Born in Nara Prefecture in 1972. Began dance at the age of ten and is presently the choreographer of the dance company BABY-Q and otherwise active as a choreographer and dancer. She also performs as an improvisation artist under the name Kemumaki Yoko, doing sessions at clubs, live performance venues, galleries and outdoor venues. In 2000 she formed Dance Company BABY-Q. In 2004 she won the Choreographer of the Next Generation “NEXTAGE” award, which is the grand prize of the Toyota Choreography Awards for the 2004 work ALARM! In 2005 she won the Yokohama Prize for Brilliant Future in the group dance category in the Solo_Duo . Among her representative works are ALARM!, GEEEEEK, and error code. She has been invited to festivals in the United States, France, Italy, Singapore and S. Korea in addition to her activities in Japan. Since 2005 she is based in Koenji, Tokyo and runs the studio BABY-Q Lab.
Watashi wa sosorareru / I am aroused
The female dancers dance wildly, as if rediscovering the hidden physical texture and feel of being aroused. Women who look in the mirror, apply makeup and make servants of men. The hand that slides over the body in a costume like flesh-colored film … there, beyond that hand what is it we see that is truly aroused? Premiered 2008. Planned to be presented again in August 2009 at the Kichijoji Theater, Tokyo.
Photo: Yoshikazu Inoue
Yoko Higashino is a dancer and choreographer who started out in modern dance and in 2000 established her own dance performance group BABY-Q. With a slate of highly focused and unique members including dancers, actors, musicians, video artists and robot creators and working in collaboration a variety of guest artists, Higashino and her group produce geeky works with a high awareness of today’s subculture. In this long interview we learn about these activities plus her connection to youth culture through gigs with club musicians. (Interviewer: Kuro Pipe Stardust)
Could we begin by asking about your first encounter with dance?
I was born in a little country town of Sakurai in Nara prefecture and grew up as a shy and withdrawn girls with no redeeming qualities. It’s the same town the [butoh artist] Akaji Maro comes from. The only redeeming feature I appeared to have was that my body was very flexible, and when my mother saw me dancing in front of the television as a child, she decided that it might be good if I studied dance. So, along with the usual after-school lessons like calligraphy and abacus, I began learning modern ballet from the age of 10. I was a quiet, obedient child, so I kept going to my lessons. But I also enjoyed the dancing I did there. Eventually I began going to lessons at the Art Dance Institute of Teinosuke and Kyoko Makita in Osaka.
How long did you dance at Teinosuke and Kyoko Makita?
As dance lessons, I felt I was studying there until I was a high school student. Then, when I got to the stage that I was entering dance contests, my teachers, Mr. and Mrs. Makita said, “Why don’t you try choreographing your own pieces?” From that point I feel that dance became a form of personal expression for me. And it was at that time that I first began to think about what I wanted to do with dance. Until then I had just been dancing my teachers’ choreography. It was my teachers’ world of dance and I had felt that it was somehow different from what I wanted to do.
So, taking an analogy from music, you felt that you wanted to do your own original songs instead of covers of other people’s music?
That’s right. I had gotten to the point where I wanted to do my own original pieces. And the music I wanted to dance to was things like the music of [the 1980s German experimental music band] Einstürzende Neubauten. And I even went as far as ripping my jeans and shouting! (Laughs) That was around my senior year in high school. At recitals I used noise/industrial music in pieces that were virtually the opposite extreme from the dance world of my teachers. And I guess it is good that my teacher let me do that at the time. They didn’t tell me I couldn’t do such pieces or that I had dance more beautifully. They said, “That was good, Yoko-chan!” (Laughs) I think it was their letting me do what I wanted at that time that was the start of the path that has led to what I am today. And, the fact that the things I did were chosen for prizes at the contests made me feel that my work was being accepted. Originally, be it in film, music to art, I liked the decadent and fin-de-siecle type works, and I was able to give form to that kind of mood in dance. And that remains the point of departure to this day in what I am doing. There was also the fascination of working hard myself to create something. And the fact that I was creating them in my room, which was so small that my hands often hit the wall as I went through the movements.
Considering that you were born in 1972, the music of Neubauten wasn’t that new when you were working with it.
Yes. At the time, the newest music was Madonna and Michael Jackson, and my teachers were using music like that, and I danced to it too (laughs). But, I always had my doubts about it.
How did a high school girl like you living in a country town in Nara come to know the music of Neubauten?
