Semi-naked men, shaven-headed, their bodies covered in white make-up, move with intent slowness on the stage: Anyone who has ever seen Ankoku Butoh — Japan’s most famous dance export — will recognize this description. But, as good as the likes of internationally acclaimed dance troupe Sankai Juku are, there is in fact a lot more to Japanese dance.
Dance Triennale Tokyo 2009 is probably as fine as any introduction can be to the range of styles and performers out there. The festival features 18 artists and companies, performing from Sept. 18 to Oct. 8 at the Aoyama Round Theatre in Shibuya, Tokyo, and the nearby Spiral Hall in Omotesando.
This year’s Triennale sees a greater diversity of events than before, with free minishowcases, talk events at the Shibuya Aoyama Book Center and workshops by the visiting foreign artists. There is also the rare opportunity to watch 80 years of dance on film in a series of late-show screenings at Theatre Image Forum, also in Shibuya.
One of the centerpieces of the festival is a new work by award-winning choreographer Ikuyo Kuroda, whose “Flowers flow, time congeals” will soon be revived at the performing-arts Festival/Tokyo 09.
Kuroda has a warm and loquacious personality, which is in sharp contrast to the intense and violent work that her all-female dance troupe BATIK is known for. One notable piece, “SHOKU,” featured the performers wearing only their underwear. Her dance deliberately pushes participants to their bodies’ limits and beyond. Kuroda, however, originally trained as a ballet dancer and says she finds her reputation for such intensity a little surprising. “Actually, when I make BATIK works I’m always in hysterics,” she tells The Japan Times.
Her performance for Dance Triennale Tokyo 2009 is not with BATIK but with something she has developed specifically for another group of performers that includes two men and the use of actors. “Arrow and Chain” is an unusual work for her, not least in the makeup of the cast but also the style. There will be more of a sense of fun and the form of the performance will be a departure, employing video and dialogue.
“This time is pretty different. It is much more about meaning,” she says. “We are starting from specific moments in the performers’ lives and histories. We have to understand these episodes fully. This idea of really having to get across a meaning in the work is a first for me.”
The multimedia aspects of the production are a first for Kuroda as well. “It’s not really multimedia dance,” she explains, “but we are using all the things we need for it to be a documentary. Dialogue, video, pictures, music, dance. . . . It’s very free.”
By “documentary” Kuroda seems to mean a personal story: “In everyone there is a different documentary. This is inside us and we are living inside others.”
Also pushing the boundaries of dance, this time by mixing it with other types of performance, is Maki Morishita. Like, Kuroda, Morishita’s work is strikingly unusual.
She questions genres and conventions in her dance: comical sketches are frequent; she uses word play during rehearsal improvisation and even sings. “The voice is also part of the body. I’m often asked if my dance is theater, comedy or even singing. I call it dance. Dancing is not just about moving your body,” she says.
Morishita is entertaining in person. When she was a child she moved homes many times, and because of this she had to make new friends at a lot of schools. She became a natural communicator, talented as a comedian and an accomplished dancer.
For the Triennale, Morishita collaborated with dancer and choreographer Makoto Enda to create “Koma-Inu-Illutsky.” Two performers sit back-to-back, their arms linked, talking on cell phones. They roll over and over, their conversations becoming increasingly more difficult. Perhaps like the title, which is a nonsensical but fun mishmash of Japanese and Russian words, Morishita says, “The theme is pairings and the things you can’t see. There are also some elements of wa [Japanese-ness].”
Other than the Japanese performers, the Triennale introduces dancers from 11 countries, of which the biggest name is likely famed Canadian choreographer Ginette Laurin with her production based on Steve Reich’s landmark music composition “Drumming.”
One international performer who is no stranger to Japan is Frank Micheletti. Micheletti is currently based at Kyoto’s Villa Kujoyama, where he has been participating in an artistic residency for four months. He first came to Japan from France in 1996 and has drawn inspiration from Japanese music and film, traditional arts and author Haruki Murakami.
“I’m very interested in connections between different languages and worlds. I have a very special attraction to Asian countries. Maybe because the cultural gap is very important. It’s a big chance to discover more opportunities,” he says.
Micheletti’s dance plays with contradictions and oppositions. “There is an impulse you can find in contrast. We perceive opposites but actually it is duality. I would like to offer audiences the idea that there is not an opposition or contradiction between categories.”
He will present, for one performance only, the premiere of “Espaco contratempo,” featuring a Mozambique dancer and a guitarist, a piece he has worked on since March this year. The musician will play music “sometimes close to postrock music, sometimes close to improvisation.” The bodies of the two dancers, he says, will be like a medium collaborating with the music.
“I would like to find a system between dance and music. I would like to find density, variations between the sounds and bodies. . . . The musicality of the bodies. I’m looking to see if I can dance with the air, with the floor,” he says.
Like Morishita, and many other artists at the festival, Micheletti mixes media and genre. “I don’t make a distinction between the performer and the musician,” he says. However he’s not looking for a fusion project. “Every medium has a vocabulary,” he continues. “I’m not looking for a melting pot. Together we have a strong dialogue.”
Japanese performing-arts festivals always have a theme and the Dance Triennale has chosen “infinite moments.” In this information age we often find ourselves drowning in a endless stream of data from the Internet, mobile phones, RSS feeds. If live performance is one way to make a single moment eternal, then Tokyo has plenty to offer this autumn.
Dance Triennale Tokyo 2009 runs till Oct. 8 at the Aoyama Round Theatre and at the Spiral Hall, Tokyo; admission for Aoyama Round Theatre is ¥4,500 (¥4,000 in advance); admission for Spiral Hall is ¥4,000 (¥3,500 in advance). For more information visit www.aoyama.org or www.spiral.co.jp
This article originally appeared in The Japan Times on September 18 2009. See here for the online version.