Japanese contemporary dance now

Japanin johtaviin tanssikirjoittajiin ja -kriitikoihin lukeutuva Takao Norikoshi tarjoaa Liikekieli.comille kirjoittamassaan englanninkielisessä artikkelissaan katsauksen japanin nykytanssin historiaan, nykypäivään ja tämän hetken tärkeimpiin tanssintekijöihin.

Artikkeli on toteutettu yhteistyössä Suomen Japanin instituutin kanssa.


Japanese contemporary dance now


1. All starts in 1986

Japanese contemporary dance spread rapidly in the 1980s. It had almost no relation to the history of Japanese dance since the pre-war age and modern dance, let alone traditional dance.

In the preface of my book Contemporary Dance Tettei Guide (Contemporary Dance perfect Guide book, Sakuhinsha, 2003), I declared that the beginning of Japanese contemporary dance was in 1986. This book has been employed as a textbook in a number of universities and schools, and the definition of the beginning year has been widely acknowledged. All this happened in 1986:
Saburo Teshigawara became the first Japanese award winner in the Bagnolet International Choreography Competition,
Pina Bausch presented her work for the first time in Japan,
– and Tatsumi Hijikata, the founder of butoh, passed away,
In addition to this the fall of ”bubble economy” was coming in few years.

The Teshigawara case: we can express without butoh

The news that Saburo Teshigawara won the award changed Japanese young dancers’ awareness and made them think, ”We don’t have to express our nationality as butoh did to create dance that can be received by the West.”

Pina Bausch as a culture shock in Japan

Pina Bausch made an impact with her style of dance theatre, proving how profoundly dance could depict human beings. Her method of creation based on communication with dancers was a culture shock for Japanese dance practitioners who used to think choreography was supposed to be done through an experienced leader’s instructions for pupils.

Pina Bausch also actively held workshops, and a large number of young Japanese dancers participated in them; an opportunity to learn directly from a spearheading artist was very rare at that time. This also encouraged those who had no experience in dance or ballet until their early twenties to create their own dance pieces.

Butoh influence spreading all over the contemporary dance scene

Butoh was established in the 1960s, but it had already been in decline in the 1970s. There were many independent groups imitating only superficial appearance of butoh such as slow movements and naked bodies painted in white.

The true international acknowledgement of butoh occurred with the Nancy Festival in 1980, in which Kazuo Ohno and Sankaijuku won high praise. At that time, Tatsumi Hijikata had already stopped dancing and Kazuo Ohno was already 74 years old.

This international reputation was re-imported to Japan, and triggered revaluation of butoh. However, those sincerely continuing butoh had already established their own styles that were different from preexisting frames of butoh. The death of the founder Tatsumi Hijikata in 1986 was a signal that a new age was beginning.

Perhaps international reception of Japanese contemporary dance is still related to the image of butoh. It is true that butoh had a strong influence, but this should not be understood as the frame of ”slow movements of naked bodies painted in white.”

Indeed, there are virtually only two active companies still employing this frame: Dairakudakan and Sankaijuku. Most of the dancers who emerged from butoh such as Kota Yamazaki, Kim Itoh and Yukio Suzuki are received in the context of contemporary dance.

The bubble economy fall and the rise of domestic budgeting

As for the social situation, the ”bubble economy” in the eighties enabled many enterprises to invite Western dance companies, letting Japanese young dancers grasp the cutting-edge direction of Western dance at once.

The number of invited performances of foreign companies drastically declined with the fall of the ”bubble economy” in the nineties. As a positive result of this budgets for domestic dancers’ training increased.

2. The structure of the Japanese dance scene

Since Saburo Teshigawara won the prize, Bagnolet International Choreography Competition gained importance among Japanese dancers. Its platform in Tokyo was established in 1991, and star dancers such as Kota Yamazaki, Kim Itoh and Tsuyoshi Shirai emerged from it. The Bagnolet competition was closed in 2007.

Following the Tokyo platform of Bagnolet, dance festivals and residence workshops have been held in Tokyo and other regions: Yokohama Dance Collection R, a complex dance festival held at Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse; Toyota Choreography Award sponsored by Toyota Motor Corporation; Dance Triennale Tokyo, the largest international dance festival in Japan led by the Aoyama Theatre; and We’re Gonna Go Dancing!!, a touring dance festival organized by Japan Contemporary Dance Network (JCDN).

However, there are almost no dance programs with professional prospect in public education. Indeed, there is only one resident dance company receiving public support in Japan: noism in Niigata. Besides, it was established as late as in 2004 and the support is not governmental but regional: the company is attached to Niigata-City Performing Arts Center.

As a matter of fact, there is no public dance or ballet school. Private ballet classes are popular in Japan, and it is said that there is at least one private ballet school in any town, even in the mountains area. This situation has been supporting Japanese ballet, and the establishment of the New National Theatre Ballet, Tokyo, the first national ballet company, only took place in 1997. Still no public ballet schools exist.

Even the most successful dance company in Japan can barely support its choreographer’s living, and almost no company can employ dancers on a full-time basis.

