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Melbourne International Arts Festival

The journey: expansion and implosion

Adam Broinowski meets MIAF’s Japanese guests

Dumb Type, Voyage Dumb Type, Voyage
photo Kazuo Fukunaga
Kota Yamazaki

We meet at the Metro Hotel, an office block I used to live in that has gained stature in an increasingly cosmopolitan Melbourne. I am meeting Kota Yamazaki, choreographer of Rise:Rose and Chamisa 4ËšC which are both being presented at the Melbourne International Arts Festival (MIAF) this year. The latter work is organised as a cultural exchange with Lucy Guerin where each choreographer works with dancers and artists chosen from the other’s country (Phoebe Robinson, Lee Serle, Nick Sommerville, Joanne White for Yamazaki) as part of Australia-Japan Dance Exchange (AJDX) and the current Year of Exchange (YOE 2006).

Yamazaki and his composer Masahiro Sugaya join me as we step into the unusually warm winter in search of a restaurant, Yamazaki trailing behind us like an oyabun (the boss of a Yakuza gang). Turning our collective noses up at the expensive Italian restaurants we head for Chinatown.

Yamazaki began as a student of Tenshi-kan founder Kasai Akira, who was a student of Hijikata Tatsumi, founder of ankoku butoh (“dance of utter darkness”). Like most butoh dancers Yamazaki paid the rent by working at a show club. He then established Rosy Co, a company of 10 dancers before moving to New York in 2001 where he set up Kota Yamazaki/Fluid hug-hug, a company to “exchange, travel and explore.” Since then he has divided his time between Senegal, where he spent 6 months with Jant-Bi choreographing Faagala (MIAF 2005), his home-town of Tokyo and New York, a perfect combination he says. Returning to Japan with the Australian dancers, Yamazaki will perform Chamisa 4ËšC in Yamaguchi, Kyoto and Tokyo before coming to Melbourne.

Aside from being a successful freelancer, composer Masahiro Sugaya has worked with Tokyo dance company Pappa Tarahumara for nearly 20 years. He describes his arhythmic original composition for piano like drops of water falling, like the calls of animals in the zoo. The piece promises to be emotional. He loves Debussy, Brahms, Mendelssohn, but never Beethoven or Wagner. Yamazaki is cooler, more reserved, but no less passionate about the piece. The title Chamisa 4ËšC is named after the small yellow New Mexican ‘chamisa’ flowers that are found floating over the desert floor of the Grand Canyon in winter. The repetitive flower motif in Yamazaki’s work is rooted in butoh sequences and recalls a 60s performance by Hijikata called Bara-iro Dansu (Rosy Dance).

Yamazaki says his work must be beautiful. He likes the writing of Mishima Yukio for this reason. Yet this is in stark contrast to the anime visual aesthetics of the otaku generation (geeks or fans preoccupied with anime and manga), now exhibited in Murakami Takashi’s emblematic toxic flowers and figurines or Yoshitomo Nara’s mischievous children. In what appears to be a generational shift, the younger dance company Mezurashii Kinoko (literally Strange Mushroom) who recently visited Melbourne as part of Australia-Japan Dance Exchange, as if in reaction to the romanticism and darkness of angura (‘underground’) theatre and butoh, seems to be heading in the otaku direction.

Despite modern dance being the dominating influence in Yamazaki’s work, butoh remains significant in his approach. Yet although he says “butoh is easy”, he later remarks how difficult it is to teach to dancers who are unaccustomed to it. The Australian dancers are uncomfortable with slowness. By contrast, the Senegalese dancers didn’t like remembering textual phrases while dancing and are scared to dance alone. Butoh must come from inside, he concludes. Is that an inherent or created ‘inside,’ I wonder.

Having rediscovered his roots during his travels, Yamazaki says he is now looking to traditional dances from South East Asia. In Japan where traditional cultures are considered by some to be concealed by a patina of western culture, he feels he is searching in the traditions of others for something he has lost.

The next time we speak Yamazaki says he has decided to scrap the butoh element and focus on bringing out the dancers’ individual personalities instead. So despite his dance being based on the darkness of the wordless body, for the first time he will introduce text.

So the question lurking beneath these intercultural collaborations is how is it possible to transplant one form of culture, particular or inherent to a context, to another?

