At the still point of the turning world

On Japanese dancer Saburo Teshigawara's first appearance in Britain, he stamped panes of glass into dust. By contrast, his latest work, Absolute Zero, goes in search of perfect stillness
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For a nation producing most of the world's technology, the Japanese do a good job of connecting with the simple truths of nature. Scratch a Japanese artist's modish exterior and you are likely to find a cleansingly reductionist sensibility paying homage to the elements; to the dryness of sand or the purity of light. Perhaps that is what comes of living on an unstable portion of the earth's crust, agitated by volcanic forces and surrounded by sea. Whatever the reason, it is a mindset that is shared by Saburo Teshigawara, a small 47-year-old with rubber bones when he moves and a Renaissance range of abilities as choreographer, performer and designer.strobosc

We meet round a café table in The Hague, a few hours before the Netherlands Dance Theatre perform his beautiful and mysterious piece, Modulation. He has arrived with Kei Miyata, dancer, assistant and co-founder of his Tokyo-based group Karas. She will feature with him in Absolute Zero (1998), which has one duet and two solos, and opens in Britain on Monday. Like Japan itself, Absolute Zero juxtaposes a backdrop of hi-tech apparatus - in the form of three short videos - with a particular concept of nature. Which one exactly? Stillness. "The title refers to minus 273," he explains. "In chemistry when it's that temperature, everything stops totally. They might be able to do this in the laboratory; but when I try to stop completely in a normal temperature, it's not possible." Couldn't he just pretend to be a statue? "No, because man always moves inside - the heart, the blood moves. So complete stillness cannot be realised. But I need in my work some point to approach even if it is invisible or impossible, because I will find something in the process, like a journey."

I say it sounds very abstract. He says, no, no, it is all quite concrete, but hard to explain, even to Japanese people. My Japanese is absolute zero and his English is halting, although improved since his earlier appearances in Britain. I have vivid memories of the previous pieces, starting in 1989 with ishi-no-hana (Flower of Stone), when he danced on a mound of glass panes, stamping them into fragments, glass dust rising in alarming curls. The onomatopoeic dah-sko-dah-dah (1991) presented a bleak urban imagery, briefly pierced by the hope of bird calls, a shaft of sun, the sound of sea against shingle. Noiject (1992), a titular conflation of noise and object, was danced among steel sheets and smashed light bulbs.

Bones in Pages (1991) was the most sensational, though, evoking a dead world where the only remaining life was a man (Teshigawara) and a real crow (the company name Karas means Crow). Hundreds of books surrounded them, some lying in a slovenly heap, others standing fanned out, edges facing outwards, forming corrugated walls; while as many shoes lay scattered like a pebble beach on the other side of the stage. Installation art or dance? That was the piece where the boundary became most blurred. The architecture of iconic objects, light and space was unforgettable; but so was his dance, liquid and weightless as if floating, or chugging and angular as if he were a piece of machinery. Absolute Zero promises an even greater dynamic span. He can move so fast and frenetically the lines of his body leave stroboscopic trails; or he can appropriate the motion of a reptile, his fast jerks punctuating slow smoothness.

He trained in classical ballet for 10 years and went to art college. Ballet didn't provide the answer: "I don't like Swan Lake, but I like the technique." Nor did visual art: "When I paint something, it is fixed in time like in a museum. I like movement, so sometimes I say dance is moving sculpture. But it also more than that. I like change and transformation." Not surprisingly, his choreography allows some space to structured improvisation, freedom within set directions. "Each movement might change from day to day, but the core or reason for a movement should stay the same," says Kei Miyata.

The process of trying to reach the unattainable also informs the quality of his dancing, even if the theme of each piece changes. "So, for instance, when I touch this table or person, if I touch directly it's not interesting. I like to have fun, to have something in between, to play with distance." The motive in Absolute Zero therefore is to keep on moving towards elusive stillness, so his body will be "leaning towards the time to come".

Teshigawara is jollier in person than his unnerving stage presence would suggest. His method does sound like an exercise in hair-splitting nebulousness, but if that's how he manages to dance so impressively, let's not complain. He denies he is a descendant of traditional Japanese dance or Butoh, the post-war dance genre evolved by the avant-garde. After ballet, he says: "I chose my way without a teacher." He is big on pedagogy, being keen to disseminate his technique. In 1995 in London he launched Step (Saburo Teshigawara Educational Project) with The Place and Lift, and this year's edition is under way. There will also be masterclasses on some of his British tour dates.

What do people do in his classes? He considers his technique to be more in harmony with the body than ballet. He likes to start by focusing on basics, asking students to be more aware of their physicality and their surroundings. The aim is a relaxed receptiveness. "You try to concentrate on each moment and feel each part of the body - not only your head or chest, but under your chin, the back of your knee joint, the spaces between your fingers. Each part has more possibilities than you know."

It was with this approach that he taught the Frankfurt Ballet when he choreographed a two-part piece, White Clouds Under The Heels, in 1994 and 1995, and when last year he made Le Sacre du Printemps (to the Stravinsky score) for the Munich Ballet. He also has new pieces planned for Karas in Tokyo as well as a solo - Light Behind Light - to be performed by the artist himself this month in Stockholm.

So was it this relaxed receptiveness that enabled him to smash glass underfoot in his piece ishi-no-hana? Yes, and in turn the breaking glass gave him a heightened awareness of each moment.

After that, he would scoop up an armload of jagged segments. "It's a question of attitude," he says. Apparently even I could do it at home. I just have to lift the pieces gently as if I were cradling a baby. They are like fragments of stars, or splinters of time, he says. "It's really beautiful and peaceful, even if there are moments of fear."

'Absolute Zero' at the Brighton Theatre Royal (01273 328 488/709 709) 15 & 16 May; Nottingham Playhouse (0115 941 9419) 22 May; Sheffield Lyceum (0114 249 6000) 9 & 10 June; then at The Lowry, Salford, 30 September & 1 October, and at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, 27 & 28 October