Ayane Nakagawa

Nihon Buyo × Ballet × Theater
The seamless world of Ayane Nakagawa

April 20, 2022
Ayane Nakagawa

Photo by gnta

Ayane Nakagawa

The leader of a dance company with the unique name of Suichu-Megane∞ (underwater goggles∞), Ayane Nakagawa (b. 1991) was the winner of three awards (the Jury Prize, French Embassy Prize for Young Choreographer, and the studio ARCHITANZ Artist Support Prize) in Yokohama Dance Collection 2021 for her work my choice, my body, in which she danced wearing a Noh mask. Having studied ballet and Nihon Buyo (Japanese traditional dance) from early childhood, Nakagawa went on to major in theater at university.

In this long interview, we look at this artist who has become the focus of great expectations for her unique creations with a fresh new sensibility in the context of Japanese contemporary dance, a genre which has often been cited as a divergence from traditional Japanese dance.
Interviewer: Takao Norikoshi (dance critic)
my choice, my body,

my choice, my body,
May.17, 2019 at Saitama Arts Theater – Adaptable Theater
Photo by bozzo

my choice, my body,

We would like to begin by asking you to tell us about your award-winning work my choice, my body,. It was a dance performed by three dancers, including one male dancer, wearing black leather jackets and Noh masks, which made a big impact. It also employed the Noh suriashi technique (sliding the feet across the floor in a stylized type of walk) and also some ballet elements. How did you come to create such a work?
That performance was born from my work (my) BODY (my) CHOICE that was produced by Ryohei Kondo at Kagurazaka Session House in 2018, and also from the showcase work Furukusai (old-fashioned) performed at TPAM (now YPAM) in 2019.

The work (my) BODY (my) CHOICE was one that began from the title concept. In Japan’s Rainbow Parade (Pride) event in Tokyo, a transgender or a transvestite person who was being interviewed answered one question with the words, “My body, my choice.” To me it sounded like a statement that, “Regardless of and including the concerns and dissatisfactions I may have felt regarding the body I was born with, I am now what I have chosen to be.” We are told that these words are in fact a slogan that was used in the movement against the ban on abortion and had a broader meaning, but I chose those words for the title of my work. But in order to help prevent the misconception that it is a work about abortion when we performed it overseas, I put the (my) in parenthesis.
In recent years we see a lot of talk about the sense of helplessness in not being able to choose for ourselves how we live our lives, as expressed in such Japanese internet slang as oya (parent)-gacha and kankyo (environment)-gacha, with gacha being slang for smartphone games. Both of these terms suggest that we are so influenced by the environment we grow up in that we can’t really choose things for ourselves. So, what you are saying is that in spite of these influences, you are really making your own choice, aren’t you?
That’s right. As dancers, who use their body for expression, isn’t it great if we can say, “This is the life I have chosen, because I have chosen this body myself?”

Another element, one adopted from the work Furukusai (old-fashioned), is the work I learned about while researching “The physical nature and characteristics of the Japanese dance.” In Nihon Buyo there is a category of dance called suodori (a performance style of dancing without a kimono costume or a hairpiece, in which you can perform a role solely through the dance itself), which means that you can perform the role of a gender other than your own original gender, and in that way transcend gender solely by means of your physicality. And that is something that is rarely found in other forms of classical Japanese dance or folk dance. And when practicing suodori, there will be times when the need arises to find how to look more masculine (or feminine) to fit the role you will be dancing, and it is said that you experience moments when you “transcend gender.” Learning that, I thought it would be interesting to create a work that builds on that kind of playing with physicality. In terms of the movement, this gave me the basic forms for my choice, my body,.

You accept the body you were born with. But you can change it through the ways that you show it. So, my choice, my body became a work where I connected the contradictions and possibilities of this realization within myself.
In my choice, my body, there were three dancers wearing a koomote (Noh masks modeled on a young female face) and, with the pelvis lowered, they walked forward slowly in the suriashi (sliding feet on the floor) with the feet opening out to the side. There was something weirdly appealing about the sight of that.
That was a style of walking based on the image of how an Oiran (high-ranking courtesan) walks in Nihon Buyo. The toes of both feet are pointed inward and the feet are slid outward in a curving motion as you walk. In that kind of Oiran walk, it is done wearing wooden clogs and wearing a kimono, so the foot slips out from under the hem of the kimono and slides along the floor. But this time we were using contemporary costume, so I studied how to get that kind of tension and beauty while dancing barefoot.