3. Important Dancers and Choreographers

a. Leading and Central Figures

Saburo Teshigawara (KARAS)
A leading dancer and choreographer in Japanese dance, who has choreographed for many companies such as Ballet de l’Opéra National de Paris, Ballet Frankfurt and Nederlands Dans Theater. Though he has already established his reputation, he has actively been creating new works in recent years, and all of these works are surprisingly innovative and superb in quality.

Sakiko Ohshima (H. ART CHAOS)
She was selected as ”Dance of the Year” by New York Times in 2000. Her creations with the main dancer Naoko Shirakawa are exceptional in scale and quality. She has also been directing a number of operas.

Akiko Kitamura (Leni Basso)
The company has been presenting more than 100 performances abroad every year, and is praised in its solid movements and profound direction.

Jo Kanamori (noism)
He has worked in the companies of Béjart and Kylian, and is the artistic director of the only one resident dance company in Japan. Still in his thirties he is a leading figure of future Japanese dance with his excellent technique, artistic challenges, and talent as a producer.

Tsuyoshi Shirai
Shirai was the representative of Bagnolet Tokyo Platform in 2000, and won the grand prize in Toyota Choreography Award in 2006. He mainly works solo, but is also active in choreography. He explores ”the body before being choreographed” and creates dance starting from the deepest state of the body.

b. Noteworthy Figures

Mikuni Yanaihara (Nibroll)
Nibroll is an artist collective with members specializing in various fields such as video art and costume. Yanaihara has also presented theatre works, and the company has been active abroad sharply depicting the reality of urban situation of the body.

Ikuyo Kuroda
Kuroda is the artistic director of BATIK, a dance company consisting of only female members. In Japan, female choreographers are more radical in exploiting the body than male choreographers; Kuroda represents this tendency creating works filled with unlimited physical energy. Kuroda has also created a work for the Helsinki Dance Company.

Kaiji Moriyama
Moriyama has been drawing attention of his style employing the taste of Japanese culture in depth. He was named as ”one of the most talented dancers” in Edinburgh Festival in 2001, and his performance in Venice Biennale in 2007 was a sellout. He is a rare dancer who maintains familiarity with darkness and silence while being different from butoh and filled with spirit that reminds of a beautiful beast.

Yukio Suzuki
Suzuki’s background is in butoh; he used to perform in butoh works such as ones by Ko Murobushi. With his tense movements that look as if focusing on each internal motion, he won the grand prize in Toyota Choreography Awards in 2008.

Masako Yasumoto
Yasumoto has a strong uncomparable originality. In spite of the fact that she is endowed with long limbs and coquettish appearance, she surprises viewers by unpredictable movements. Most of her works are small pieces of around 10 minutes, but there are two pieces longer than 60 minutes. She has gained enthusiastic fans in Japan.

Yoko Higashino (BABY-Q)
Higashino is herself an exceptional dancer. But also her company’s works are outstanding in solid world view, chilling themes penetrating viewers’ sensation, and dramatic spatial construction that looks like a labyrinth. The company has also been highly acknowledged abroad.

Shuji Onodera (Company Derashinera)
Company Derashinera is led by Shuji Onodera and Momoko Fujita. It was established after their Mizu to Abura, a mime-based company, which stopped its activity. Movements are based on mime, but the expression is original and different from preexisting dance theatre. Set designing for each work is excellent and highly praised.

Hiroyuki Miura (M-laboratory)
M-laboratory used to consist of only male dancers, but recently also young and female dancers are employed renewing the whole concept. Exceptional technique of dancers was already highly acknowledged, and fusion of Miura’s theatrical style and dance has made the company’s works even more profound.

c. Emerging Young Artists

Hiroaki Umeda (S20)
Since his selection as the Japan delegate to Bagnolet in 2002 Hiroaki Umeda has been working mainly in Europe by invitations of various festivals. He is popular abroad. He also designs lighting and sound. Often he creates a dense space and speed looking like electrons were flying across the performance area. Recently he has also been active in Japan. Umeda participated in 2008 the choreography programme between Finland and Yokohama Arts Foundation.

Teita Iwabuchi (Mure)
Before establishing his own company Mure with Kaori Seki and other dancers in 2008 Teita Iwabuchi was an excellent dancer visiting various companies. He is one of the most important young dancers. His profound movements filled with pleasure of dance itself have been enchanting viewers.

Based on hip-hop, but not too much dependent on it, KENTARO!! creates original movements. He has been awarded at Toyota Choreography Award and Yokohama Dance Collection R, and has been regarded as a future star. He has been creating works fulfilling the expectations, and the first company work was successfully shown in 2008. It proves he is also capable of creating longer pieces.

A unit formed by young dancers of Dairakudakan, a butoh company led by Akaji Maro. Each company member choreographs in turn. The style is the old school ”half naked bodies painted in white,” but they are not just imitating the surface. They have inherited the best butoh achievements proving that the new butoh stage is emerging. Core members played an important part in Josef Nadj’s ASOBU.

Megumi Kamimura (Kamimura Megumi Company)
Kamimura’s solo works are filled with tension. She looks as if dancing with heightening internal energy to the limit. Her group works are experimental, re-questioning the whole concept of choreography.

Translated by Tomoyuki Arai
Edited by Aarne Toivonen (The Finnish Institute in Japan)
(May 2009)