THEATRE / It's not always easy talking to a sage

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The last time Saburo Teshigawara came to London, he danced on broken glass at The Place. In 1985 he buried himself up to his neck in earth for eight hours. This year, visiting the Queen Elizabeth Hall for two performances only, steel is his chosen medium.

It is steel that has been rusted, beaten and burnished by Teshigawara's disciple-like dancers. In Japan, where the proliferation of religious sects is an alarming phenomenon, the choreographer and artist has taken on the status of a kinder version of the cult hero, a guru of all things fashionable and spiritual.

His philosophy, which draws together strands of Zen and Sixties Western radicalism, is a way of life. Without preaching, he has gently accumulated followers in the three decades that he has been practising his art, and by an unusual twist, his fans are getting younger by the year. "I don't want to be a teacher," he says quietly but with a passion. "I do not like teachers or educational establishments. I'm not saying learning is bad, but educational systems are not the best way of learning. To know or feel something is how you learn. If you have some sensibility you can learn anything. Or doubting, that taught me a lot."

With the knowledge of his icon-like status, and having already had a taste of the brutality of his emotionally devastating choreography, the prospect of meeting the master is somewhat daunting. When the moment comes, he is to be found sitting in a cafe by an arts centre outside Paris, dressed, as expected, in understated black designer-wear and a little workman's hat. He is modest, self-effacing and he apologises for his very broken English with a charmingly shy laugh.

After studying sculpture in Tokyo, he trained in classical ballet. "Swan Lake. I danced this," he smiles at the memory. "I liked doing the exercises every day, but my interests are different..." This is a typical Teshigawara understatement. Noiject, his most recent choreography, takes place on a vast, dominating steel stage, on which his dancers are dwarfed and on to which they hurl themselves, crashing limp on its untender mass, sometimes making electrical connections with it which cause terrifying flashes and crackles, like somebody getting caught on an electricity pylon.

At one point Teshigawara himself performs a curious dance with a metal coat, which seems to take on a life of its own and manipulate the dancer, rather than the dancer controlling it. Teshigawara has come a long way from the Tchaikovsky.

His ideas are complex, mystical and very hard to translate into English. Sometimes it's not easy talking to a sage. Now Teshigawara is talking about stone on a mountain, he's talking about liquid metal, about rivers and water and rust. He is eagerly trying to communicate, but language isn't helping. Suddenly I realise that the one word missing from his vocabulary is "steel". "Yes!" his face lights up. He's talking about his stage-set. "It is a process of object transition," he explains, "of process."

The steel comes from the mountain in the form of ore; it's melted down and cast into plates, which are hard and shiny. Add water, it rusts.

"It's a good education to know how materials can be transformed," says Teshigawara. "When we created the piece, all the dancers worked for many weeks with the steel plates - making them rusty, then polishing them. The performance is only one part of the process."

When the performers come to throw themselves at this vast but beautiful steel set, they are already intimately acquainted with it. From this can be extrapolated something of Teshigawara's personal philosophy - there is an innate connection between all things material and spiritual, animate and inanimate, and that connection is energy. But he is reluctant to talk too much about it. Words can be treacherous.

When Teshigawara is creating a new piece of work with his company, Karas, they rehearse in silence, with no music. "We stand still, silent. We feel the pressure of our feet on the floor, of the air against our bodies. We listen to the rhythms of our breathing. This gives us rhythms. Later, the music is assembled from the rhythms of the dance."

What this means is that the choreography comes from the very breath, bodies and emotions of the performers. In performance, they are required to reproduce this in as pure a form as possible. While some Japanese cults use poison gases as their weapons, Teshigawara makes use of undiluted human emotion.

It takes a huge emotional toll on the dancers, including Teshigawara himself, who always appears in his own choreographies.

"You need huge energy when you dance, otherwise you will not be able to stand some of it," he admits. "Emotion comes from the unconscious, but in performance it has to be conscious. When we use it in performance it has to be controlled. I don't want to push the dancers too far, otherwise they will go crazy."

The dancers are sustained by the energy they get from the music, a "stream of noise music, which is not composed", from the lighting (by Hiroki Shimizu and Norio Kodaira) and from each other. But the overwhelming impression the audience of Noiject is left with is of the frailty, almost the irrelevance of the human form in the face of the industrial world.

"I wouldn't say that it is sadistic," Teshigawara answers to the suggestion. "I like to say objective, without explanation, so you have to ask yourself questions to find the answers to your emotions."

Teshigawara is suspicious of literal meaning, because it gets in the way of understanding on a higher, more emotional plane. He calls this abstract meaning.

"If you feel doubt, that is not a bad thing. As I said before, you can learn a lot from doubt," he says. This is not the talk of a demagogue.

n At the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (Booking: 0171-928 8800 ) 16- 17 Jun