When I played around with using masks, the way the mask hides any facial expression gives a sense of anonymity to the dancers, which focuses the audience attention more exclusively on their body movement, and I found that an interesting effect and decided to use it. And as we gave more performance of the piece, I became aware of how slight changes in the angle of the Noh mask changed its expression, which became another focus of attention. And one other thing, which is rooted in a complex I have that, compared to foreign dancers, there is always something unsettling when Japanese dancers wear Western clothes. So, I also wanted to do something about that.
Partway through the piece the dancers remove their masks. This seemed to be a point of increased intensity to come, and when you removed the mask the facial expressions you gave were very distorted.
The facial expressions were different every time we removed the masks. Thinking what it would be like if the mask were stuck to the face (laughs). In Nihon Buyo there is a dance I like titled Mitsumen Komori (literally: Baby-sitting with three masks) and in it the baby-sitting girl dances while changing between three different Noh masks, the Okame (homely woman), Ebisu (the God of Wealth), and Hyottoko (comical male character) before finally removing her mask. So, I tried a lot of different facial expressions after removing my mask, like the funny, distorted Hyottoko face.
And while there were scenes like that which reflected Nihon Buyo, there were also movements like the exercise ballet dancers do of standing on the arch of the foot so they can show their instep in beautiful form.
Yes. When I was studying ballet, I wasn’t good at showing the instep arch, so I was always practicing it, and thanks to that I eventually developed feet that could support my full weight well.
You brought together a mix of a lot of different elements.
At first, I was working of breaking down various interesting types of movement from Nihon Buyo, but I eventually got the intuitive feeling that the result would just be something superficial, composed solely in the head. So, as I was thinking about what a seamless mix of Nihon Buyo, ballet and [contemporary] dance could be like. At the risk of sounding a bit presumptuous, I decided it might be my body itself. With that in mind, I decided to concentrate thoroughly on just finding interesting movement that came out naturally from my body.

But, when I give choreography that I have done in that way to dancers who have no experience with Nihon Buyo, even though they are intended to do the same movement, there will be slight differences in the position of the hands or the angle of the head that feel out of sync. And that is when I realize that these are probably the points that are unique to the movement of Nihon Buyo, and things that come naturally from my body without being aware of it.

Also, when I try to synchronize the movements by count, the nuances that I have brought in from Nihon Buyo all get lost. So, I would correct it by humming in a shamisen (Japanese banjo-like 4-string instrument) rhythm. And, because I was deciding on the movement first and then having the music composed to fit it, I was told it was difficult because the rhythm wasn’t consistent.
Looking at what is going on around the world, there are a lot of new forms of expression in contemporary dance that draw on traditional arts and traditional dance. In Japan as well, there have been attempts to do so, but it proves to be difficult. A sense of inconsistency remains, and there is a tendency for the best aspects of ballet and Nihon Buyo to cancel each other out in such attempts. And it may indeed be true that the kind of “Seamless” marriage that you speak of is not happening because the dancers don’t have the two within themselves.
At my Nihon Buyo lessons I’d be told, “Ayane-chan, your ballet is showing,” and at my ballet lessons, I kept being told, “Your Nihon Buyo is showing.” But within myself, both of them were natural, so I kept working with the belief that if I pursued them both, something good would definitely come out. I knew I was probably never going to be a 100% pure member of either tradition and I was used to being told of my shortcomings. So, from around the time I was in middle school I was already thinking that I wanted to create works based on a fusion of the two dance forms. But I decided I would wait until I was famous enough that no one would get angry at me for doing it (laughs). But in the end, I couldn’t wait that long, so I started doing it from 2019.
In the end, there would probably be a good chance of the works failing if you couldn’t show that you were working with a full mastery of Nihon Buyo (or ballet), wouldn’t there? But in your case, you had always been told that you were not fully mastering either and that may be why you were able to create such a work by listening to your body.

