The Idiot

Choreography Saburo Teshigawara
The Print Room at the Coronet Notting Hill
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Saburo Teshigawara is either a fearless or a foolhardy man to take on Dostoyevsky’s seven-hundred-page 19th century novel and condense it into an hour of dance theatre. What can he capture in that short time but its fleeting essence? And yet his minimalist Idiot feels epic and eternal. Time stands still.

A music prologue: we listen in the darkness and wait. A hazy light on the black backcloth—is this an awakening brain? A dark gothic shape slowly takes form. Teshigawara stands, hands on the lapels of his black jacket, knees bent, a radiance playing on his shiny pate. Lights out. Blink. Look again. The light finds him: he explores the space, reaches out as if acknowledging phantoms.

An enigmatic woman in black (Rihoko Sato) sweeps in, elegant, richly attired. She dances, her skirt and train billow—is this a ball? He looks a lost soul. He turns himself in knots to follow her train (of thoughts?). There’s something forlorn Petrushka puppet about him.

Auditory assault from all sides: the rattle of a train, jazz and classical music, party noises, soirée chatter. His legs wobble. His lit space shrinks, confines him. His hands tremble and shake. His knees buckle. The light seems to bother him. Are these noises in his head?

I think German expressionism of the 1920s. I think Noh and Kabuki. I think qi gong. There is plenty of time to think. His stance is awkward. The elusive woman returns, circles him and he smiles. They dance, satellites in each other’s orbit. She and the music have him under their spell. Then she is gone.

An introspective solo, an abstraction of inner turmoil, a reaching for the light, reveals his bewildered heart. He takes off his jacket, folds it neatly and places it on the floor. Now he is all in clinical white. Rolls up his shirtsleeves, unbuttons his shirt, rubs his arms, and reverses the action.

There’s a grace to his ineptness. She intrudes. They walk side by side, in their own interior worlds. She leaves him disordered: he can’t see how to get his jacket on. His mind is going. A Dostoyevskian brain fever, a nervous breakdown...

His face turns to the heavenly glow. The woman lies dead; a requiem plays. A large rat scurries in the shadows. Myshkin sits like a toddler on the floor, legs outstretched; light and sound fade. All done.

Is Teshigawara following in Akira Kurosawa’s footsteps? Kurosawa, who identified deeply with Dostoyevsky, made a poignant black and white film of The Idiot in 1951. Teshigawara seems similarly connected to the Russian author.

Light and dark, Dostoyevsky’s novels are moral philosophy in action. The Idiot was his attempt at writing a good man, a beautiful man, a Don Quixote, a holy fool, a Christ-like figure. He succeeded, but he made the epileptic, sensitive Prince Myshkin strangely ineffectual. Myshkin is not made for this life.

What those who don't know the novel make of the production I can’t imagine. My teenage companion, whom I had primed, says he would have thought it was about a man with Tourette’s syndrome or autism or OCD. Is this the modern day Idiot? What has changed? Thoughts triggered by Teshigawara’s gauche moves, repetitive compulsive moves, tentative moves, baffled glances.

The confusion in our brains reflects the confusion in his: the giddy whirl of life after time away in a sanatorium in Switzerland, his love for, or empathy with, the abused Nastasya Filippovna, his love for Aglaya. But who is the rat (Emiko Murayama incognito in raincoat, hat and long tail)? Is it the dark force of his rival Rogozhin, or immoral Russian society?

Choreographer, director and performer for over 30 years, Teshigawara is a painter and sculptor, who also studied classical ballet, and here he covers all the bases: performer, director, lighting and costume designer, and collage creator of a cinematic sound score (I’d love a breakdown of its bits and pieces) that is the affecting scaffolding of his dance narrative, such as it is. Shostakovich’s 1938 waltz—on a loop—is an irresistible force.

An intriguing personal response to Dostoyevsky’s rambling work; performance art we must not overthink but feel, patiently, compassionately. “I knew it would be impossible to create choreography taken from such a novel, but this impossibility has been key to our approach in creating something completely new.” That he has.

Vera Liber