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Artists Open Doors: Japan/UK    
4. Contemporary Practice Panel:

Naomi Inata
Un Yamada
Shobana Jeyasingh
Graeme Miller

Naomi Inata is the Artists Open Doors co-convenor and is a researcher at the Global Centre of Excellence, at the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Waseda University, as well as being a part time lecturer at Keio Gijuku University and a dance critic. She is the author of Tatsumi Hijikata – The Extreme Body, a critical biography of Tatsumi Hijikata, founder of Butoh. She is a judge of the National Arts Festival Grand Prize, a committee member of strategic programmes such as: Prioritised Support for Creative Artistic Activities of the Highest Calibre, and Ensuring Opportunities to View Authentic Stage Arts of Dance, by the Agency for Cultural Affairs of the Japanese Government.

In order to address today's panel theme of 'contemporary practice', I need to return to two points concerning contemporary dance that I made during yesterday’s keynote address. These points, which will be important for the discussion that follows, relate to concepts that are understood differently in Japan than in the UK.

From the mid 1980s, a number of francophone dancers and choreographers of the 'Nouvelle Danse' movement brought their performances to Japan. In 1986, Pina Bausch presented work in Japan for the first time and Saburo Teshigawara was the first Japanese choreographer to win the Bagnolet International Choreography Prize. In the upsurge of interest following these performances and Teshigawara's achievement, artists including Kim Itoh, Kota Yamazaki, Mika Kurosawa and Kuniko Kisanuki came to prominence as performance-makers. Teshigawara's background was ballet and pantomime, Itoh and Yamazaki's were Butoh, while Kurosawa and Kisanuki's were modern dance.

This generation of artists vigorously questioned existing dance practice and canonical works, and began making their own original dance works. In Japan, the new genre of dance that resulted is called 'contemporary dance' and was frequently characterised by cross-overs with other artforms, including theatre and visual art. The crucial characteristic of contemporary dance is its self-critiquing attitude. Modern dance and ballet were not viewed as contemporary dance as they did not usually show this reflexivity. A dance work was likely to be labelled as contemporary dance when its choreographer's practice was not contained by an existing dance discipline but instead took up a questioning stance. The radical and exciting new contemporary dance of these artists attracted a different audience than did ballet or modern dance (although it should be noted that performances took place primarily in Tokyo).

Foreign dance artists became more active in Japan during this period from the mid 1980s. Visiting artists began to lead workshops in Japan, which became a stepping stone to Japanese dance artists later also offering open workshops. This step was significant in Japan since at that time most dance studios followed the model of Okeikobunka, with its stringent master-student relationship and restrictions on students studying with other teachers. Some of the foreign artists who offered workshops in Japan included a later generation of American post-modern dance and practitioners of contact improvisation. Young dancers began to participate in these workshops, learning new techniques and approaches, and making works influenced by American and European innovations.

While some dance artists in this period remained imitators – epigones – of Western dance, a number of prominent artists emerged from the pool, who heightened dance as an artform and created contemporary dance works that differed from models brought in from the West. I believe that Butoh was a key factor in the emergence of Japanese contemporary dance, in the face of the common critique of Butoh in Japan as essentialist and perpetuating an orientalist image to the rest of the world. My reasoning lies in the fact of Butoh's own critical reflexivity.

It has been observed that American post modern dance, like modernism in fine art, is marked by distillation or a pared-down 'simplicity' and aims not to ‘represent’ but ‘present’. Butoh could be positioned within this cultural tradition, yet the Butoh movement, which began during the late 1950s, regarded its medium as not movement of the body like American post modern dance, but the body itself. Contemporary dance choreographers of the 1980s were following in the footsteps of the first Butoh artists when they questioned existing dance practices. Not all Butoh was as rigorous as that pioneered by, for example, Tatsumi Hijikata; without critical reflexivity, Butoh becomes conventionalised and reduced to a style. It is not enough for a performer to be painted white, shaven headed, curled over and moving in slow motion for a work to be Butoh. Ironically, those who have embraced Butoh's demand of critical reflexivity, today tend to call their work simply dance, rather than Butoh.

When the contemporary dancers who were delving into the question of 'what is dance?' and 'what is the body?' started to lead workshops, they used methods that focused attention on the physical body so as to become conscious of each body part and build awareness from within. If we delve into how we perceive and investigate 'the body' and dance, we become more aware both of our bodies as the common foundation of our human existence, and of how our bodily movement becomes dance expression.