Studying Ballet, Nihon Buyo, and Theater

I would also like to ask you about your background. You started learning ballet from the age of three and the Bando style of Nihon Buyo from the age of four. What led you to keep doing both?
I always liked being physically active. My elder sister was learning ballet, and that is what led me to start ballet. When I was a child, I liked watching period dramas with men in kimono battling with swords. So, my mother, who was doing Nihon Buyo, took me along because she said I could wear a kimono there. I started learning Nihon Buyo because I thought I could eventually learn sword fighting, but no matter how long I kept studying there, no swords were ever brought out (laughs). I kept asking, “Is this dance? Will I be able to learn sword fighting when I get to be an adult?”
It seems to me that in terms of the way the body is used, ballet and Nihon Buyo are exactly opposite, in that ballet movement opens the limbs outward while Nihon Buyo movement is always inward toward the body center.
Fortunately, neither of my teachers in ballet or Nihon Buyo were the strict types that forbid their students to learn other types of dance. On the contrary, they were ones who understood that in the end, the center of the body (center of gravity, etc.) is the same. In fact, there are turn-out and turn-in movements, but the center of the body in movement is the same. Being a child, I had good flexibility as well, so nothing ever felt strange about the movements to me.

An important factor may have been the fact that there were no mirrors in the Nihon Buyo studio. Basically, you learn by watching the teacher and copying her/his movements, and you can’t see the movements of your own body [in a mirror]. The direction the toes point in ballet and in Nihon Buyo are completely different, but I was able to continue doing both because they both looked good to me. And that is also why I was able to naturally adopt the belief that the absolute aesthetic beauty of the two genres were not absolute for me.
Perhaps it is like an athlete doing both baseball and soccer at the same time. And you continued to do both dance forms for a long time.
Until I was in middle school, I continued to attend classes in both rather consistently. But as my extracurricular (club) activity in high school, I started doing street dance, and I got to the level where I was able to compete in the nationwide school tournament. But after that it became difficult to continue attending classes as usual in both ballet and Nihon Buyo. Yet even today, I still keep in contact with both of my teachers.
But when you went on to university you decided to major in theater at J.F. Oberlin University.
My physique wasn’t right for classical ballet, and when I saw slimmer girls doing Nihon Buyo, I thought it looked better with that kind of girl dancing. So, I didn’t think I could ever become a [professional] dancer. But I did want to become someone who worked on the theater stage, like a director, or lighting designer or technician. Once my mother had worked as a performance assistant for Keita Asari, director of the Shiki Theater Company, and since my father also worked backstage at a theater, I felt a familiarity with stage work.
Who were your professors at university?
For dance it was professor Kuniko Kisanuki. I also took classes taught by Ryohei Kondo and Chieko Ito, which were especially interesting. For theater it was Tatsuo Kaneshita and Hisao Takase.

At J.F. Oberlin University at the time, all students who wanted to become dancers, as well as those who wanted to become stage directors or technical staff could all choose to take the same dance classes. And watching those latter people who had no dance training, I found their movement to be interesting and beautiful. There I was with ten years of dance training, but I felt that I was being outdone by them, and as I copied their strange dance, it stirred something deep inside me and it got me hocked on dance again.
J.F. Oberlin University is the alma mater of playwright and director Satoko Ichihara. You were studying there at the same time as Ichihara-san, weren’t you?
When I was a freshman, I watched Satoko Ichihara-san’s graduation stage work, and ever since then I have been a fan of her work and followed it. I have a strong feeling of affinity for it, but at the same time I feel that I don’t understand it at all. And I want to keep watching to see where it is headed. My interpretation of why I feel this affinity is that I like the feeling that her work seems to be saying, “No matter how unclean they may be, I want to keep loving the human being.” In my works and in my daily life, I am constantly thinking about “what I can do to make the people lovable” and “what I should do to achieve that.”
During your time at university, you founded your company “Suichu-Megane∞” in 2011. The first work your company performed during university was a theatrical work, and your first dance work, Overflowing (2015), was performed after graduation, wasn’t it?
That was my first dance work and it came in the first year after I graduated. I had been doing a lot of things in every area from lighting to stage staff work to theater works and more, and finally professor Kisanuki told me, “Make up your mind and focus on one field!” and I realized she had a point. That made me decide to try for once to do a work that I could truly call a dance work.