I went to Tenri High School in Nara, which is a school that gathers students from all over the country, and half of them live in dormitories while they are there. I lived at home and commuted to school, and I wasn’t a follower of the Tenri Sect, but there were classmates there who were into music and playing in bands. It was their influence. We went together to concerts and the new live music clubs that were springing up at the time.
After you graduated from high school, did you go Osaka right away?
I stayed in Nara for a while. The teachers I had been studying under in Nara also taught in Osaka and while attending a junior college I was busy every night helping out with their children’s dance classes and teaching for them sometimes and also had them advising me in my own dance work. After graduating from junior college, I continued helping out there, but at the same time I was feeling that I wanted to concentrate more on my own dancing and perhaps learn from another teacher.
I guess when you see the framework you are confined to, it makes you want to break out of it and express yourself in your own way. Anyway, I got to the point where I wanted to try working independently for once. I got together with two DJs and formed a unit named Error System and we began performing in Osaka. At that time I danced solo and also performed live with a didgeridoo player, and it was at one performance at a temple that I met a young woman named Natiho Toyota, who now does the music for our group Baby-Q. That meeting formed the foundation for our present Baby-Q dance company.
At the time of Error System, what kinds of events were you performing in?
I very much disliked the contemporary dance scene in Osaka at the time; what you might call the dance establishment. If you joined that establishment, it was probably easy to get chances to perform and get connections to a lot of people, but none of those people were interested in what we were doing anyway. So, we were performing at clubs and at outdoor venues that usually had nothing more than a stage and a sound system.
By the end of the 90s things like outdoor “rave” concerts were beginning to become established, weren’t they?
Yes. We did performances at those kinds of events and we also planned events ourselves at places like temples. There was also a small theater called Karavinka above the Osaka Zokei Center where we could put on our own self-funded performances. I also performed sometimes as an actress and dancer for the outdoor theater company Pretty Hate Machine, which was an offshoot of the [Osaka avant-garde theater company] Ishinha.
In those days there were no places or conditions suitable for performance, and no supporting infrastructure or systems. Also, there was no audience specifically oriented toward dance. What I wanted was not an audience that was used to watching dance but people who could approach and feel dance on our same expressive level. That feeling is still the same today. We were looking for an audience, looking for people who found our form of expression interesting. As I was working on ideas I was always thinking about how to make it possible to suddenly start a performance in front of people who had gathered to dance and have them react initially by saying, “What is this?” And then after it was over they would say, “That was good.”
On the Osaka dance music scene at the time, it was a rarity for what you would normally call [professional] dancers to be performing, wasn’t it?
In a scene dominated by dance that evolved from reggae, techno or house music, I believe that we were a rarity in that we were doing something like contemporary dance that was difficult for people to understand. With Error System I performed like that for three or four years.
Where did the name Error System come from?
The three of us decided to create a system that was wrong, a faulted system. Part of the reason was that I believed that the organizational structure and systems [of the dance world] were faulted. There were times when Error System applied to perform in the festivals organized by that dance establishment. That was because at the time there were really no other places to perform. We have some members in Baby-Q now who saw Error System perform back then and searched for years to find us. At the time there was no information about the performers in the event fliers and such, so people who wanted to join us couldn’t even find us.
Was there a period of overlap between Error System and Baby-Q activities?
I had reached a point where I had begun to feel the limitations of solo performance in dance. It puts limits on one’s vocabulary and what one is able to express. It was around the time that I had begun to get the desire to have a number of interesting people performing with me, using characters and images to create and direct a unique world of performance that I started Baby-Q with Natiho Toyota and Miki Ikehata. Our first performance as Baby-Q was at the Shimanouchi church in 2000. The reason that we did it at a Christian church is probably the influence of Pretty Hate Machine and Ishinha. In either case I think it was our desire to create our own world of performance and do it in a do-it-yourself manner (laughs). I was probably influenced by the kind of hungry spirit that enabled them to live in outdoor shacks for a month and do all the work themselves for a production, including building the set. I wanted to try that kind of effort myself.
That first production was E-DEN - electronic garden and the performers in it included people like an actress from Ishinha, musicians, a stripper and actors. There were no dancers in the sense of people who had been trained in dance. Although you couldn’t really call it theater, in the early BABY-Q productions there were characters and a storyline. We were working and performing with an extremely high-strung spirit. In that Christian church we had a stripper dressed as a nun masturbate with an upside-down cross and doing a strip dance, and in the end the dancers tear apart the “Destroyed Robot” sound machine. All this was happening on a stage in the church. It was the kind of event where I’m sure that the priest was praying that it would be over quickly and we would all go home (laughs).