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Sakiko Oshima
Sakiko Oshima
Sakiko Oshima is a director and choreographer. In 1989 she formed the dance company H. Art Chaos with dancer Naoko Shirakawa. A unique aesthetic sensibility and philosophy has helped make it one of Japan’s top companies, highly acclaimed both at home and abroad. Oshima’s work has included grand-scale productions such as the Rite of Spring with a 100-person orchestra and a production of Carmina Brana with orchestra, chorus and opera singers. With numerous invitations from overseas arts festivals, Oshima has presented works in many cities in Japan and abroad. On her company’s second North American tour in 2000, following their first in 1997, the New York Times chose their performance for its “Dance of the Year” award, and in 2002 she was awarded the Asahi Performing Arts Award. These are just some of the international and domestic awards to her credit. In June of 2003 Oshima directed and choreographed a production (danced by Shirakawa) with the Singapore ballet company Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT). In 2004 the production toured Stravinsky’s birthplace, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Helsinki and Warsaw. In September of this year she premiered a new work Whose Voice Cries Out? with SDT. In February of 2007 she will direct the opera Daphne produced by Tokyo Nikikai.
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Artist Interview Artist Interview
The unique aesthetic art world of director and choreographer Sakiko Oshima 
With her unique aesthetic sense and philosophy, the highly theatrical director and choreographer Sakiko Oshima combines her talents with the presence of the dancing genius Naoko Shirakawa in one of Japan’s leading dance companies, H. Art Chaos. Internationally the company’s work has been recognized with awards such as the 2000 New York Times “Dance of the Year” award. We spoke to Oshima about her past and her present, which recently includes expanded solo activities such as work with the Singapore ballet company SDT and choreographing for opera.
(Interviewer: Akiko Tachiki / interviewed at Singapore’s Esplanade Theatre on Sept. 2, 2006, during the run of Whose Voice Cries Out?)

Seventeen years have passed since you started your company [H. Art Chaos] in 1989. Can you tell us how you came to create the company? Your focus was mainly from ballet and modern dance, I believe, but I hear that you also had an interest in theater.
I don’t have any background in theater, except for the fact that I was in the theater club at my junior high school and I wrote a play or two at that time. In college I was in the advertising study club, but I was interested in dance and theater and often went to performances and eventually entered the company of Kimio Nosaka, who is presently the leader of the Dance Works company. There I learned the fundamentals of modern dance technique, and I also used to go for lessons at Ayako Ogawa’s open ballet classes. As I was doing that I gradually got a vague desire to create works of my own, works that based on a world that I wanted to see. It was just about that time that Naoko Shirakawa joined Nosaka’s company.

So, that was when you met Ms. Shirakawa, whom you have been working with for 17 years now in H. Art Chaos?
Yes. From the first time I saw her, Shirakawa had an aura that other people just didn’t have. Normally she is very candid and natural and easy to get along with, but the moment she starts dancing she projects a completely different aura. Everyone changes somehow when they get up on a stage, but even in rehearsals she just switches into a different mode. Mr. Nosaka also used to say that she was a dance with tremendous potential. So, I knew that when I started a company I had to have Shirakawa and I was determined to build a world of dance around her presence. And, in fact that was the types of works I choreographed, so I think you could say that there would have been no company without her.

How did you arrive at the company name H. Art Chaos?
H. is for heaven, Art is art and Chaos is disorder. The heaven of H. is English but the Art is the French pronunciation art. Chaos is Greek in image. It is a name that expresses the conviction that our activities have to transcend the boundaries of nation, race and language and also that we have to transcend the boundaries of our self in activities that will reach out to communicate with others. It also implies the desire to share with audiences the transcendental state in which heaven is born out of chaos.

That company name seems to be a perfect expression of the kinds of works you are creating. Was the company an all-woman company from the beginning?
It wasn’t as if that was the intention from the start, but it is a fact that all 12 or 13 dancers we started out with were women. But Shirakawa is the kind of dancer who projects both female and male characteristics, and in fact there were numerous works in our early years that had male dancers in them too. Also, when I do choreography for other companies today it is often for male dancers.
When you think about what it is to be a man or to be a woman, I believe that you will be giving the audience a larger framework of imaginative possibilities if you concentrate on just one gender or the other. I also think that I feel this way because of the person or presence Shirakawa is. I feel that by using only men or only women you are giving the audience more of an opportunity to transcend the mundane and envision things freely. When you use only one gender, I feel that it makes the social and interpersonal restrictions associated with the body more abstract because they are less directly felt and it is easier to transcend the preconceptions associated with gender. I believe that it is also effective when trying to express some type of religious state of mind. I feel that when you transcend gender the body becomes a more noble presence.