Re-creation of Modern version, realistic, marriage theory

Before (my)BODY(my)CHOICE, you had presented the work Modern version, realistic, marriage theory in 2017. We see that you use kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese) in your titles.
That is simply the influence of Ringo Shiina (laughs).
So that is the reason why so many works of choreography by women in this period used Chinese characters (laughs)? Judging from the title, the subject was marriage, was it?
Personally, I don’t have any desire for marriage, but I am gradually thinking about what marriage is and what living with someone would be.

I am a bisexual, and I don’t want to think that if the partner is male there will (can) be marriage, and if the partner is female there will not (cannot) be marriage. That is why until now I have decided that I will not marry. Regardless of whether or not the institution of marriage suits me or not, as long as I am alive, I will have relationships with people, and I will have to think about community, etc. So, I have decided to think about how to relate with the person who fits me best.
This is certainly a big issue. This work Modern version, realistic, marriage theory received the excellence award at NEXTREAM21 in Rikkoukai 2017. Did you have a good feeling about it [as an accomplishment].
I was grateful because it was the first competition I had won an award in. But to tell the truth, I was still thinking about whether I had succeeded in expressing what I wanted and whether the theme of the work was truly fitting to be called dance. In my case, there were often contradictions between “whether it was interesting as dance” and “the concept I want to express,” so I think I will re-create it.

I love dance, but I have the feeling that dance may not be the best method for me to express what I want to…. So, I am still struggling with my method of expression.
Modern・Pragmatic・Marriage theory

Modern・Pragmatic・Marriage theory
May.3, 2017 at Rikkoukai Hall
Photo by bozzo

The works you have presented until now have often had several versions. Is yours a way of working to keep doing re-creations of works on the same theme and change them as you go along?
Yes, it is. I make presentations of the short works at numerous festivals or showcases, and if I feel they are not complete, I re-create them. Actually, it would be good if I were able to present a full version from the beginning at a solo premiere performance, but I still lack audience draw and finances to be able to do full-scale solo performances at a fast enough pace.
Conventional dance companies were originally expected to present their works in solo performances, and showcases were reserved for shorter versions of their work, but now it seems that has been reversed, hasn’t it?
Yes. I think that is true with the younger generation. Because it is difficult to do feature-length solo presentations of new work with their own resources. Since I studied theater at university, I was working on the assumption that presentations of new works were always done as separate single-work premiere performances, but that is said to be the exception with most of today’s younger generation of dancers.

I like feature-length works because you can produce the space and everything else. For Endangered species (described below) we created a rectangular enclosure for the audience seating, but we can’t do that for a shorter showcase version. With feature-length works the possibilities of what we can do to broaden because we can decide where they begin and where they end. There is also risk involved, but for artists the feature-length works are very important opportunities. However, I am also jealous of people who can do short-version works that are impressive and can be run through with energy and lively momentum.

Born in 1991 and the Paradigm Shift Involved

In the same year 2017, you produced the project “1991 – Bubble hokai to tomo ni umareta wareware ga, chigau mado kara mita moro-moro” (1991 – We who were born in the same year the economic bubble burst, various things we saw from a different window). It was an omnibus type show for which you gathered seven young dancers born in that same year as you.
At the J.F. Oberlin University I graduated from, I felt that it was difficult to find artists active in the contemporary dance field from my same generation. Participating in events where college dancers gathered, like the “All Japan Dance Festival-Kobe” held in Kobe and at the Session House “UDC (University Dance Cross)”, there were almost no dancers from Oberlin University, so as soon as I graduated I realized that there was no one around me that I knew.

At that time, the only dancers in Suichu-Megane∞ were me and Shinpei Nemoto, and there was one other person as our production staff. There was a need to gather dancers to perform in my works, but the fact that there were so few people that I knew was also a serious problem. So, it was my desire to connect with people of my generation that led me to plan that project.
In the early days of the contemporary dance, we saw in Japan a tendency for dancers to gather around the choreographers with unique, individualistic styles they admired, and there they would be active as members of the affiliated companies. In those tightly-knit companies they would compete through friendly rivalry to find their individual methods and raise the quality of their work. But today, a member of one company might also lead another company and things like that, and there is less feeling of identification with a particular company, so the dancers are able to form relationships with greater flexibility as they compete to improve. So, the situation is clearly different now from the era when they all worked together as friends in the same company. It seems to me that there has been a paradigm shift within the younger generation.
Part of the change has been of necessity. If you make enemies it is only going to hurt you in the long run, so I think there is probably a strong awareness of the benefits of being able to work with everyone in all the genres. What’s more, today there is social media like YouTube that make this an era where everyone is both sending out and receiving information and works, and that also increases the merit of getting along well with people. So, in this era when everyone is sending out what they create and taking part in each other’s works, you are probably not going to find many people will be attracted to old-school people who say, “You belong to this company, so you can’t participate as a dancer in other people’s works.”

