国際交流基金 The Japan Foundation Performing Arts Network Japan

Presenter Interview プレゼンターインタビュー

May 6, 2021
Ryohei Kondo (C) Maiko Miyagawa

クロッシングで劇場を面白く
近藤良平が芸術監督に就任

Japan

“Crossing” as a theme to make a theater more fascinating
Ryohei Kondo’s next stage as an Artistic Director

Ryohei Kondo is widely known as the leader of the performance company Condors, which presents cross-over mixes of dance, music, skits, film and more. His wide-ranging activities include performances around Japan, workshops for the public and educational programs to develop physical expression, and the like. From April of 2022, Kondo assumes a new position as Artistic Director of the Sainokuni Saitama Arts Theater. In this interview we asked him to speak about his cross-over orientation and his aspirations regarding his new theater position.
Interviewed by: PANJ Editorial Dept.

You appeared in our Artist Interview series in 2005, and at that time you told us about how you first got involved in dance, what led you to start your dance company Condors in 1996 and other things such as your creative method.
This time, we would like to ask you about the new position you will be assuming as Artistic Director of Saitama Arts Theater (in April 2022) and what plans you have with regards to it, as well as the workshops that you have been holding for years now around Japan, your programs for children and other activities.
My last interview with you came in the early years of the 2000s, didn’t it? It was the pioneering era for Condors and we were thinking always about going new places, with projects like overseas performances and nationwide tours in Japan (laughs). Looking back on our activities after that, what I find interesting is that we are still continuing today the relationships be built with all of the theaters and organizers around Japan that we started dealing with back then. We always had the feeling that we didn’t want those to end as one-time encounters, and all of those people were also very positive and excited about having continuing relationships, telling us, “Let’s do something again next year.”

In those years we also started activities overseas, beginning with Taipei and Hong Kong in 2001, the USA tour in 2002, and tours in Europe from 2007. Those performances overseas where no one knew us were always a challenge and that presented a new kind of pressure in our approach to our work. I feel now that the last 20 years have been full of repeated encounters and challenges in both of those directions.
Your yearly Condors tours held every summer took you to various parts of Japan, didn’t they?
For more than ten years in a row, beginning in 1999, we were able to perform at Art Complex 1928, a small theater located in the former Kyoto branch office of a newspaper in Sanjo, Kyoto City. We also performed every year since 2001 at the IMS (Inter Media Station) Hall in Fukuoka until it closed. We have also continued to perform for about 20 years in the cities of Hiroshima, Osaka and Sendai. The people at the theaters, the broadcasting stations, and the people who attended our workshops, have been like cheerleaders for our activities in various places around Japan all these years, and that is why our performances throughout the country have continued all this time. In the north, there was a time when we performed almost every year in Sapporo, Nakashibetsu and eastern Hokkaido. They would bring the whole student population of high schools in those areas to see our Condors performances. It was so much fun for us to perform in [rural] areas like that where the human population was surely smaller than the number of cows on the farms (laughs). Many of the people there were seeing dance performances for the first time, so we didn’t just perform our dance but also did workshops and other things to have meaningful exchanges with the people.
In Japan, what the Condors company performs is called contemporary dance. Sometimes in contemporary dance, the pursuit of new possibilities takes precedence to such a degree that the approach becomes quite radical, and for that reason it is often considered difficult to understand by the general public. But the breadth and open-mindedness of the physical expression that Condors employs and the directness of its presentation seems to bring a unique sense of familiarity. It seems to create an appeal for all kinds of people, from those who have never danced before to even children, so it makes them want to say, “I want to dance, too!”
I think that personally, I have an open-minded nature, and there are often be times when I say to the technical [stage] staff we are working with in rehearsals, “Hey, as long as you are here, why don’t you come out and dance with us,” (laughs). And with regard to that, I have always danced with the attitude that each person will dance differently and should feel free to do that, so really, any kind of movement can be seen as dance. And I think that is how audiences see our dance.

