The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
A geeky world born of unique collaborations The dance performance of Yoko Higashino
You are well known for working with a large number of artists outside your group, especially musicians, in sessions that often resemble some sort of pitched battle, and it seems that in doing so you are instinctively seeking involvement in forms of expression outside the of dance. Is the desire to work with them something that comes from a discontent with the existing genre, including dance?
    It stimulates me. Perhaps you could say that I discover aspects of myself that I never imagined before. It is not done because I know the music, I do it because I am interested in seeing what will happen when I put myself in a situation that exists only in one moment and will never exist again. You could call it the quest of “my great self,” or you call it study. People often say, “How can you do all those different sessions?” But for me it is no strain at all. There is a club in Koenji with a performance space that is only a couple of meters square, but I see it as a chance to see what I can do within those confines. You can see it as a form of practice within specified limitations. I don’t say, “I can’t work in those conditions.” On the contrary, I want to experience the unique tension that will be encountered in such conditions. That makes for a really intensive form of practice. I don’t do it because I want to do a dance that I already know. I do it because I want to let myself experience something inside me that could—or could not—come out in those special conditions, something I don’t know yet.
    It is the kind of thing that can seldom come out practicing alone in the studio. I am one who believes firmly in the importance of the basics of technique and basic lessons. If you do your ballet lessons or your own regimen of practice with diligence and train yourself to the point where you have full control all the way to the tips of your toes, then you can reach a state where your feelings are everything. What kind of dance will come out of such a state? I believe that if you can use your body effectively you can express what you feel.
    Concerning improvisation, it depends how much inspiration there is in it and how much you are moved by it. I am drawn to the experience of things that can only happen in the specific moment performing in front of people. The feeling you get performing live sessions in front of an audience is something you can’t experience in everyday life. The awesome feelings that you never get in normal daily life, the exhilaration, the feeling of devastation that makes you break out in tears. Being moved that much is something that only happens in the moments when you are performing in front of people, and that is the fascinating thing about it for me. And I want people to see that.

For these mainly music session, you use the name Kemumaki Yoko, as opposed to Higashino Yoko or BABY-Q. Do the things that you experience in the situated methodology-like atmosphere of those sessions influence your work as Higashino Yoko or BABY-Q?
    When I’m performing as Kemumaki, I can be irresponsible, if you will. There is a definite professional responsibility when I am performing as Yoko Higashino. It is the same with BABY-Q. But as Kemumaki I can be bad, like a kid who flicks up the girls’ skirts and runs. I can do crazy, bad things like that without responsibility. It is kind of cute, isn’t it (laughs)? I like that state where I can just shrug off whatever happens.

With that clear disassociation, don’t the things you experience as Kemumaki Yoko influence the creative process of Higashino Yoko?
    Oh yes, it does, very much. The stimulation I receive there or the things that start me thinking will eventually come out in my works. The sessions I do as Kemumaki serve as a good alternative form of practice for me as well as a place of discovery. The things I struggle with in my studio practicing are important too, but I believe that the things I do instinctively as Kemumaki are also necessary for me to progress and grow as an artist. It is a state where I can dance without fear, freely and easily.

In 2007 at UPLINK you did a session as Kemumaki with the artist Atsuhiro Ito, who uses florescent lights and the mural and live painting artist Hiraku Suzuki. This is a clear example in which a successful [improvisational] session was done by three artists who work in completely different ways and no one could imagine how that could work together. Do you have any thoughts about what makes for a successful session in those kinds of one-off events?
    I do. I believe that if the performers in an improvisational session are not communicating successfully with each other, the session will certainly fail. If the performers go to excess it inevitably becomes a self-involved one-person show. It is like masturbation. As long as there is a session partner, not to mention and audience, there has to be give-and-take between the two artists and you have to make the effort to communicate it to the audience as well. It is not enough just for the two artists to be doing it between each other. You have to have concern for the audience as well and make sure what the artists are doing is reaching them. If you don’t do that I believe that you don’t have the right to charge money to have the audience see the performance.

Even when it is an improvisation session, do you meet in preparation and talk out what you are going to do as collaborative artists.
    Yes, you have to make sure that you share the same vision and the same aesthetic sensitivities going into the session. You can’t work with someone completely unknown to you. You can’t do it if you have no idea what is going to come out of the other artist. I want to understand the other person’s qualities and vocabulary as an artist and then do the session once I feel some kind of resonance with them. Because if I don’t have that resonance, it is very difficult to have an interesting session. Basically you could do a session with virtually anyone, but it is also no good if you try too hard to harmonize with the other artist. At some point you have to bring in something that they don’t expect or something that surprises them, or do something off-key. In the past I tried to hard to harmonize, but once you get used to improvising, you find yourself in the midst of it. It is not enough if you just harmonize in the sense of when the other artist increases the volume or pace you respond by doing the same. You can respond by gradually building your tension, but then you have to have the presence and the individuality to throw something different at them that they don’t expect.

