The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Kim Itoh, the cross-over dancer who redefined butoh and contemporary dance in the 90s, looks to the future

Photo: Yuu kamimaki
I think that a pivotal work of your career is Kinjiki that you premiered in 2005. It was a duo with Tsuyoshi Shirai and a highly intense work that seems to have so much of your work until now condensed and concentrated in it. Kinjiki is also the name of a Yukio Mishima novel and a famous work by Tatsumi Hijikata that is said to be the work that the butoh movement was born from. Other dancers would not have the nerve it seems to take such a revered name as the title for one of their works. Using this title must have required a large amount of determination and purpose, a sense of challenge, you might say. Why did you choose this as your theme?
I may not look like it, but I’m actually quite a militant at heart (laughs). This was a worked commissioned by the Setagaya Public Theatre and at first I had put in a proposal for a rather theatrical work using seven or eight male dancers. Since this was not a company project, I wanted to do something that couldn’t be done with my company. But when I thought about it, we do works with large numbers of dancers in the company. But I also knew that I didn’t want to do a solo, so I thought about trying a duo work. And if I were going to do a duo, Tsuyoshi Shirai would have to be the other dancer. Once that was decided, I wanted to make it a work with impact, so I chose Kinjiki as the title and theme.

So you thought of Hijikata’s Kinjiki at such a time, or was it Yukio Mishima’s novel that was the original inspiration?
It was both.

That is definitely rather militant (laughs). Knowing the status of Hijikata’s Kinjiki in the butoh world, most people would not think of doing a remake because of the sensation and controversy it would surely arouse.
I liked the movie U-boat about a German submarine that I saw as a middle schooler and, it may sound funny but, I had a longing for that kind of tension in a crisis. Rather than just being laid back, I hungered for a chance to do something to fuel social change, to brainwash, to instigate rebellion. So, I thought that Kinjiki would be a good theme to tackle.
Anyway, it became a good chance to reexamine my roots. It made me think that perhaps I really was a butoh person at heart. To tell the truth, I had been losing some of my passion for dance in the last few years, I had just turned 40 last year and I found myself looking back on the past a lot. I think part of it was that I was at a turning point.

Certainly Kinjiki is a fitting “turning point” work. How was the response to your performance at the Lyon Biennale and Düsseldorf in September?
The response was very good. But whenever I go abroad, whether the work is Kinjiki or not, I am always introduced as “Kim Itoh the butoh artist” and even more so when the work is Kinjiki. But it also felt a bit strange because I was hearing a number of people asking “What is butoh anyway?”
When I performed it in Japan last year I heard that there were various opinions about the work itself but I didn’t hear any talk about why I was doing Kinjiki at this point of time. So the performances in Europe made me wonder once again whether there had been any meaning to what I had done or not and how people had seen it.

We are told that after Kinjiki premiered in Japan last year you took about half a year off and went traveling around the world.
I really wanted to take a rest. After starting my company in 1995 I had concentrated on getting it on a productive course. But from about three years ago I had begun to feel that we were just doing repetitions of the same things and I had lost some of my creative will. I knew that wasn’t good and just as I was thinking about taking a serious rest from it all. It was a good timing that the Saison Arts Foundation introduced its sabbatical program, and I used that to take off and travel for a while.

There is a part of me that sees Kim Itoh the dancer as a second face and the other face wants to absorb a lot of different social issues and be active in a variety of other fields. Because I used to be a sociology major (laughs). In college I wanted to get involved in media but I ended up being attracted to dance due to a chance encounter, and I have been doing dance for some 20 years now. There is a part of me that is still doesn’t think it is the real me. It is not that I have regrets but more a feeling that, while the root essence of what I was searching for may be the same, the means or style of expression was different and everything came about quite by chance. These are the thoughts I was having as I was traveling. In short, as I traveled I realized what a small world I had been working in for these 20 years. I had thought that I knew the world rather well and that I had my own worldview and knowledge, but in fact I was wrong. I realized that I have been the proverbial “big fish in a little barrel.”

I think you are one of the few choreographers in the dance world who focuses his eye on society, and that may be why your travels gave you such a vivid new view of the world. Is there anything in you that you think has clearly changed now as a result?
Perhaps that I have become more open (laughs). I have never been inclined toward building relationships or socializing. But now I am getting out and seeing people more regularly, maintaining relationships. I can now just enjoy having a friendly cup of tea with people.
I feel that I am more willing to take the initiative to expand my fields of activity now. When I think back, I realized that this is how I was when I first began doing dance seriously. After our company came to be recognized, I guess I became a bit aloof and self-centered. I think with that six months of travel I was able to reset myself back to that more active and outgoing self I used to have.

It certainly sounds like traveling around the world and seeing other people living in conditions of poverty or living with unexpected religious backgrounds and different values has been a very meaningful experience for you. May I ask what kinds of activities you intend to pursue from here on?
I still have the feeling in me that I would like to get away from dance and do other things. But that doesn’t mean a complete separation from dance. I intend to maintain the valuable relationships and activities I have built up over the years, while at the same time trying new things. I haven’t yet decided in any specific terms what my relationship with dance will be, but beginning next year I am thinking of changing the style of my company. I want to take my name out of the company name and make it simply “The Glorious Future” and, while I will remain the leader of the company, I will not be creating the works but participating as a dancer in the works that other members of the company create. This autumn we will do a workshop and then we will begin activities next spring with the members chosen from the workshop. I don’t want to be making new pieces for the company myself now, but it is important to maintain a company as part of a system for continuing to perform past works, while at the same time having it be a supportive platform for nurturing the next generation of dancers and choreographers.

Also, I have a lot of interest in writing now. I am doing haiku poetry lately and writing articles for newspapers and magazines. I want to continue to develop these activities seriously. During my travels I began writing something I title “Dictionary of the Body” (Shitai Kokugo Jiten) in which I pick up the various expressions relating to parts of the body, like “eyes go glazed” or “stiff necked” or “quick handed” and give my own interpretation of each one in short essays. I would like to publish these, perhaps as sequels in a magazine and eventually put them together into a book.

Will you not be choreographing dance works anymore?
I don’t know. I may do solo improvisational dances, but at this point I really don’t want to create any choreographed works at all. And until our new company begins operating, I don’t know what will happen there. However, I am interested in the educational side, doing workshops and serving as a judge in contests and such. And, although it may be far off in the future, I would eventually like to start a school someday.
When I took this long break from dancing as a means to recover the passion for dance that I felt I was losing, in fact it ended up taking me even farther away from dance. It seems to have been a journey to shed my old self. But, I feel that this has been for the better. Rather than saying that I have lost my passion for dance itself, I feel that that passion has been shifted in a new direction that will hopefully lead to new activities from now on. Anyway, I won’t know until I begin tackling new projects.
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