When I first started out, I think I tended to create some rather radical work, but in 2003, when my own child was born, I seemed to adopt a habit of looking at things through a child’s eye as well. In the NHK educational program Karada de asobo (literally: Let’s play using our bodies) they gave me a space of time titled Kondo san-chi no taiso (literally: the Kondo family’s physical exercises), and I think that experience spread over into my stage works and made me want to bring in types of expression that children would like too. By removing the kind of typical approach that dance has to be done in precise, stereotyped movements, I arrived at an approach that didn’t distinguish between target age groups like children, students or adults. I got to a point where I realized that with the right approach, people of all ages and skill levels could join in without worrying about the requirements of specific situations. What’s more, I am always saying, “Dance is something that all kinds of people, and people of all generations can do.”
From April of this year (2022), you are serving as artistic director for the Sainokuni Saitama Arts Theater. When we say “artistic director,” it can mean a lot of different roles. The first director of the Sainokuni theater, Makoto Moroi-san, started the classical music department that became a prominent presence there, while the former artistic director that succeeded him, Yukio Ninagawa-san concentrated on building the theater programs. With regard to dance, the theater has also had programs active in inviting dance artists from abroad and in nurturing young artists domestically. Now that you have assumed this position, may we ask what your approach is going to be?
Since I will be in a position where I am involved not only in my own specialty of dance but also in the music and theater fields, you might think of my position as that of a “general director.” Until now, both of these directors had positive achievements, so what I intend to do is to talk with the various people in charge and plan our policies for the future. To guide these efforts, we have decided on an overall theme of “Crossing.” This theme embodies my hope that by having artists from the various genres cross those boundaries to involve with and inspire each other in ways that lead to the creation of new types of artistic expression. And I want to add that this word “crossing” also carries the meaning of crossing (interaction) between different types of people as well as different localities (communities and regions). Of course, this extends not only within the boundaries of the theater’s local Saitama Prefecture but to the building of connections with schools, cultural organizations, and with public theaters and halls nationwide that will enable stimulating exchanges and creative activities.
Is there anything that you will be inheriting from the late Ninagawa-san?
First of all, in the Sai-no-Kuni Shakespeare Series that Ninagawa-san started, we will be working to finally present a re-staging of Henry VIII that could not be presented as scheduled due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. I am now consulting with Kotaro Yoshida-san, who became the artistic director after Ninagawa-san passed away, about how to complete the production of the full series of Shakespeare’s 37 works that Ninagawa-san had started. Also, although it is still in the planning stage, I hope to be able to initiate activities that carry on the spirit of the “Saitama Gold Theatre” and the “Saitama Next Theatre” Ninagawa-san founded for theater participation by senior citizens (Gold) and by young people (Next) respectively. My hope is to promote group activities that include creators in all genres, of all generations, and including the famous as well as the nameless, all with the same aim of searching for new forms of expression such as we have never seen before.

In fact, the Saitama Arts Theater will be entering a period of large-scale renovation work (scheduled for October 2022 to February 2024 during which the theater will be closed), so I want to take advantage of that period to conduct activities in a variety of other locations. One of the programs we are planning for this period is named Saitama Kaiyu (literally: Wandering about Saitama). I personally want to get to know more about Saitama, and since it doesn’t need to be limited to facilities, we are planning a sort of caravan to go around various sites like parks and parking lots in camping cars where I hope to make new discoveries and build new relationships. By “crossing” (having exchanges) with a variety of different people in different places that way, I hope we can encourage activities that lead to the birth of small community-type projects here and there.
The first theater work you will present as the new Artistic Director of the Saitama Arts Theater is titled Genre Cross Ⅰ “New World” and features William Shakespeare’s The Tempest as one of its motifs. In this production you will be assisted by the theater artist Keishi Nagatsuka-san (production assistance, actor) and the plan is for it to feature a “cross” of performers from a variety of genres, ranging from dance and theater to circus, music and more. Nagatsuka-san is active as a playwright, director and actor, as well as being a fellow artistic director since last season when he assumed that position at the Kanagawa Arts Theatre KAAT. This is also interesting, considering the fact that many of Japan’s theaters are now welcoming a new generation of artistic directors. We hear that you and Nagatsuka-san are long-time acquaintances.
That’s right. We have known each other from the time we graduated from university and our relationship has continued for over 20 years now. We first worked together when one of our Condors members, Kensaku Kobayashi performed in a production of the theater company Asagaya Spiders that Keishi-san was leader of, and I’ve choreographed for them as well. He also danced as one of the early members of Condors.

Since I am a more dance-oriented person, I didn’t tend to get as absorbed in theater, but through my connection with Keishi, I came to know a number of theater companies and I did choreography for and performed in works that he wrote and directed for productions of the New National Theatre, Tokyo. So, I know Keishi well and I think that I have a good understanding of his position with regard to theater. Based on this, I think that most of all he is a playwright. As a dance-oriented person, I find it interesting doing things like suddenly bringing in a prop like an apple, and mixing together things that are out of context or things that stand out as alien, but a playwright will create a path (a storyline) with threats based on logical connections. I believe that is a definitive difference. So, for this coming stage production, I am now talking with Keishi about how to thread together the story.
In this coming New World production there will also be a unique mix of musicians performing with backgrounds ranging from jazz and rock to classical music, folksong and more. So, in addition to the type of “crossing” in theater based on people like yourself and Nagatsuka-san, you will also be doing the same with musicians whose specialties range from guitar to toy piano and various other instruments. In your Condors group you have a [light] band that performs sometimes at live session houses, so it seems that you have a deep knowledge of music as a player as well.
I lived in South America until junior high school, and at that time I was doing music, so I can play a number of instruments. I love musical instruments and have a good number of them, and I make my own original instruments. I also make songs, in my own way.

