Photo: Takashi Shikama / New National Theatre, Tokyo, 2006
|Then, as an artist who could not be categorized into any of the existing forms and whose style of work was hard to put a name on, you came to the attention of the world when you entered a work titled Kaze no sentan (La Pointe du vent) at the 1986 Bagnolet International Choreography Competition. It was a work that shocked and stunned many people because it took as its motif the seemingly simple process of falling or crumbling down and then rising again. This was shocking because dance has always been an exercise in balance and neither ballet nor modern dance had ever permitted falling, or equated falling with failure. When I saw that repetition of falling and rising again, I felt that I was seeing something I had never seen before, a new language of dance, a new form of dance vocabulary. How did you come to conceive of that form of movement?
As I have often said, meeting Kei Miyata was an important part of it. At the time, we were doing long workshops where we would spend hours doing the same movements over and over. Miyata disliked dance and didn’t have experience in dance. But she had a very strong desire to do some form of physical expression. And since she had no [dance] technique, she didn’t have a basis for movement. See that, gave me the idea of trying to approach movement by first making the body empty and “feeling from within the [empty] body.” Many things are moving within the body. There is the breathing and things like “the flow of air.” In order for us to expand our sensitivities and perceptions, I thought that rather than starting from the assumption that there is “something” [like “dance”] already existing, we should start from the point where there is “nothing.” That became my point of departure.
By nature, people want to think that they possess something, and we all have a self-defense, or self-preservation instinct that functions to protect us from the viewpoints of the other and from external pressure. But for an artist whose mission is expression, the challenge is how to remove that self-defense instinct which is a normal part of everyday life.
So, when I proposed, “An empty body would crumble and fall, wouldn’t it?”, Miyata immediately understood intuitively what I was saying and she just went blank, as if suddenly deflated, and she crumbled to the ground. And, it wasn’t a crumbling from the legs, but a crumbling from the head. And it was incredibly beautiful to watch. Her body collapsed so smoothly and beautifully, it was like watching a slow-motion film of a giant building collapsing. And it had such a material sense that you could almost see the clouds of dust and smoke rising as she collapsed. That made me think, “This is not movement, it is shitsukan [a Japanese expression that includes both “sense of material” and “material quality/qualities].
In this way, Miyata has been the source of all kinds of imagination for me, and our techniques of expression are things that Miyata and I have created through the medium of her body. None of our vocabulary, with words like shitsukan [sense of material] or “breathing” and “air,” or “collapse” and “crumble,” or “solidify” and “melt,” or to become like “powder” or “gas” and melt into a space, are really about “movement” as such. They all based on an initial change in consciousness or sensibility that enables the person to become a body with a different “material quality” or a different “material sense,” and then that becomes movement. And that gives birth to specific body lines [of movement]. When I saw Miyata crumble to the ground, I saw a clear embodiment of the process, that journey if you will, and I thought it was beautiful.
In modern dance and ballet, the dancer moves as if movement is natural. They practice until step follows step skillfully and the dancer reaches the point where they can move without thinking or without any particular feeling or sensibility in mind—like a machine. But I have doubt about such a process. If you can move just by moving, then what is the purpose of the time spent studying and rehearsing in the studio?
If the most important thing is to present works, isn’t it enough just to rehearse the works? In Europe there are many dancer groups who spend all their time practicing, and their minds are so solidified around the ideas of how certain information input can produce movement that their bodies are only good for that kind predefined process. The people doing modern dance in Japan were all students of Cunningham and Martha Graham and they were all doing the same things. And when I saw the contemporary dance people were doing in France in the latter half of the 1980s, it all appeared to me as just forms, and it gave me a disappointing realization that everyone was doing the same type of thing.
