|Iki, Shi, Tai
May. 7, 2016
|Since his nationwide “Dan-su” tour with Mirai Moriyama and Shintaro Hirahara, growing attention in Japan’s dance world has come to focus on Shintaro Oue (born 1975), a choreographer and dancer who switched to contemporary dance from a background in ballet. After winning a prize in the Prix de Lausanne, a contest known as a proving ground for young ballet dancers, Oue continued his dance career with success at the Hamburg Ballet Company (Germany), the Netherlands Dance Theatre (NDT) and the Cullberg Ballet (Sweden), after which he was active as a freelance dance artist based in Sweden. In 2008, Oue created the unit C/Ompany in Japan together with Masahiro Yanagimoto and Shintaro Hirahara, from which he began full-fledged creative activities in Japan. Also, in recent years Oue has participated in the creations of such famed overseas directors and choreographers as Jiri Kylian, Mats Ek, Inbal Pinto and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. In this interview we explore Oue’s unique language of “body knowledge” that he has acquired while working in cooperation with a variety of artists.
Interviewer: Takao Norikoshi [dance critic]
With your group “Dan-su” you successfully held a nationwide tour of 24 performances in 15 cities around Japan, which is a very rare achievement in contemporary dance in this country. The first performance was at the Aoyama Round Theatre in Tokyo in 2014, I believe. On the round stage with the audience encircling you like with a boxing ring, you gave a very dynamic performance using a variety of devices in with the three of you strong-bodied men collided with each other using your voices (words) and your bodies, while also gradually drawing with chalk on the stage flooring made of blackboards an expanding diagram of the inner organs of the body. On the ensuing tour, however, you performed in normal proscenium type theater spaces. Did that require any changes in the direction?
Since our performance uses small props like dolls, having the audience farther from us in that kind of theater meant that we had to accommodate for that distance by using video projections. Although the monitor we use for the video wasn’t that large, it was large enough that we could show magnified images of the dolls on it.
There is an interesting dynamic in your Dan-su group with you as the older and more experienced anchoring presence and the two younger members interacting with you. Would you tell us something about your creative process as a group?
It is not a process of deciding on a theme and then running in pursuit of it, but rather a process in which we talk things out together. In fact, we may do more talking than anything else (laughs). When the talk leads to certain key words, we pick up on those words and then set them aside for a while, and separate from that process we also do purely physical motion. When that motion leads to interesting movement, we start working to expand on it, and then at some point someone says something that connects the movement to one of the key words we have picked out from our discussions. So, we stop at that point and the three of us begin discussing that idea, and that begins another cycle of discussion and movement. So, when we are working on a new work we are usually doing the movement part in the daytime and the discussion part at night.
That means that the three of you need to be together all the time to create something by that method, doesn’t it?
Yes. With Dan-su and with other projects I have worked on with other artists, the creative work is almost always done in a full-time residence type of situation where everyone is living and working together for a period. When it is in Tokyo, everyone has their own home that they want to go back to at night, so instead of letting everyone disperse in the evening, we go out to drink together so that we can keep the discussion going. And if we still need more time for discussion, we will go to someone’s house after that and drink there (laughs). Although there is a lot of wasted talk, it is still basically about the piece we are working on, and we don’t spend the time talking about personal matters.
In the pamphlet for your tour this time there was a two-page transcription of a seemingly “unrelated” discussion (laugh) the three of you had about “The relationship between feces and things contemporary and abstract.” With that kind of working method, it would seem to be very important who you are working with more-so than what [subject] you are working on.
Yes. That means I can’t create works with just anybody, and at the same time, if I work with close friends there is also the fear that the creative process may threaten our friendship. When creating a piece, I basically make all the final decisions myself, and there will be things that are undecided until the very end, and if I decide there is some part that is definitely necessary in the piece even though some of the members may not like it, I still ask them to do it despite their reluctance. Every work will contain that kind of “sense of reluctance” to some degree, and I believe it is OK if it lives as part of the piece anyway. It is often the case that a piece will become dramatically different when you perform it in front of an audience, and I therefore believe that the decision I make is not wrong.