In terms of my theme of “crossing,” I’m looking forward to working with modern circus people. Of course I love the circus world and its acrobatic physical movement, and though I know about it, this will actually be the first time that I am going to work with these performers. In circus they work with objects like hoops, rings and balls, and when you are working with such objects over time, they surely take on an identity that makes them more than just objects. Don’t you think that is an interesting aspect?

Since dance is done just with the body, I wonder what kind of people the circus performers would become if you take away those tools of their trade. When musicians have their instruments in hand they look awesome, but I also wonder about things like what kind of people they become when you take those instruments away. When you start doing circus acts using those tools, you are likely to become very attached to the training and the appeal of the act, but before you realize it you might find yourself in a rather lonely world where people see only the results of those. So, if we were to take away all those tools and all the musicians’ instruments, what would happen then when you are interacting just as person to person? What if we take away the actors’ roles and the dancers’ dance and there are only people left as they are? I think it is tremendously exciting to imagine things like that, isn’t it? Since I don’t want to make it a stage that shows only a collection of those end results, I want to try out a lot of things in our rehearsals.
I believe that one of Ninagawa’s legacies is the way he nurtured the theater’s technical staff to the point that they became technical creators who could also contribute to the stages as sound/acoustic planners and lighting planners. I would like to ask you what your thoughts are about the theater’s staff that were nurtured in this way through long years of participating in the creation of stages for the Saitama Gold Theater and Saitama Next Theater productions and also had the opportunity to see world-class staff work when theater productions were invited to the Saitama theater from abroad.
This theater has a full staff of experienced professionals that I can consult with, and I have a very strong sense of what an advantageous environment that puts me in. In September 2021, after it was decided that I would be taking the position of artistic director here, I had an open theater event titled Dance no aru Hoshi ni Umarete (literally: Born on a planet that has dance). It was planned as an event to help the local community to get to know the theater better. It included a number of performances, and the members of the theater’s staff were very forthcoming in actively giving me their ideas and suggestions, and that also showed me what a high level of motivation they have. With the ongoing COVID pandemic, we don’t really know how things will play out, but I want to hold open theater programs like that every year.

I believe that the concept behind this open theater program is another result of my desire to “make theater more exciting and fun when seen through a child’s eye” that I mentioned earlier. When [children] go to a big park, that is enough in itself to make them excited, isn’t it? In that same sense, I want to make people feel that the theater is an exciting and fun place by doing things like having a variety of different types of things going on throughout the entire theater building, while setting up a flea market outside and getting the local residents [and shops] along the path from the closest station to the theater also get involved—I want to do everything to help people experience the theater as a truly fun place to be.
The TV children’s program was the trigger that led to your participation from 2014 in the NHK Educational program held at theaters around Japan with your experiential program Condors’ Asoiku (play education) events. To us, it seems like these were close in concept to your open theater program, and we would like to ask you to tell us something about these events.
Regardless of the overall meaning of the events, I wanted to communicate my feeling that the theater was not a place that you should feel tense when you enter but that it should be a very interesting and fun place to be. When the children entered the theater, from the lobby there would be a variety of constructions made of cardboard and when they got through the maze of those constructions, they suddenly found themselves up on the stage. And after playing for a while there with the members of Condors jumping rope and such, they would slide down a slide to get to the audience seats. It was only after that when the stage performance would begin. At that point the children have the feeling that they know the place, and at that point their reaction changes completely. It has become something like their own secret hideout, and it is then that we begin to dance, and that makes the children feel, “Hey, why are you the only ones that get to dance up there?”
Dance no aru Hoshi ni Umarete
Dance no aru Hoshi ni Umarete
Dance no aru Hoshi ni Umarete

Dance no aru Hoshi ni Umarete (Sep.2021)
Photo: Maiko Miyagawa

Condors’ Asoiku
Condors’ Asoiku
Condors’ Asoiku
Condors’ Asoiku
Condors’ Asoiku
Condors’ Asoiku