In short, dancers were moving in response to sound, or moving to the dictates of an architectural environment or the conditions/atmosphere on a stage, or moving to the dictates of a [music] composer, and as long as they were moving within the confines of such couplings, their movement couldn’t help but become formalized. I am not categorically opposed to formalization in expression but, although this may be a matter of taste, I don’t think mass-production-like dance is necessary in creating works that will stand as original works of art. Dance is not a form for the purpose communicating information. What is important with dance is whether it is alive or not. That is what I felt when I met Miyata in the 1980s, and I knew from that time that I didn’t want to do dance that relied on form, formalized dance if you will.
It was at a time when we were doing a lot of studio work on this alternative type of movement that I decided to enter a work in the Bagnolet International Choreography Competition. The requirement was that it be choreography for groups of three or more dancers, so I created my first group piece. And when we performed it, I got the feeling that it had communicated something to people.
It did more than just communicate. It was fervently and emotionally received.
It was an amazing response. Because Bagnolet was a “choreography contest” some people said that my work was too improvisational. But, today that way of thinking about where a piece is choreographed or not and the conception or perception of what that means has changed a lot. I may be the one who broke down some of the preconceptions at that time.
After Bagnolet you got more offers than the choreographer who won first prize. And one of the offers let to your presentation of the work Constellation at the Festival Sigma De Bordeaux. I remember being slightly stunned seeing that work because you partitioned the stage in two. Usually, the stage is something that performers try to use as fully as possible, but you divided it in half with tin walls and danced within a space defined by the material quality of tin.
That’s right. We did a lot of crazy things like marching around beating on a steel box.
The performance at Bagnolet brought offers that suddenly filled our schedule for seven or eight months in advance. We had to prepare one new work after another. We would return to Japan and have to begin right away preparing a new work for our next engagement. After Bordeaux, we had an engagement to perform at Studio 200 in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district, and then I went to Vienna as instructor for a workshop, which turned out to be a very important experience for me. The participants for that workshop had come from all over the world, and for a month I conducted full-day workshops each day from morning to night. During that month I really had to consolidate my thoughts and decide what it really was that I wanted to communicate, and that experience truly clarified in my mind what physical expression meant to me.
After that you performed at the Pompidou Center in Paris and at the Spiral Hall n Aoyama, Tokyo. There you created a set with materials of hard qualities like wire and glass.
It was around that time when we were finally beginning to sense our direction as a group. Now that we performing in both Europe and Japan and from some stage we were doing more performances in Europe than in Japan. At first we made France our base in Europe, but I didn’t like French contemporary dance, and so, when we were invited to perform at Theater Am Turm (TAT) in Frankfurt, Germany, we decided to switch our base there.
It was a great era in the performing arts when the festivals of Europe were very active and their directors full of ambition to produce new works. And there were lots of uniquely specialized festivals.
The theaters also had well-based policies and their directors were well qualified and responsible. When TAT first asked me to visit them they told me that they did not intend it to be a short-term relationship. They said that if the invited me to perform at their theater they wanted it to be the start of at least a six or seven-year relationship. They weren’t interested in a one-off encounter. That really impressed me when I heard it, and it made me feel assured that I could make a serious creative challenge there, devoting all my energies.
You have also been commissioned to direct and choreograph staging of the Paris Opera Ballet and I believe that your methods have been recognized in Europe for their universality.
For a long time we have been studying elements like air and gravity and buoyancy, how to collapse the body and how to re-build it and I believe it is the universality of these elements that people perceive. These universal things have to be have to constantly discovered, learned and technique and maintained as ways to use the body, and with our experience performing overseas and seeing the response, I felt very strongly that what we were doing had been correct.
At Canada’s Festival Internationale de Montreal and when we performed at the Chaillot Theatre as well, there were clear responses from the audience. It impressed me when one staff at the Chaillot Theatre hold me that in all the years he had been working there he had never felt more from a dance performance than he had from ours. With dance it is not a question of what is good or popular at the moment, the measure becomes what you actually feel. That is what I have been pursuing from the beginning, the “strength” that dance has as a form of expression.