How did you meet the other two members of your Dan-su group? What did you first see in them that made you decide you wanted to create works with them?
I first met Hirahara when he was still a member of the Noism company. More than anything, he is always an artist who surprises you. For example, a person who can do a back-flip has a clear image in their mind of the motion their body will go through before they jump, but in Hirahara’s case, although he may have an image in mind of what motion his body will go through, even if it is a movement that he can’t possibly make, he has the ability to create a powerful image of it! And so, he tries it, even though of course he can’t actually do the move. But, through repeated practice, he becomes able to do “something like a back-flip” (laughs). Even though he has no background in ballet whatsoever, he still worries that his legs aren’t straight at the knee [when he jumps]. But, because he has an exceptional “ability to imagine” things he can do, he does them with confidence that he can. That gap is fascinating, and he never fails to surprise me on stage. But he also has a sensitive side, so when we are talking and he goes too far in some statement, he will regret it, but then before long he will go too far again (laughs).
Moriyama-san also seems like a type who is outspoken. You first performed together with Moriyama on the Japanese productions by Belgium’s Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui of TeZukA (2012) and later PLUTO (2015).
Mirai [Moriyama] visited us in Tokyo in 2013 for about a week when our C/Ompany was rehearsing. He was about to go to Israel for a year as an ambassador of the Agency for Cultural Affairs and Hirahara was going to Spain for nine months on a Agency for Cultural Affairs foreign study program for emerging artists. So, we said let’s do something together in Europe. So we got together at my home in Stockholm to train together. But, since I wasn’t able to reserve studio space for us, we had to work outside in a park in Sweden’s cold air.
Mirai is a logical thinker and I like the way he speaks frankly when we converse. I believe that in the celebrity world where he grew up (beginning as a child actor), the people around you will try to shape you and label you, but he was able to recognize those kinds of influences successfully and avoid being fit into a certain mold, and I think it was just at a time when he was looking for new things to try that we met and Dan-su was born.
The “contact” method used in your Dan-su works is one where you three men use your muscle to create powerfully dense contact. There is also laughter, and just as we in the audience are enjoying that show, a change will come and the stage is engulfed in a deep and weighty atmosphere, like at the bottom of the ocean. Is this your personal style of contact performance?
Yes, it is. I can’t do anything if there aren’t people around. My solo works have always failed (laughs). What is important for me is to have a vessel inside me in which to collect the results of my interactions with other people. That is why it is not outside influences such as music that inspire me, or you might say that I tend to negate them (laughs). In my works with C/Ompany and with Dan-su, I almost never use music.
The kind of dense, powerful contact you employ in Dan-su is also seen sometimes in Europe and in places like Israel and South Korea, but you rarely see it in Japan.
I say that environment is the most important influence of all, and in Japan, even if I want to perform here, there is no partner to perform with. That is probably why, in the end, it tends to become an environment where people dance to express themselves. In ballet and in modern dance, the emphasis is placed on solo performance, and I believe that perhaps this can be seen as the bad influence on an excessive concern with dance contests. I know that the contest aspect is important in some ways, but it is not for everyone, and I know that at least for me when I was doing ballet in Japan, I was only thinking about how far I could go within that [contest-based] solo framework.
In the West you have the tradition of group dances where men and women dance together (what we commonly refer to as folk dance in Japanese) and that kind of social dance that serves as a form of communication is widespread. There is also a tradition of disco dancing with the purpose of appealing to the opposite sex. When you think about the basic forms of dance in Japan, there is very little physical contact between dancers, be it in ballet or traditional Japanese dance (buyo). In our Bon festival dancing, it is group dance and circles, etc., are formed, but the dancers don’t touch each other, and even in the contemporary parapara dancing, it is again a form of solo dance [without contact]. In this sense, it may be said that there is very rarely a consciousness of dense physical contact in dance in Japan.