Condors’ Asoiku
Photo courtesy of.NHK Educational

That device is very interesting to hear about. We have heard that the theme of your university graduation thesis was “Camp,” so it makes us feel that you are a master of approaching things as “play” instead of “recreation.” In your New Bon Odori NEO (New Bon Festival Dance, Neo) program (*1), you have long continued to have people make up their own original Bon Festival dances and perform them in a variety of places, and it may be that this is the kind of spirit of fun that public theaters today need. By the way, you also have a long-standing relationship with the Saitama Arts Theater that you have now been appointed artistic director of, which is built around a series of creative projects you have done with them in the past. You performed your Condors’ new works produced by Saitama Arts Theater almost every year since 2006, and you organized dance performances for children and adults as repertory works in theaters nationwide under your Nihon Mukashibanashi Dance (Dancing Japanese Old Tales) program.
In Condors, everyone from the stage director to the sound and lighting technicians all work together as the Condors team, and in the Saitama Arts Theater’s productions we have done, it is this same team that worked on each stage we did there, but with the Nihon Mukashibanashi Dance (Dancing Japanese Old Tales) project, which is also a Saitama Arts Theater’s production, our team works together with the theater’s technical staff to create the stages. Until now, I have done productions for five old folk tales: Nezumi no sumo (the Soot of the Cat) (2006), Hanasaka Jisan (The old man who made flowers bloom) (2008), Momotaro (Peach Boy) (2013), Kasajizo (Straw Hats for the Jizo Statuettes) and Tengu no Kakuremino (The Goblin’s Invisibility Cloak) (both in 2019). Since there is virtually no one in Japan that doesn’t know these old tales, they serve as a link to both children and adults. And since we bring to them the unique new approach of dance, I think they are perfect for performances on the public theater platform. Although the Condors performances are normally rather large in scale, these performances of the old folk tales don’t require many people or large sets or props, they can easily be performed outside the theater as well. For example, we have even performed Nezumi no sumo (Mouse’s Sumo) in a nursey school.

It is so interesting to see how the children react to these performances. They don’t laugh at the same places, they will also join in with some actions of their own in response to what they see. In these productions we include parts that are aimed at the children and parts aimed at adults, and it is precious to see ho w the children and adults react differently. I also think that it is important that these become repertory works, In the course of giving repeated performances, the works become further developed and mature. I also want the audiences to feel the changes from that perspective.
Among your participating Condors members are young dancers who also perform solo. I feel that for them performing with Condors provides good experience and a place to grow as performers. May we ask what your thoughts are concerning the teaching and nurturing of young dancers at Saitama Arts Theater?
There is no denying how important the young generation is. If they are not healthy and if they aren’t interested in what we do, then there is no future [for dance]. Whether it be interesting companies or works or people, I believe it will be no good if dance isn’t inspiring to people. In terms of nurturing the younger generation, I have been working to do that at Kagurazaka Session House (*2) for many years, and I have the opportunity to see many works by young choreographers. However, even though there are many cases where the choreograph is good, in a very large number of cases the subject matter and the themes are not interesting at all. If you create works that are vague in concept and lack serious weight, they are not interesting at all, and they don’t touch people’s hearts. What is it you want to create? What is it that you are thinking about? I believe it is extremely important to train oneself to be able to put those things in words and express them with the body.

You might say that there needs to be a discussion, a place where you can talk with people about your work, otherwise it ends up being self-contained. It may be all and well to have a place where you can talk about this and that over tea, but it may be that people lack a community of people they can talk honestly with. Creation doesn’t happen in places where there isn’t that kind of community. This is a basic issue …. For me, I want to communicate the message that being more positive about expression through dance is a good way to express yourself to the people around you.
Are there any specific programs that you are thinking about for nurturing artists of the young generation?
Saitama Dance Laboratory (a program launched in 2018 with the aim of nurturing young dancers and supporting creative efforts by mid-career artists) is something that I think should be continued. The important thing is to create works that can be shown to people and then taking to the stage to perform them. Because that makes the stage something to strive for, and because dance should be more than just something for your own training, shouldn’t it?
As we listen to what you say, we feel something that might be called the Condors spirit, a belief that rather than seeing dance works as a result in themselves, what you want to do as an artistic director is to place importance on something that might be seen as a way of life that should be brought to the creative process. The Condors company that you founded in 1996 is now in its 25th year. The company now has 18 members. Along the way, some younger members have joined, but few of the original members have ever left the company. Some of them are also doing their own work as dancers or choreographers, and many of them have other jobs in society at large, including positions like a university associate professor, a calligrapher, a bar manager, and a company president. In this sense it is certainly a rare group with skills that they are applying in fields other than dance. Considering this, how do you go about creating works for the company?
We have members ranging in age from their 30s to some nearing the age of 60, but all of us always talk as equals, and that in itself is a unique kind of community. Some of them are happily married, and there are some who find Condors a more comfortable place to be than a home of their own (laughs). For all of us there are individual dynamics and situations in our lives that keep us together as members of Condors. I might be forgiven for saying this, but personally, it is those dynamics that I find amazing, even more than the creative part (laughs). And this isn’t limited to the situation within Condors either, because I think it is important that we also continue to seek this kind of community whenever we work with new groups or organizations. Because nothing is put in motion if we don’t start from seeking pure and simple communication.