Are there any particular artists you want to work with or places that you want to perform in the future?
    I want to do more work with people I don’t know. And not just in Japan. When I was invited to Italy I said that I wanted to do something with a local musician. Then they proposed someone and we got together and created a work that we then toured Italy with. In France I took part in what they called the “Park in Progress” program in which various artists from different countries did performances in parks. At that time I worked with a Czech musician and created a work. The next year they invited me back and I found that they had prepared a tour for us in the Czech Republic and Hungary. When I perform alone, the mood of my dance tends to depend a little more on the music, so I want to have more experiences like that of just going abroad and meet artists, do a work with them on the spot and then tour with it. That is true with the artists in France, and I’ve also been invited to go to Spain and Norway in 2009.
    In the case of working with someone I don’t know, there may be times when I hear their music first and say, “No, I don’t think this will be an artist I can work with.” But, if I think it will work, we me, say hello and work for the first time, creating a piece in two days or so. I try doing it with my limited English, just words and gestures, but it is possible because my language is the body, it is dance. I would like to have more opportunities to work like that.

Now that we are on the subject of overseas projects, can you tell us more about the things you have done internationally?
    The first time I went overseas was a long time ago with my teachers (the Makitas), when I was in middle school and in my first year of high school on a cultural exchange program to London and Paris. I went as our teachers’ assistant. They had me wearing a kimono-like costume at the theater and it was like, “modern dance!” (laughs). Then, in around 2003 I went with the band Drill Chop Nine, who were doing our vocals and dance, and we went to Chicago and New York to give performances.
    The first time we were invited officially for performances as BABY-Q was in 2005, to New York and France. But the BABY-Q invitations have been purely as a dance company, we have mostly been invited to more music-oriented festivals. In 2007 we went to the festival in Nimes in southern France that a variety of Japanese musicians have been invited to, and this year when we went to Mexico it was again for a music festival. The only dance festivals we have been invited to are the one just recently SPAF in S. Korea, France’s Enghien-les-Bains and da:ns Festival in Singapore 2006.
    On our Italian tour in 2006 we performed in front of ancient ruins and in numerous outdoor venues. In Italy we gave the title “Geek” and after dancing in various places with that title, the work came to be consolidated under the title GEEEEEK Lately I have gradually shifted to a “work in progress” method in which I work one image into a work using about a two-year cycle. It is not that I have such a lot of things to say, it is more a matter of valuing the process of examining what the true meaning of the images I get are and how best to communicate them, ever since ALARM! I believe that this is the best working method for me.
    Another factor is that the stage facilities we happen to have available to us on overseas tours may be completely different. I am the type who looks a particular theater and decided how I want to do the work in that facility. For example, in one theater I might want to project video on the back wall of the stage area, and in the process of doing it in various places the same work might change a lot, because I want to get it in the best possible form given the stage facilities available. It is the same when working in Japan, and I may have to ask the staff re-do the blueprints each time. But that is the way to best communicate the things I want and it improves the effect of the work.

What is the reaction to BABY-Q performances overseas?
    In every country it is amazing. It is not uncommon to have five curtain calls. In Japan it will never be more than three. Audiences overseas are more direct in their reactions. I found that true in S. Korea as well. The Japanese often can’t applaud if the people around them aren’t applauding, and they won’t laugh if the people around them aren’t laughing. You know how shy they are. They may say afterwards that our performance was good. I wish they’d show it at the time instead! (laughs)
    I believe that our works are rather easy to understand. They are based on clearer images than a lot of contemporary stuff. I guess that makes it easier even for people who are not used to watching dance to get something out of it, and that is part of our purpose as well. It is probably easier to be snobbish as you create art. If you choreograph to an idea that comes to mind, it would probably be easy [to turn into a work] if you use skilled dancers. It is more difficult to put a work together by bringing on stage that are closer at hand.

What are your future plans for overseas performances?
    In January [2009] we perform at the Japan Society [in New York] and in February we have a US tour of our work E/G. I will be going with the musician Toshio Kajiwara and the video artists ROKAPENIS. In Mach BABY-Q will be going to Nimes, France for the second time. After that there is a program in Spain in May that is now in the talks. This will be a re-production of the work I did with the French artist I mentioned earlier. And then we will go to Norway in October. In Norway they are asking me to do ALARM!, and I am thinking of doing it in a new version. I like the work and I think this would be a good opportunity to rework it.

You always seem to be on a tight schedule.
    Yes. And in between these engagements I will also be performing in Japan. I had to cancel some performances of VACUUM ZONE when I got injured recently, so I definitely want to make up for that!

VACUUM ZONE is truly an awesome work, so we definitely want to see your comeback performances.
    It was very frustrating to have to miss those performances. So I will certainly be doing them.
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