Yes, that is true. Well, in Israel there are cases like the aesthetic of Ohad Naharin of the Batsheva Dance Company that involves the art of not touching other dancers, and that is an aesthetic that I don’t like, by the way.
I first began contact as a result of performing in a piece by the Dutch choreographer Anouk van Dijk. The partner in the duet piece I danced was a woman with a background in Tango, and I was embarrassed by how she virtually played with me (laughs). I thought that if I didn’t change, I couldn’t perform dance as “dialog, so I began to do some research and encountered contact.
However, contact is still no more than a method, and I am also always thinking about what purpose I am doing it for. In workshops I sometimes say things like, “The important thing isn’t the act of sex itself but the feeling after you have left and gotten on the train and you suddenly feel that you want to do it again, so you change trains and go back to that person. Isn’t that real contact?” But, when I say something like that, the reaction is usually, “We don’t need to hear stories like that. Would you please just teach us technique.” (Laughs)
So, when I say, “Think of your partner as just a hunk of flesh, throw out any feelings of self-consciousness or embarrassment, because there is nothing embarrassing about two hunks of flesh touching each other.” And when I say that, they seem to get the message and are able to touch each other without hesitation. Lately, I find myself thinking about a kind of contact where you try to avoid a full meeting of your bodies with the other person, with a sense of a body that wants to resist contact. But, that is in fact painfully difficult.
Is that what you had in mind when you made the statement in one interview that you didn’t want to do dance anymore?
It wasn’t said with the meaning that I was going to stop dancing, but as an expression of the questioning I have always done about why I am dancing and what dance is. Does it need to be dance? Is there some other means? Even if, in the end, dancing is all I can do, I still don’t want to limit myself to “dance” from the beginning. I don’t want to make dance the point of departure for all of my thinking. I want to arrive at ideas based on thorough discussion and dialog. The reason I always continue questioning myself is not because I dislike dance, but because I always feel the impulse that want to continue to change.
When he started dance
May I ask you what was it that got you started in dance?
When I was about 11 years old, my mother started ballet as a way to keep in shape, and I went along and found it inviting. So I started taking lessons too, along with my younger brother. In the ballet world, males are a rare quantity. There were only four boys in the ballet classes I went to, and I have to admit it wasn’t much fun for me (laughs). The leg tights they gave me were black tights for girls, and I hated the way the white underpants I wore beneath them showed through. I was also taking lessons in things like football, swimming and piano, but in the end, for some reason it was only ballet that I kept doing.
My parents were just schoolteachers, so we weren’t wealthy by any means, and I think the reason that my brother quit ballet along the way was because of the financial burden; he wanted the money to go to me to continue ballet rather than to himself. As for myself, as I was entering contests, I was beginning to feel the success I was gaining, but at the time I didn’t think much of Japanese male ballet dancers. I had the impression that they had their waist pouch on and they were going around performing here and there as guest dancers. Then, when I was 17, I went to compete in the Prix de Lausanne ballet contest.
That time, I was disappointed that I only made it to the semi-finals, so I decided to go to a dance school in Europe. There was a tour to visit the national ballet schools in Germany and the Netherlands to see what they were like, and since the Hamburg Ballet school (artistic director: John Neumeier) had a student dormitory, I decided to go there. At that time I had never even seen Neumeier’s works (laughs). After a year there I entered the Prix de Lausanne ballet contest again.
That was in 1993, and you were entering that time as a student from the Hamburg Ballet school, weren’t you? That time you danced The Rite of Spring choreographed by Neumeier and you succeeded in winning a cash prize. The Rite of Spring is a very physically demanding work to perform, and a video of the performance was posted on the Internet, and it showed you after the performance collapsing in the corridor leading to the dressing room.