There are a lot of things to be learned by participating in another artist’s piece, and it helps you expand the scope of your own works. And that is also an acceptance of diversity in the forms of dance. Of course, to the dancers who perform in my works, I say that I want them to remain true to their own aesthetics, but there are certain things that I don’t want you to do. And I also remind them that I don’t want to see them uploading complaints about our work on the social media (laughs).
Like yourself, many young dancer/choreographers today also have a sense of the job of production, don’t they? Many are not only able to act as their own producer but also as a person who can act with a sense of where the dance world is going.
I think you can say that this is what we have to do. While I do want to express respect for the artists who came before us and paved the way, I also have a sense that if we continue on the same path we will reach a dead end, and that in fact I can feel that we may already have reached that point. I also think that we all have a sense that we have to change our course from where we are now.
Until just recently, dance-related production companies organized festivals and served as producers for new works, but now today’s young creators are not working within that existing system, are they?
I feel that is because they know that participating in that system won’t bring them any profit, so they don’t want to go along with it. They probably won’t get any grants until they win some award as well. My feeling is that even if a festival invites you to perform, we cannot see that leading to anything in the longer term. It may be because I lack the capabilities, but it may be that there is indeed no future waiting down that road.

So, if those people around us don’t give us the attention we need, it is up to us to create our own places to perform. I now have the feeling that if there is a place and a way that we want to perform, rather than waiting around for someone to support us, we have to start out by ourselves, even if that means borrowing money and going into debt.
I have to respect that kind of tough attitude, but I also feel that the older generation needs to feel responsibility for not having created the kind of environment that can provide the support that young artists today need. I think this is a problem that the whole dance community has to come together and think seriously about.

Endangered species and Out of effective range

At the time of your “1991” project, you presented the work Endangered species – in the Breeding room that dealt with the issues of gender (life, sexuality) and procreation (having children). Do you have a particularly strong concern for the issues involved there?
I believe that the generation before us felt more pressure than us in this respect, but as children we were also being told constantly that it is best if we have children someday. I think that boys were also told the same thing. Amid this kind of pressure, I have made the choice that I am not going to give birth to children, but there are times when I also question whether that choice is right, and whether as members of the human species we have the duty to give birth to new life. But I also have the feeling that as living beings born on this Earth, sexual desire is little more than one of our instinctive desires aimed at procreation of the species by giving birth to new life, and as such, is nothing more than a desire that we are retrofitted with…. And this work Endangered species is one with which I wanted to pose these questions to myself and the audience.
And it is true that in this world there are still people who consider women little more than “machines for making babies,” aren’t there?
n fact, the year after I created the work Endangered species there was a [Japanese] politician who made the statement that, “Because gay couples can’t have children, they are unproductive,” and that statement made me deeply angry. I have many LGBTQ friends around me. And for me, the work Endangered species was my way of posing the question that, “If having children is productivity, and as such a top priority of society, then isn’t it as if the entire Earth is just like one big breeding room?” and is that OK? But that also brings us to the issue of why would I use dance to pose that question (laughs).
When dealing with issues though words, it is often the case that we lose our footing each step of the way, so it may be that, as a non-verbal form of expression, dance may have greater potential for expressing our emotions directly. Contemporary dance is a medium that enables expression of realities before they are described in terms of specific words, and when I see the way you approach things through dance and put yourself out there as an undefined entity, I feel an admirable decisiveness in what you do.
That may be true indeed (laughs). It may be a good aspect of dance that you can create a work at a level of development where you are saying, “I’m still not sure of where I stand on this.” It is not my intent to use stories to say what is right, but rather that I want to share with others my concern about certain issues. So, that may be the reason that I choose to work with dance as my medium.
Next I would like to ask you about your work Out of effective range that you presented at d-Soko (storage house) in 2018. This is another work that you have done a number of re-creations with and the contents have continued to change.
The producers often get mad at me for that (laughs). I have to apologize, but every time I do a re-creation, the contents of what I want to express change because of changes in myself and in society at the time.

