The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
The unending challenge of butoh artist Ushio Amagatsu, a leader in the international dance scene for over 30 years
TOBARI – As If in an Inexhaustible Flux
Premiere: May 2008 at Théâtre de la Ville, Paris
©Jacques Denarnaud
In 2005, for the first time, you did a re-creation of Kinkan Shonen. This is a work that you originally danced four solo scenes in, but in the re-creation you had several younger dancers do these solos, and you didn’t perform at all in it. Could you tell us in some detail what made you decide to revive the work in that way and whether you were able to achieve a good sense of consensus with the young dancers?
The reason I decided to do the re-creation was simply because I had received offers to do it. Even after the 1993 performance of Kinkan Shonen at Théâtre de la Ville, Paris, that I decided would be my last, I still received many requests to perform it from different theaters. But this is a work that, physically, is very hard for me to perform anymore. That is why I decided to do a re-creation in which I entrusted that task to the younger, stronger bodies of others.
  In the actual work of transcribing the piece, I placed primary importance not on transcribing [physical] forms but on transferring the emotional transitions involved. As we worked, the important thing for me was what the dancer experiences and feels, or perceives, in each movement. As long as there was no discrepancy in that [emotional/perceptive] aspect, I would tend to welcome differences in the actual forms of the movements as a natural expression of individuality consistent with the character of each dancer.
  It is certainly true that with the young dancers I used, I could not get the same kind of “consensus” based in close synchronization of breathing and feeling, etc., as easily as I could with the original members of Sankai Juku. When I used the word “chinden” (precipitate, sink), the old members knew immediately from experience what I was talking about. But the young dancers would ask, “What is precipitation?” “Is it different from “falling”?” Being asked those questions made me realize things. They made me realize for example that my own expressions had become codified in a way. In that sense, this re-creation was a very fruitful process for me.

How much time do you spend in the studio preparing a new work? Could you describe the process using the latest work, TOBARI - As If in an Inexhaustible Flux, that you presented in May of 2008 at Théâtre de la Ville, Paris?
We spend about two months working up a new piece in the studio. During that time we stop all touring and performances. In the case of TOBARI, we used a studio in Yokohama for the first month of work. Then we moved to Paris and worked in a studio on the upper floor of the Théâtre de la Ville with a stage area the same size as the theater’s actual performance stage. Being able to work in a space with the same dimensions as the actual performance stage is extremely important for the dancers. Because, with the internal tension that is so important in my choreography, differences of, for example, even one step in a sequence can have a slight but perceptible effect on the emotional tension or the thread of concentration involved.
  Also, at Théâtre de la Ville they give us access to the actual stage with the theater empty for one week before the opening performance. So we are able to rehearse there with full music, lighting and stage art for the final “trial” stages. Many of the technicians there are the same people I have been working with for the last 26 years, so they understand me when I say “This part is still a work in progress.” So, even after the stage has been set, I can say I want the lighting at this part to be changed and they gladly say, “Sure.” Creation is a process that involves changes right down to the last minute. And so, I am always impressed whenever I work with people who have a professional attitude and strive to understand what I want during the work of mounting a piece.

In Sankai Juku’s case you have your dancers actually involved in the making of the set, props and costumes. Didn’t that bother the foreign theater crews when you first started doing productions overseas?
Yes, it did. But with regard to this point, I have deliberately held to the same style of working since the beginnings of Sankai Juku in the 1970s. That’s because I want the dancers to get a firsthand understanding of what goes into creating a stage production. There are many things that the dancers won’t come to see if they are just brought to the stage after all the set preparations have been completed and told to go ahead and dance. For example, in the case of a prop the dancer will be using in the performance, his or her approach to that prop will be different if it is one that they have made with their own hands rather than one somebody else made. By making it themselves, the dancers get a more specific vision of how they should interact with that prop on the stage during the performance.
  But, as you said, the foreign theater staffers definitely were surprised at first to see us working on the props and costumes like that. Especially in the U.S. where the unions are powerful and the jobs of each technician are clearly defined. In that environment dancers would normally never be allowed to touch the props backstage. But in the course of a long-term relationship they become more flexible and will say, “We’ll make an exception in your case.” I believe that there is definitely a lot that is gained in that way from continuing a relationship long-term.

Earlier you mentioned that there is no music in your practice studio. Can you tell us about the music production process for your works?
Basically, at the same time we are working on the movement in the studio, I am involved in a dialogue with the composer at simultaneously. This process differs slightly depending on who the composer of musician is.
  For example, if it is Takashi Kako, it is a process of re-arranging pieces he has already composed, and in that sense it is similar to Western classical dance in that it becomes an approach where you have the basic dance and a “musical text.” In other words, in such a case the music exists from the beginning and the main focus becomes how you approach the existing emotions and poesy in the music. I engage in diligent dialogue with the composer/musician about things like whether we can change the piano to another instrument in a particular part or whether the number of phrases in one section can be doubles in number to lengthen the piece.
  In the case of YAS-KAZ, the dialogue usually begins with deciding what instruments will be used. I may say it would be good to use a tabla in this part, or no, it should be an instrument with more tensive strings, or “Why don’t we add a bit of blue electric violin sound here.” So, it is a process focused on the qualities of sound of the instruments to be used.
  But whether it is Kako san or YAS-KAZ or Yoichiro Yoshikawa, when the final recording is being made, I make it a point to be there in the recording studio. There at the studio I feel the vibrations of the live sound with my body and think about to what degree it can be used the stage performance. Whether it is music or any other aspect of a stage, I am the type who wants to be directly involved in the production work. It is very interesting to do so, and I learn a lot from it.

About 30 years have passed since you first performance of Kinkan Shonen at the Tokyo Fire Department Hall that made you known. But it seems that you still like to make works from scratch with your fellow artists just like you did back then, don’t you?
That’s true. That aspect of my work hasn’t changed much. But in our case it was really that first year in France [in 1980] that made it possible for us to be able to continue working as a company all this time, I believe. We went to France and from the network developed there we were invited by presenters to Belgium, Switzerland and Italy. And things also changed when they wrote about us in Le Monde and our name became known widely.
  In Europe and in North America, if you have something that you want to express before an audience, no matter what it is, there is an arts organization there to support you. That brings strength and courage to the performers in their creative careers, and it is something we are grateful for. Things have begun to change somewhat in Japan, but there is still not the backbone of support young artists need. So, unfortunately you still see young people of talent going overseas to get that support. I believe that Japan needs to think once again about the significance of this phenomenon. If there is not a non-commercial system of support the balance of culture and the art is thrown off.
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