I did that for the camera (laughs). But, it was indeed a very demanding piece to perform, and I wanted people to see that fact. In June of 1994, I graduated from the school and was officially accepted as a member of the Hamburg Ballet. I stayed there as a member until 1997.
The lessons at the Hamburg Ballet school were very enjoyable for me, and we learned a wide variety of things, from Martha Graham Method to playing the castanets. That experience open up my world. Also, when I was studying it in Japan, ballet appeared to be one set entity, but at the Hamburg Ballet school there were instructors from the U.S., Russia, France, and the differences in the way they taught showed me that there were a variety of different forms of ballet. That broke down my preconceptions, which was very important for me. It got me to think that no matter what you are going to do, there are always a number of different ways of doing it.
I my third year I injured my leg, which enabled me to take a prolonged vacation, and that is when I saw a Pina Bausch work (Kontakthof
, Eng.: Court of contact) for the first time and found it very interesting. Then I secretly auditioned for Pina’s company. It was just at a time when my relationship with the Hamburg Ballet wasn’t going very well, and it got more difficult when they somehow found out that I had auditioned for Pina’s company (laughs).
At that time, a friend at NDT (artistic director: Jiri Kylian) told me that auditions there could be done privately. And I was told that it would be a good idea to tell them that I could do choreography too. So, I took about a day to prepare a short sequence and Kylian’s group of leaders came to see it, and I was accepted into the company on the spot.
The 1990s was a time when there were many strong artists active in contemporary dance, wasn’t it?
NDT was really a very enjoyable place to be. There was one rented house where we all lived together like in a dormitory, and the 14 members were always doing things together. But in terms of age, I was already borderline. My audition was just five days before my birthday, and if it had been after my birthday, I don’t think I would have been accepted. They dancers usually joined from the age of 18 and I was already 22, which was the age when they began to retire from the company. So my case was that I was the newest member but the oldest in terms of age (laughs).
At that time, what do you feel was your strength as a dancer?
I wonder. I guess it was that I could dance a lot (laughs). But, even more than that, I think it was the NDT environment where your body height or physique didn’t matter. There were really quite large differences in everyone’s physiques. With Ohad Naharin coming to choreograph for us, and such, it was a very stimulating environment. I was also able to see a lot of works performed, and that was the period when I really began to feel that I wanted to create works myself.
Did you actually create any works then?
I did. But, when I look back at them now, they were terrible (laughs). It was dance, but dance that felt like there was an unconscious desire not to make it not dance. From early on, when I worked with other choreographers I usually had the feeling that this was not the way I would do it. But, at those times I didn’t have the means to within me to change things. I really didn’t know was choreographing was about and what it took to create a piece that could be called choreography. Still, I had ideas about what I didn’t want to do. The choreographer’s presence was always absolute, and that’s what I didn’t like; I had the unconscious awareness that companies that functioned that way didn’t suit me somehow.
How many years were you with NDT?
No matter how much I enjoyed being there, I had decided from the beginning that I would only stay there for two years. They asked me to stay, but I wanted to work freelance. But, I didn’t get any work at all for about eight months, and that was really tough. I had only been working in the Netherlands for two years, so I didn’t quality for unemployment insurance. I didn’t have work, and what I did get wasn’t enjoyable. Looking back, my idea was that being freelance would mean I could choose my work, but I found out that was unrealistic. Feeling discouraged and realizing this wasn’t going to work, in May of 1999 I took a long summer vacation and returned to Japan for a while. For a year and a half I had been working freelance, sometimes getting Mats Ek to give me theater work, reading books, going to the pool and generally just getting away from dance for a while.
After that, in 2003 you joined the Cullberg Ballet Company (founded by Mats Ek’s mother) in Sweden.
I had a child at that point and needed a stable and secure environment. Since Mats Ek had been serving as artistic director of the Cullberg Ballet Company there had been no real resident company choreographer for some time. Then came Johan Inger, formerly of NDT. I didn’t really get along with him very well and our ideas often clashed. That meant that my opportunities to perform began to decrease. Well, let me say that it was a good learning experience (laughs).