Out of effective range is a work with a title that suggests both the futility I feel in knowing that even though I am dancing in the theater with all my body and soul, it doesn’t reach people outside the theater, and conversely, the pleasure of knowing the value of having my dance reach only the people who have gathered in the theater. It also expresses the undying desire to be there and to see the things live that I see on off-line events that YouTubers post and fans gather to see online. But no matter how the internet community may progress, we will never be able to actually meet the creators in person, and the desire to see the works live will never be fulfilled.

On the other hand, although it caused an uproar at first when North Korea started launching missiles, now we have gotten used to the repeated launchings. The launches still appear on the news, but we have come to dismiss them as something that doesn’t affect us directly and therefore is not information that is pressing for us. The news reaches us, but it also doesn’t reach in a real sense, and that is the unbalance that I also wanted to express in the work and title Out of effective range.

With the actual performance, there was also a screen outside the theater showing the performance live in real-time. The venue d-Soko (storage house) is in the middle of a residential area, with elderly men riding by on bicycles and the like, but they don’t know what is going on inside the theater. I danced saying, “The missiles may come raining down but it’s OK, if I fart in the theater, the people outside the theater won’t know it, so the theater is a safe place,” but in fact I also went to an unsafe place (outside the theater) and danced while showing it live on a screen to the audience inside the theater.
In the program “Dance ga mitai” (we want to see dance) staged by d-Soko (Storage house) you won the Audience Award. And in light of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, this program takes on a different meaning, doesn’t it?
Yes, it does. When I did another performance there in 2021, it was already in the midst of the pandemic. To some degree, we could no longer say that theaters were “safe places,” so we had to ask what everyone would do.
But no one had predicted that we would be in a situation where no place in society is safe, had we? Today, as all kinds of changes are taking place in our environment at such a fast pace, your kind of working method in which you keep doing re-creations of your work and update them constantly may become standard practice. Unlike the conventional style where companies tour with a particular work in packaged form, dance works may become ongoing works-in-progress that reflect the changing realities at each time and place they are performed. Of course, they will still contain a core that doesn’t change as well.
It is a fact that I thought from the very first performance that the concept of “people meeting or not meeting” would contain contents that changed over time. But I never expected that the COVID pandemic would bring such drastic changes so quickly.

I continue to think things are hard for young dancers who don’t have the places or the money to do the creation necessary to keep their works changing and growing. If they create good works that win them recognition, they may be able to get grants and support in terms of studios to rehearse in. But unfortunately, most young dancers are not blessed with an environment where they can create that first good work to begin with.

I was fortunate to win an award at Yokohama Dance Collection this time. I feel it is especially important because until now I had always been thinking, “It is only the creators who have won awards that get places to practice and money to create things with, so you award winners don’t need anything else! The ones who really need that support are those of us who haven’t won awards yet! Give the support to people like us!”
Endangered species