In other words “gender” becomes “the sacred”?
Yes. I believe that it is easier to get that type of potential when you are working with a single gender. Of course, at times when that is not the main aim it will expand the richness of expressive possibilities if we include male dancers as well. I had some sense of this type of dynamic in 1989 when we first started out, but I wouldn’t have been able to express in words like these at that time. It was a feeling that came to me gradually and by the time of the work Himitsu Kurabu … Fuyu Suru Tenshitachi (Secret Club … Floating Angels) (1992) it was clear to me.

In all of your works you use space so skillfully and create such a large scale to them. You also seem to have such a clear image of stage art as well.
I plan almost all the stage art for our productions by myself. As I am choreographing a piece I am also thinking about the lighting. The music is also a highly integral part of the work and because of the mutual effect of the music and lighting there is no room for even a moment’s discrepancy in the operation. Lighting is the process of creating art with light. It must be extremely exacting, in terms of things like what percentage you make the light fade to in how many seconds. If you have a dancer suspended from a wire and moving through the air, it will have a completely different effect if the dancer appears to be moving forward into the light as opposed to having the light make the dancer appear in silhouette. These are the things I am thinking about in detail as I work.
As with light, there is also reason and intent in darkness. In darkness there is an image of complete nothingness, a form of zero state in which all pluses and minuses are in perfect balance. Since it can be developed into things like time or space or life and death and other philosophical themes, the darkness I seek in stage lighting has color nuances. In this way, lighting carries great importance in my works. The power of light is as important as the fact that there are bodies in this world. Maybe it is something even more amazing.

You often have dancers suspended from wires in your works.
When I use wires it is not to express the freedom of flying but because I want to express the process of being pulled back to reality after flight. When suspended in air by wires, a dancer’s body can become very free, but the wire also brings a negative aspect of restriction. It is not something that can free us from gravity but simply changes the way gravity acts on the body. This is what can make one raw body stand out in a work and why devices like wires and rubber are very effective things for me to use. But it is only as a means of expanding human potential.

In creating your works, are the collaborative efforts with a dancer Shirakawa important?
Of course it is important. You might say that the body breaks down the things we conceive in our heads and brings them back to reality. Shirakawa’s body breaks apart my images. But I believe that it is necessary to dismantle things produced in the left hemisphere of the brain through the processes of reason once. I am often stimulated by words and create ideas for works based on them round which I try to create a new world. When creating a work, however, I believe that the words themselves have to be broken down and dissected once. And I think that it is only the body that can do this. If you use the body to break down meaning again and again as far as you can, then I find that it is possible to rebuild your concept.

The themes are very philosophical and social, and when you add your spatial effects, the works you create have a grand-scale aspect of the universe and its workings.
For a long time I have had a great interest in philosophical themes like “time” and “human character” and “life and death” and the make-up of the universe. I have long been attracted to the romance in the philosophical works of Heisenberg and Schrodinger and quantum mechanics after Einstein. I also love the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Wittgenstein and Derrida for what they say about the individual’s relationship to the world and Merleau-Ponty for the things he proposes about the relationship of the body to the world. Taking the theme of the limitless creative potential harbored in the energy of living things that Henri Bergson calls “elan vital” in his book Creative Evolution, I created a work titled Elan Vital – The Manic Depression of Eve (premiere 2002) with the theme of ES cells and cloning and other things that blur the borderline at the start of life.
Concerning space, what I think about most is that it is the body that gives spaces their presence more than anything else. Spaces are born because there is a body and so, I believe a space can exist that has the body as its center. We live in a world today where things are changing so fast that it is hard to keep up with the changes. Therefore, I feel that in directing a stage performance, if I can create a moment when the potential of the body is expanded to some degree in a human way, that is the moment when the true power, the awesome potential of the raw body emerges. We don’t have wings but we can fly in airplanes. We don’t need to use a big voice because we have microphones, we can speak to people far away by telephone and we now have the capacity to record information outside of our brains. In these ways, we are expanding and extending our bodies out into external spaces even in everyday life. That is why I feel that in the space of the stage I want to create a body-centric space in which the surroundings, including the props and such, become a space flowing with energy, a space that dances with the body. Within this context, I feel that there is more reality to the raw body in moments when its potential is altered or expanded and it is possible to regain the sense of reality to the world that often becomes lost.
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