In Swedish companies, it is seldom that you are busy all the time until 5:00 in the afternoon, so during our free time, the young males dancers would try working on a number of things, mainly in the area of contact movement. The piece del a
that we made doing that happened to win the Hannover International Competition, and after that I began to get more offers. That was in 2005, and the next year I quit the Cullberg Ballet. I wanted to get away from music, and in the process of making works without music or sound, I discovered things like “breathing,” and it was around that time that my dance began to change most dramatically.
In 2003, before you left the company, you participated as one of the finalists in the Toyota Choreography Awards with a work titled Living Room. It was a duo piece with you and another male dancer and in it you did things like spreading out a newspaper and making coffee, and it had a comical aspect but it was also a rather theatrical work. That year the finalists included a number of very accomplished artists like Ikuyo Kuroda, Tsuyoshi Shirai and Kota Yamazaki.
It was Ikuyo Kuroda
that won the top prize with SIDE B
, which was indeed an interesting work. The comment that Ushio Amagatsu
made about what choreography is sounded convincing, I thought, but it was clearly different from what I want to do. As I said earlier, since I basically want to dance in the context of a relationship of interaction with someone, I can’t make straightforward solo pieces. So, if I had to make a solo piece nonetheless, I thought I could switch to a relationship with some type of thing instead of a person. There was a bag, so I thought that maybe I could wear it on my head and do something, and if it turns out to be interesting, that would be fine.
In fact, the timing of the Toyota award event that year conflicted with the creation of a new work at Cullberg and they told me not to go because it would cause a delay in the project, but I insisted on going. That is part of the reason it became more difficult to stay with the company and I eventually quit.
In 2006, you were invited to choreograph for Noism, and in 2008 you formed C/Ompany with Masahiro Yanagimoto and Shintaro Hirahara.
C/Ompany resulted from meeting Maimi Sato, a producer with the Sainokuni Saitama Arts Theater. In 2007, the Saitama Arts Theatre invited a performance by the Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak Company of Hydra
, a work based on Ginka Tetsudo no Yoru
, and from Japan Kaiji Moriyama and I participated in it.
Thanks to that, I was invited to perform in the 2008 Saito Memorial Festival Matsumoto’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen
. At that time, I was told that the reason I wasn’t able to perform as much as I should be able to in Japan is because I hadn’t performed enough as a dancer in productions of Japanese works. And I was advised that I should make efforts to create those types of opportunities in order to make greater use of my talents. That sounded like convincing advice to me, so I talked to Yanagimoto and Hirahara and together we formed the unit C/Ompany. Our first work together was Iki, Shi, Tai
performed at the Saitama Arts Theatre’s “dancetoday2009” program.
Our C/Ompany works are created by the three of us, so no one is credited as “choreographer.” Yanagimoto is a friend who spent part of his career in Germany and the Netherlands, and although he doesn’t the same kind of wild imagination that Hirahara has, he of course has good ideas and a strong foundation of technique.
The present and going forward
As it was with Hydra and your work with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, you appear to be like an older brother serving as a link between Japanese artists and famous foreign choreographers who want to create productions in Japan.
I haven’t really done anything so important (laughs). Satoshi Kudo in Sweden has been working with Larbi for a long time, and thanks to that connection I was invited to the auditions for TeZukA
. As a matter of fact, around the time I quit Cullberg, Larbi had come there to create a work, and just missed being able to work with him. There was also a time when I sent him videos of my pieces. For the production of PLUTO
there was a problem of communication (language) so I served as a go-between.
I have talked with Larbi a few times about career matters as personal things, but his advice mostly things that are hard to follow, such as, “Act with a vision of where you want to be five years from now,” or, “Quit your activities with your unit.” But I have followed one piece of advice to, “Go where there is a good flow,” and that’s why I’m in Japan now (laughs).