Dumb Type

Dividing their time between Kyoto and France, Dumb Type’s production of Voyage comes to Melbourne after having premiered in France and touring the world since 2002. One of the world’s leading multimedia performance companies, Dumb Type's work is based on the tenet of wordless expression as their name self-deprecatingly suggests. Founded in 1984 by students from the Kyoto University of Arts emerging from many disciplines including visual arts, architecture, music and computer programming, the group uses various media in their eternal search for new forms. The company also produces across a range of media such as performance, sound, video and publications. In the early 1990s Dumb Type gained notoriety in Japan and overseas for their unpopular AIDS activism prior to the death in 1995 of Teiji Furuhashi, one of the company’s core members.

To make Voyage, the group of 10 artists broke into twos and threes to make independent sequences. Rather than a pre-conceived plan, a director’s topographical vision, centralised organisation or all working to represent one opinion that has gained consensus, the only pre-condition made was for a common space. While the company members acknowledge that to find order and structure takes more time (and resources) this way, they prioritise individual feeling, action and thought, and only then consider what they can (and cannot) do as a group. Fittingly this interview was conducted via email with a polyvocal respondent.

The process has been a journey into a reverse world. Group members agree that they began from a feeling of not knowing what to do as artists in response to world events post-September 11, of being ‘lost’, a feeling which has only intensified as they have continued. The image in the festival program, and on this page, shows a female astronaut in a black space suit floating on a mirror with black smoke curling up behind her. Or is it perfect blue sky with perfect white clouds? asks one member. The group’s imaginations seem to be working in opposition, as if in a black hole. The further they travel the less is known in an ever-expanding implosion.

While they agree that the title Voyage is not about travelling towards a known destination with a specific purpose, from here on their versions diverge. Some feel it is an enforced drifting across expanses of water/land/sky/space/thought in an escape from war. Others combine the astronaut’s anxiety in venturing into the unknown with the excitement of following utopian dreams. Exploration or endeavour is the state manifestation of power, intones one, while another says the voyage is based on a northern European myth of forced exile as a form of retribution. Maybe this is what we all need, to think and look at things differently, muses one. When in space, the values cultivated on earth are turned upside down. Or are they?

The mirror, a motif in the work of both Yamazaki and Dumb Type, suggests a limitless expansion into absolute and infinite black. It reflects a place where things are immeasurable, where there is no light and no oxygen, no front and back, no conformity to codes of good and evil, a place of paradox, where common sense means nothing.

At the premiere of Voyage, one audience member, raising the technology/body dichotomy, remarked, “You are trying to end the body.” Yet Dumb Type assert they are not representing the cyborg or robot. While some members see tools as an extension of the body and others see technology as that which cuts through self-willed existence, others don’t feel the need to put subjective and objective existence at odds. Which ever way, these are always problems, yet they all agree that art is something to which they dedicate themselves.

Given that founding member Teiji Furuhashi is quoted on the group’s website criticising Japanese audiences for being apathetic and that the group “should always have a political view”, I turn to politics and ask about Japan’s recent conservatism—constitutional revisions in order to re-arm, continued visits to Yasukuni Shrine by heads of state aggravating international relations. The group say they are rarely asked about war and they have no intention of making clear statements. I persevere. One replies that religion is relatively unimportant to Japanese people while another says Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine are being called a religious act in order to play to popular sentiment, conceal real questions and effectively unify religion and politics. Another says people all over the world are ceasing to think for themselves and are being swindled by the continuation of the present war, while yet another says rather than asking what they think, I should think for myself.

Those who have direct experience of war in Japan are disappearing from society, observes one. Another tells of being with 90 year-old grandmothers at the nursing home watching the war on television: “These are women who have lost their husbands and brothers in war.” She sees these women react in a way that seems to say, “Despite having gone through all of this, why is it all being repeated?” This has made her consider war more deeply, she says.

Dumb Type, Voyage, Playhouse, Arts Centre, Oct 18-20; Kota Yamazaki, Rise:Rose, Playhouse, Arts Centre, Oct 22-23; Kota Yamazaki, Chamisa 4ËšC, Beckett Theatre, Malthouse, Oct 25-28; Melbourne International Arts Festival, Oct 12-28

RealTime issue #75 Oct-Nov 2006 pg. 6

© Adam Broinowski; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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