Endangered species
Oct. 11–13 at THEATRE1010 – Mini Theatre
Photo by bozzo

Out of effective range

Out of effective range
Jul.25, 2018 at d-Soko
Photo by bozzo

Shiki, an innovative work with Nihon Buyo

You have also used your background in Nihon Buyo to do a full-fledged collaboration with Nihon Buyo dancers. After a postponement of one year due to the COVID pandemic, you finally presented your work Shiki (the four seasons) in 2021. This was a collaborative work performed by yourself and two Nihon Buyo dancers, and in the three-part 15-minute work, one of the three pieces was my choice, my body, which you performed together with Ryotaro Fujima and Jusahomi Hanayagi, bringing together the four kinds of Japanese traditional dance into a performance based on the Nihon Buyo dance Seishuhakugen (the sacred animals of Chinese tradition representing the four directions). To tell the truth, overall it seemed as if the three dances were simply lined up together without connection, but I felt that this project must be just the start of something that will continue.
I am grateful to hear you say that. For my choice, my body, we had been experimenting with members of my company to find out how I could share Nihon Buyo with dancers whose experience was in other types of dance. Next, I thought I wanted to try to see what dancers with a solid background in Nihon Buyo could do with contemporary dance. Being myself a person who had done Nihon Buyo just as I liked and finally left it, I wanted to work with professional Nihon Buyo dancers and learn from them what they see in Nihon Buyo today. It is a project that has only just begun.
What especially impressed me was the Sanja Matsuri part of Seishuhakugen. The two danced wearing masks designed with the Chinese characters for “virtue” and “evil.” It appeared to be the kind of scene often depicted in mangas where the “angel” and “devil” within the heart of a character battle each other, and it was done in the form of a Nihon Buyo dance. It was quite an anarchic dance, and I was surprised to hear that it was originally composed in the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) and was performed with very little change from that time.
One of my seniors in the class where learned Nihon Buyo for years was used to seeing ballet works like Swan Lake or Bolero but when she saw my choice, my body, in this performance, she asked me, “Is that contemporary dance? It was truly fascinating.” On the other hand, when some of my Suichu-megane∞ company’s audience saw it, they said, “We were surprised at how fascinating Nihon Buyo can be.” So, there were new discoveries on both sides. I want to develop a relationship with my audience as if we are on a journey, and if they follow Suichu-megane∞ it will be fun and open up new worlds for them.
Of course, when we think of ballet and Nihon Buyo, there are wonderful precedents from the past such as Maurice Béjart’s The Kabuki, a work which took the Kabuki classic Kanadehon Chushingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers) as its motif, and his joint work with Bandoh Tamasaburo. In recent years, there have been projects in Japan as well, like when Mari Kita played the role of Musume Dojoji (The maiden at Dojo-ji Temple), and when Genkuro Hanayagi did choreography for Bolero. There have also been many cases of performers of the futozao (thick neck) shamisen (the Gidayu Shamisen) player Yae Yamamichi who has performed with many contemporary dancers, and many more cases that show how a new generation of artists is emerging. I can’t help but feel optimistic about new developments to come that are completely different from the type of incongruous mixes of genres we talked about earlier.
I had asked [Yae] Yamamichi-san to compose the music for our Shiki production, and the eventual postponement of the performance gave us plenty of time to think about the work, which made that time all the more meaningful. She compares the songs/poems of the ancient Kokin Wakashu (Collection of Japanese Poems of Ancient and Modern Times) and those of the ancient Manyoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves) to the songs of today’s Japanese pop singer/songwriters, Aiko and Aimyon. She says it is fascinating the way those ancient poems convey the emotions so directly, just like Aimyon. Everything is not just about passing down the ancient culture, she says, and she also says that she enjoys playing her shamisen while listening to Aimyon’s music. And since I also have experience with that king genre mixing, I want to keep playing with new ideas.

Jul.8 – 11, 2021 at Kanagawa Prefectural Youth Center – Studio HIKARI
Photo by Manaho Kaneko

Creating spaces and works that reach people

Finally, I would like to ask you about your coming plans.
I am working now on the second version of 1991. With the first version we watched and gave our opinions about each other’s works, and we also had exchanges with the audience, but this time I want to attempt to see how much we can intervene in each other’s works. So, first of all we meet without the intention of doing performances, and instead we go to Kinosaki International Art Center for a residence.
Is this something related to the lack of places available for young artists to create works in that you mentioned earlier?
That is part of it, but another part is that when I went to South Korea to create a work in residence, I was told that the things I was thinking and my physicality were interesting, but that it isn’t coming out in my works. And when I thought about it, I realized there is a strong sense that we have hardly any places where we can learn about the process of creation, and we have never even studied choreography. Since we have no place to study, many dancers can only take part in pieces that a choreographer has created and try to learn what they can from that experience. And other than that, about all we can do is read books.