In Japan there are amateur bodies or, like with rhythmic gymnastics, bodies that are trained to the limit but with no real purpose in mind. Do you want to make use of people like that?
I have done dance projects using amateurs a number of times, but I don’t really feel a need to make dance out of it. I like people who can use their bodies, but I have something of an aversion to people trying to show they are working hard to make dance out of their movement. Though it is all right to show that you are working hard.
Listening to the things you have said until now, it seems to me that you have worked with some very prominent artists, but you also talk a lot about the things you don’t like, don’t you? (Laugh)
I guess you are right. It seems that at the base of everything I do is a rebellious spirit. Since it is important that you enjoy what you do, I only work with people I enjoy working with, and when you are working with that kind of person, you can express yourself honestly when there are conflicts of opinion. But, even if the other person says they don’t like some part of the work, it can’t be avoided, because you have to be able to express what you want in your own work. Once I freed myself from the hierarchy of choreographer and dancer and discovered the style of creation in which everyone works together to create a work, I believe it was when I encountered contact and found it to be an effective method that I was finally able to achieve my own form of expression.
Is there anything that you feel you have gained from working with other artists?
I feel that working with other artists has been good, but I don’t think there is really anything startlingly new that I have learned from any other choreographer. Conversely, I feel it was an experience of performing in a work that received very bad reviews that changed me most of all. It was one that NDT created for young people (audience) in which, after the main performance they had a DJ and they brought the audience up on the stage to dance. It was criticized as a very poor work with nothing to warrant its big budget. In fact, we who performed it also thought it a terrible work (laughs). But, still it was there that I encountered contact, and most of all, the experience of learning how to act in a terrible piece like that was extremely valuable. Because, when you perform in a good work that is interesting, it is only the work that is praised.
What kind of standard do you use as a yardstick when you are creating a work?
It is the desire to not use any kind of dramatic context or narrative to color the person (partner) in front of me. With both Shintaro Hirahara and Mirai Moriyama, they are naturally colored by the act of moving together. However, in the next scene all that color that has been created is thrown out to start anew. I like people who have an outstanding body but deny that fact and continue to use it in what you might call a “wasteful” way that [deliberately] avoids taking advantage of its capabilities.
With regard to the audience as well, I believe that it is necessary to have parts [of the performance] that draw them in and entertains them and other parts that dampen the fun and causes them to withdraw. It is not with a sense of arrogance, but I want to create works with the idea that the audience is an extension of the stage and the performance is not something that happens completely on the stage but exists as a larger whole that includes the atmosphere of the audience area as well. For that reason, there are times when I feel that the audience is saying, “This is interesting and enjoyable,” but there are also times when I regret that I have not been able to reach them to the degree that I had hoped to.
But, I certainly don’t want to sacrifice the power of my works to attract audience (laughs). This is something that I have been thinking about especially since I began activities in Japan. Before, my way was mainly to say in effect, “Let me do the things I want to do,” but now I want to do things that will make the audience want to come and see my performances. I don’t know if that is the kind of “vision” that Larbi was referring to or not.
Personally, I am always aware of a variety of contradictions involved in the things I do, but I think that is an important part of the process. My aim is to dance in a way that is true to my present condition while continuing to embrace the contradictions that arise unendingly.
Do you have any plans now for your next work?
I want to do a Bolero
. It would be a three-scene piece involving 10 dancers and a live performance Ravel’s music. That is the idea, but it looks like it will take a bit more time before it is realized.
Until now you have always avoided using music in your works, so it is interesting to hear that you want to use Ravel’s Bolero, isn’t it?
Yes, it is (laughs). Once, when I was telling a dancer from Israel that I can’t dance unless I have a person (partner) to interact with and that I have an aversion to using music, that dancers said, “Can’t you think of a piece of music as a person?” That made me decide to think about how I could confront music as a partner. Anyway, I seem to like dancing in the face of contradictions (laughs).