When it comes to our works, often the ideas come out first when we are simply talking and drinking together. Whenever one of our members says something offhand that sounds interesting, I always write it down in the memos I keep. Also, in order not to lose those types of new images, I draw sketches as well. When we are drinking in some bar, someone might say, “It would be interesting if a person appeared in this kind of situation,” and other such things that normally couldn’t be realized easily, wouldn’t they? But when it is on stage, you can have things happen suddenly and feel quite natural, and as long as you have said something, why not do our best to make it a reality (laughs). But, even if it is things we say while drinking together, the Condors members basically dislike keeping things within our inner circle, because we have all shared the terrifying experience of performing abroad in front of audiences that know nothing about us, and we have learned from those experiences that if we become introverted, nothing is going to be communicated outward to others.

However, even if there is content that has originated while we are talking together, it is also important what title we bring to it, and there are many things when things fall apart at that stage. For example, for the title of our new work Starting Over (June 2022), we have borrowed a John Lennon song title, which can also mean reworking things or making a new start, can’t it? And among our members who didn’t know at first that it was a John Lennon title, some related it to an anime or a boxing scene where it would mean to stand up and start working or fighting again. In short, it can be interpreted freely. And from there, new images can grow.

In the case of the work A farewell to Arms that was released online recently (March 2022), the work was done hastily in response to a production opportunity, but until four days before the release, we couldn’t decide on the title. It happened to be just at the time the invasion of Ukraine had started, and confronted with such a situation, we were talking worriedly about what kind of work it should be, when someone said, “How about taking A Farewell to Arms as the title. At that moment, someone, “That’s it!” and we all got excited and it immediately snapped us out of our state of worry. By now the colors of blue and yellow have taken on new meaning, and quickly we began to get new ideas for the music, choreography, video footage to use. By the way, I don’t think I have ever had a time when my choreography came together and poured out so quickly. With regard to the physical movement, there are no restrictions as to what will be unacceptable, so many dance scenes can come out. Working in this way, where everyone is contributing small ideas and we all work to put it all together as a stage performance, is truly a fascinating and rewarding process.
From a more conservative mindset, one might wonder what will happen if the artistic director of the Saitama Arts Theater is suddenly changed to someone [like yourself] whose specialty is contemporary dance, but having just listened to you expound on your approach that any kind of movement can be seen as [or is] dance makes us feel that it is an approach that will open up a public theater to new and broader possibilities.
Of course creating new works is also important, but I believe that we need to also work to increasingly connect the theater to the local community, and to create opportunities where the theater brings exciting new experiences to children that make the theater a more familiar place for them is also important.

The more experiences I have like this of being interviewed about my becoming artistic director, has made me increasingly aware of the number of great stories and concepts that the interviewers bring to the conversation (laughs). And in the end they all give me words of encouragement and expectations for the job ahead of me. To me, this is proof that they all believe that, indeed, theaters can become more interesting places and that they want that to happen. So, it may be true that another important role of an artistic director is that of bringing together and connecting thoughts of all of the people involved in the theater, from the journalists and the theater staff to the performers and everyone else. And I certainly want to do everything I can to bring people together in that way.
Free as a Bird
Free as a Bird
Free as a Bird
Free as a Bird

Condors Free as a Bird
(Jun.2021 at Saitama Arts Theater - Main Theater)
Photo: HARU

Condors web site
http://www.condors.jp/

*1 Kagurazaka Session House
Established in 1991, it is a theater space in the Kagurazaka district of Tokyo. It also functions as a lesson studio space and gallery. In their early years, the members of the Condors company also gathered and did their original creation work here. The “Ringo Kikaku” (Apple Planning) series of events held regularly at the theater were long the base for Ryohei Kondo’s creation and experimentation.

*2 New Bon Odori NEO
Sponsored by Toshima Ward and Owlspot Theater (Toshima Mirai Cultural Foundation), the New Bon Odori series was created by Ryohei Kondo. The Bon Festival dance events that are held with local residents involved in Ikebukuro West Exit Park have become a much loved fixture of the summer holidays of Toshima Ward since 2009.