Yamamoto, makes its broad and non-linearity and oddly uncanny experience for the audience.

Set in the neighbourhood of Nagai, around a small cast of characters and several dire incidents in which they are directly or indirectly involved, The Unknown Dancer in the Neighbourhood investigates the resounding effects of death when compromised by apathy and anonymity. It searches for meaning in tiny moments between characters that can be either funny or devastating.

The sole figure on stage, Kitao interacts with a few props, and projections on the rear of the stage. He speaks Japanese, surtitled in English above the stage, while the rest of the dialogue is represented by projected text in English and Japanese. Kitao fluidly moves between characters, his mastery of body language and movement aided by coloured lights and music from sources as diverse as 10cc and Al Green. 

Even in the most dialogue-heavy scenes, where relationships between characters are illuminated by seemingly throwaway conversations, Kitao is in constant motion. He moves restlessly around the stage, punctuating each word with a shiver or his limbs or a sprightly step. He conveys weight and movement in brilliantly convincing ways, and at the climax of the piece he is overcome with seering emotion. The piece never feels overly choreographed or laboured, and there is a stunning authenticity to his performance.

Despite the minimalism of the staging, the urban atmosphere that The Unknown Dancer in the Neighbourhood conjures - with a flurry of information from all sides verging on overload - it should be very recognisable to most audience members. At the same time, though, it also reveals something essential about Japan's complex culture and modes of expression in the feelings of alienation and isolation that it conveys.

For more information about The Japan Foundation, and their important role in bringing Japanese culture to Sydney, visit their website.