In South Korea, although everyone has to develop their own style themselves, they say that in recent years a few places have been created where you can go and learn about how to change your way of thinking when you reach a point in the creative process where you don’t know what to do next, and how to approach the creation process as a whole. They said that when you are choreographing things [there] every day, your choreographing speed gets faster. And then you can spend the time that you save on that to think about how you want to show your work and the directing.
Other than thinking about the movements, there are a lot of other things you have to do to choreograph. In South Korea, they have full-fledged dance education at universities, and they have the Korea National Contemporary Dance Company (KNCDC). In the choreography courses you are choreographing for dancers with outstanding technique, so the range and breadth of what you can do is greater. Of course, there is a debate about whether creation is something you can think out, but in fact there are a lot of successful results that are coming out. Furthermore, we often hear from dance professionals from Europe about the lack of compositional strength in Japanese dance and the importance of using dramaturgs.
I am the type that wants to put in all the effort where effort is what matters, and if I had the opportunity I would like to study. But I’m not a student anymore, so I guess there is no alternative but to study as I work. That’s why I wanted to create a place where I could create work with other choreographers, and we could exchange opinions and learn about each other’s methods of choreography and share everything. The artist-in-residence program in Kinosaki International Art Center is the first step toward that goal.
It is not often that Japanese will talk about each other’s work together, is it? People who have studied in Europe say that there will be exchanges in which people say clearly what parts of the other person’s work they didn’t like and why, but no one gets bothered or upset in such situations. It is probably because they have competed in an environment where a dancer who can’t make suggestions doesn’t last. But because Japanese dancers grow up in a culture where dance is just a thing you take lessons in, they are not used to having discussions about it.
That’s right. In our house there were always complex three-way arguments going on between me, my mother and my older sister, so I grew up feeling that if I didn’t stand my ground and state my mind, I would be left out as the loser. To me that was the normal state of things, but for many they react to a statement of opinion with fear, afraid of making someone mad or being negated. So, even if you want to hear the reason behind someone’s opinion, they just say OK and let it slide.

And since all of us in the 1991 project are the same age, we first created an atmosphere where everyone felt that it is OK to say what you think, and we created time when we could say what we though about each other’s work. Of course, there are some who go quiet at that time, but in the end, the people who are creating their own works usually give their opinions. I think they are all struggling to find their way forward.

In a situation where there are few dramaturgs, there is definitely a need for relationships where artists can give their opinions to each other. I believe that we ourselves have to create an environment where there is a hurdle [of mutual criticism] that we have to clear in order to raise the quality of our work before we show it to the audiences.
Are there things that you are thinking about in terms of your relationship with Nihon Buyo?
I want to create a roughly middle-length work in a project with a Nihon Buyo performer. I am speaking with Yamamichi-san and I want to do some kind of remix with contemporary music.
What are your plans with Suichu-Megane∞ ?
We have a solo company performance scheduled for July. While I won’t say that this will be our last theater performance, I am thinking now that I want to break out of the theater for performances in the future. In contemporary dance and art, there are many cases where artists bring in creators from outside their own community to elevate the quality of their work, but my personal character is one that wants to go out into the outside world and perform freely without worrying about what others say (laughs). When you bring in something from outside your neighborhood, you can fit it cleanly into your framework, but it ends up making works that have clearly just borrowed a bit from another source. So, I think that in order to be able to jump into a framework that is not your own, you probably have to go outside and leave the theater framework behind.

And there is one other thing, as I said about Out of effective range, if you are waiting in the theater, it is hard to deliver your work to most people, so I have long felt that you probably won’t be able to deliver it unless you go outside and take it directly to the people you want it to reach. With Endangered species I think we should have taken our performance to Shinjuku Ni-chōme (an entertainment district in the Shinjuku Special Ward of Tokyo.) Even if it meant performing in a strip theater, that would be OK. I want to perform in a Sumo wrestling ring. I want to think in terms of who you want to show your work to and where you want to show it. And then keep changing the places and forms of presentation to achieve a real shift in our activities in the process.
That is impressive to hear. There was a performance at a strip theater in the Art Festival in Beppu (Beppu Art Month), and if you want to use a Sumo wrestling ring, you might be able to borrow time at the ring of some university Sumo club. The kind of issues you have been talking about are the same as the issues faced by people of the juggling or circus arts in Europe. They have said that the people who probably really need their arts most are probably people who don’t have the money to go to theaters, people like immigrants or the poor, and so they take their performances to where those people actually are.
That is surely true, isn’t it? My mother used to always go out on New Year’s Day to work with the Shiki Theater Company. That is because one of the founders of the company, Keita Asari, always said that there is one day of the year that even people who are busy with their work all year long can take a day off, and that is New Year’s Day, so we will always perform on that day, and it may be the only day once a year when those people can come to the theater. In the same way, I want to shape my activities so that I can take performances to the people who really need them.