To join a contemporary dance workshop, participants were not necessarily required to have the techniques of, for example, ballet and modern dance, nor the strength and stamina produced in those modes of training. On occasion, those without previous dance experience could in fact seem to have the most 'creative' bodies. Observing the contrasting physical habits, patterns of muscle use and ease of movement of their untrained workshop participants, the new contemporary dance artists fed their observations back into their own bodies.

Through interaction with their workshop participants, the pioneers of contemporary dance thus continually evolved their creative and teaching practices, and developed a new awareness of corporeality that would come to inflect their performance work. As one example, when Saburo Teshigawara led a workshop at Sadler's Wells in London he met a young man without sight named Stuart Jackson. Teshigawara was not leading this workshop so as to begin creating a work, but his meeting with Jackson nonetheless led to Jackson performing alongside him in Luminous (shown at Sadler's Wells in 2003).

When the work premiered in Japan, discussion focused on questions of disability and the fact that a blind young man was performing in it. However, when I saw Luminous, I was struck more by Jackon's strong and precise arm movements when he stretched into the air. I think, by by collaborating with Jackson, Teshigawara has reflected that people with sight can, in a sense, be sometimes understood as disabled (in that they are unable to experience movement as someone without sight from birth), since a sighted person's movement is always patterned according to their prior visual experience. Jointly Teshigawara and Stuart's dancing is valuable in terms of art, but also as an invitation to audiences of insight into our embodied experiences and potential.

Un Yamada is another choreographer who has experienced artistic breakthroughs from the experience of workshops. She belongs to what is seen as a third generation of contemporary dance and has been active since the mid-1990s. At that time, the trend was to explore 'non-dance' which denied any framework of art performance or physical skill. Yamada was notable therefore as much for her advanced dance technique and her structured choreographies, as for her highly unusual movement qualities. In her recent work, Document (2008) Yamada created movement with each dancer that amplified their individuality. When they come to dance together in unison, the work creates an extraordinary atmosphere of profound warmth. Yamada brought to the making of this work, her wide experience of meeting people in workshops from a diversity of backgrounds, and of discovering the body and dance anew.

One might say that the experiences and technique Teshigawara acquired by 'delving' into the body came to fruition in his performance works. Un Yamada has explored dance's depths, and her artistry grows from how she communicates with others - how she explores connections between people, between bodies. Work of this kind is valued by choreographers, dancers and the audiences. Of late, Teshigawara's methods have even drawn attention from medical professionals in the field of developmental disabilities.

Both Teshigawara and Yamada look, as it were, inside dance and the body and create stage works as their outputs. On the other hand, there are a group of Japanese artists whose work in dance takes them beyond studio and theatre. Min Tanaka is one such artist. On a regular basis, he works as a farmer on a mountain far away from Tokyo. He rounds his back and tills the soil and brings in his harvest under the glare of the sun. In his dance work, he draws on these real-life connections between soil, nature, and people. Every summer, Tanaka hosts an event called 'Dance Hakushuu', or 'art camp' which gathers together musicians, visual artists, actors, architects and folk artists to offer experiencing workshops and enjoying performances to attendance. Last year, Tanaka danced a sublime dance on a stage in the forest. If the characteristics of contemporary dance may be said to lie in the words 'now and here', in a theatre space, this becomes an abstract 'now and here'. Without a doubt, however, the audience of Tanaka's dance experienced the reality of the body through directly being in contact with soil, wind, water and trees existing ‘now and here’.

Tanaka's audience included not only dance enthusiasts and theatre-goers, but also the young team of volunteers and others who had become interested in dance through the diversity of Dance Hakushuu. Unfortunately, Dance Hakusu, which lasts for one month, cannot alone activate an underpopulated region. However, it does seed some activity and, inspired by the camp, people may go on to explore these new arts ideas in Tokyo or elsewhere.

Natsuko Tezuka also takes her work away from theatres. Her approach is to explore the internal body, like Teshigawara, but this year, she produced her art for the region in which she lives. She organised a dance event in a closed-down school, far from Tokyo in the mountains. Her co-performers, audience, and the people of the community, discovered new and valued relationships between dance, the body and the derelict space.

The performance art of the artists I have been discussing does not seek primarily to contribute to social welfare, education, or medical agenda. These artist-led workshops were of high quality and significance because of the artists' commitment to ongoing self-questioning into dance and 'the body'. For a contemporary practice to continue to develop in Japan, we need curators and producers who can match suitable artists to community arts situations. We also need critics and academics to develop discourses that can articulate contemporary practices, and for theatre and arts agency staff to co-ordinate the dance provision across a region.

 
 
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