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IMPRESSIONS: LEIMAY Ensemble's "Extinction Rituals," a Fantastical Funerary Rite

IMPRESSIONS: LEIMAY Ensemble's "Extinction Rituals," a Fantastical Funerary Rite
Robert Johnson

By Robert Johnson
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Published on June 14, 2023
"Extinction Rituals." Photo © Maria Baranova

Director, Choreographer and Designer: Ximena Garnica and Shige Moriya

Composer and Instrumentalist: Kaoru Watanabe

Composer and Vocalist: Carolina Oliveros

Performers of the LEIMAY Ensemble and guests: Masanori Asahara, Peggy Gould, Damontae Hack, Akane Little, Yusuke Mori and Irena Romendick

Costume Co-Designer: Irena Romendick

Associate Lighting Designer: Ayumu “Poe” Saegusa

Rehearsal Assistant and Stage Managing Support: Maitlin Jordan

LEIMAY Thought Partner and Guest Speaker: Jennifer E. Cuffee-Wilson

A small animal appears upstage in Extinction Rituals, the work-in-progress that Ximena Garnica and Shige Moriya’s LEIMAY Ensemble are presenting on June 9 at the Japan Society. Its tiny figure is merely a shadow on the backdrop, but it trundles along with that unmistakable sense of purpose animals often have. We don’t know what it is thinking, or what its mission may be. The beastie may be sniffing for food, or searching for a mate. It amuses us that a creature so insignificant should have any business at all. Then, quite suddenly, the animal-shadow dips below the horizon and is gone.

Has the little fellow found its burrow? Or has it gone the way of Martha, the last of the passenger pigeons, a species once so numerous that they darkened the skies, but which officially became extinct when Martha (as we called her) dropped dead at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914? Do we wonder what is happening to our world? Do we care?

Damontae Hack in Extinction Rituals; photo by Maria Baranova

These are the questions that Extinction Rituals asks during an evening of provocatively styled tableaux, insistent melodies, and the shimmering, tinkling sounds of a variety of instruments played by Kaoru Watanabe. Speaking at a post-performance Q&A with Jennifer E. Cuffee-Wilson, a Native-American activist, Garnica explains that Extinction Rituals is a funerary rite. Anticipating the death of the biosphere, Garnica and Moriya are paying their last respects. Perhaps their fears are a teensy bit exaggerated. We can hope so. To me, the piece suggests nostalgia for a world where, to be honest, few of us would survive — or want to live — without plentiful electricity and modern amenities.

Extinction Rituals is most successful when most flamboyant, and the dancers interact with scenic elements in a series of dreamlike scenes separated by blackouts. The “pure dance” passages seem less imaginative, perhaps because the characters are so isolated.  

Irena Romendick in Extinction Rituals; photo by Maria Baranova

Masanori Asahara has a lamp to play with. Gently rising and falling, he attends the lamp as it slowly rises high enough for him to dart beneath it. He spins quickly through its cone of light as if to avoid being burnt, then grows accustomed to the temperature and basks in the lamp’s glow.

Later, a dark arm protrudes branchlike from the wings, heralding the appearance of Irena Romendick, a fantastic creature with long creepers growing from her head, who enters arm-in-arm with a gnarled tree. Mounted on a wheeled platform, Romendick and the tree cross the stage ever so slowly, the woman gradually revolving. Then a group of four dancers emerge from the shelter of a lean-to, mostly headed in the same direction, as if migrating, to the sound of bells, rattles, and drums.

Carolina Oliveros, Kaoru Watanabe in Extinction Rituals; photo by Maria Baranova

Vocalist Carolina Oliveros is an intermittent presence, her opening cry acquiring melody and becoming rough or mellifluous by turns.  In a central episode, she stands in profile facing Watanabe, who is playing the flute on the other side of the stage. Sinking to the ground, Oliveros and Watanabe begin to roll toward each other, and while their song grows feeble it refuses to die. Once they recover their feet, the music rises to a fresh crescendo. Then, abruptly, the two fall silent. Have we just witnessed another extinction?

Akane Little in Extinction Rituals; photo by Maria Baranova

More strange creatures appear. Akane Little revolves voluptuously as a fiery nebula expands in the sky above her. Asahara reappears, standing rooted centerstage with strings extending loosely from his body on either side. Able to manipulate the strings, he’s not so much a prisoner as a creature in delicate equilibrium with its environment. As Asahara tilts forward, we see long spikes protruding from his spine. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a live dinosaur, come to think of it.

Masanori Asahara in Extinction Rituals; photo by Maria Baranova

Meanwhile, clouds chase one another madly across the backdrop. We see black-and-white images of flowers and foliage, in which nature has become a faded, scrapbook memory. At various points, the stage is bathed in color, with red and blue competing. Finally, the dancers become shadows, silhouetted in the fading light.

Masanori Asahara in Extinction Rituals; photo by Maria Baranova

Evidently, it is in humanity’s best interests to live in harmony with nature. A contradiction arises, however, when shifty-eyed technocrats inform us that we are too many — millions of us must be sacrificed in order to save the planet — and that we must surrender our farms and our freedoms. Those freedoms used to be called “natural rights.” Does environmentalism demand we choose between ecocide and genocide? Surely this is not what artists like Garnica and Moriya have in mind.

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