AN INTERVIEW WITH THE JAPANESE CHOREOGRAPHER KOSEI SAKAMOTO
By diaTXT / Kyoto
The neologism "prublic" is a combination of "private" and "public". As can be seen representatively with blogs and "otaku" culture and the like, through the rapid popularization of the internet, communities possessing certain public characteristics are appearing in all sorts of forms throughout the world. As a result, the boundary between the so-called "private" and "public" has become blurred, and it seems that the difference between private and public domains is indeed becoming difficult to distinguish. On examining the question "What is to be done? (Education)" put forward by documenta 12, we realized that the abovementioned phenomenon is a major issue in many areas of Japanese education today. And in the art scene since the nineties, new and diverse forms of expression have been appearing that are thoroughly grounded in private sensibilities and personal everyday things while also being closely connected to contemporary society. [...]
At Sakamoto's home in Kyoto, February 5, 2007
The Beginnings of Shukakusai
diaTXT: First of all, please tell us about what motivated you to start Shukakusai.
SAKAMOTO: I started Shukakusai in the summer of 1996 at a public art event called "Modan de Hirano". Originally this project was started mainly through the work of the artist Yoko Higuchi, and then Monochrome Circus received an invitation to participate and that became a direct motivation. Around that time, my internal views on dance were changing a lot, and they were in sync with the project. I had been going out to certain places and doing site-specific improvisational dance work, but I was also interested in choreography at the time, and I had other ideas in mind too. To construct two- or three-minute, tightly composed pieces that could be performed in theaters and rehearsal spaces and such, and to take these pieces to different places and try them out in different environments – I wanted to see what I could come up with through this kind of work. And just when I was thinking about these kinds of things, the invitation came to dance in the shopping arcade in Hirano. By throwing the kind of structured dance done in theater venues into such completely everyday places, I wanted to make a kind of small crack in the middle of everyday life. It was started with that kind of sensibility.
diaTXT: Was "Modan de Hirano" important as a first step in your development?
SAKAMOTO: Yes, it was. Looking back at the past ten years, in the well over two-hundred iterations of Shukakusai, there has been a kind of process of discovering paths that open up through the potential of this piece. So my feelings with regard to that first time in Hirano, in the context of Shukakusai as a whole, have changed a bit. I think of myself as being a theater or stage artist, but with Shukakusai, from the outset there was the desire to be entering everyday life, to be presenting pieces in places outside of the theater system, the desire to create performance work. And when I discovered these kinds of things, it was really just the tip of the iceberg.
diaTXT: You think of yourself as working within theater?
SAKAMOTO: Yes. I mean, I've always liked the theater system and performing in theater venues. I really enjoy being able to go into a performance space and have plenty of time to work things out and rehearse, and that sort of aspect is always present, but I just started to feel constricted by such systems, like that of theater, that only allow work to be presented within their own distribution networks. Back in 1996, I didn't have a career as an artist yet, and I wasn't yet in the position of being able to make work and perform in theaters as much as I wanted to. I'd been working in an office and was limited time-wise, and I was also in a difficult situation with regard to money and opportunities. I was wondering how to go about presenting my own work, and I was looking for a certain kind of lightness. Maybe you could say, a kind of light-footedness. Something that could be presented anywhere, whenever the opportunity arose. I was mulling over these things when I hit on the idea of Shukakusai ("Harvest Festival"), and I thought "Hey, this could be a good harvest." That was after performing in Hirano. And then things really got going, and I started receiving all sorts of light-footed opportunities to perform. I continued to think about the meaning of "harvest" and I was able to find a unique style of performance that only we could do.
diaTXT: When you say the meaning of "harvest", what are you referring to?
SAKAMOTO: When we first started, it was, as I mentioned earlier, like there was a kind of crack that appeared in the space of the everyday landscape. And both for those performing it, and for the people who were experiencing the place within everyday life that was encountered there, it felt like there was a sudden crack in the everyday, as if some kind of fruit, an apple or something, just appeared in the space, and it was like harvesting this chance crack in everyday life.
The next stimulus was in May 1998, at an open-application event called "Geijutsu Saiten – Kyo: Kyo o Tsukuru" ("Arts Festival Kyoto"). We applied with Shukakusai. The format we proposed was an outdoor showing using Kurodani as a venue. And then we said "The performers are drinking tea on a carpet beneath the temple gate," and from one to five every afternoon for the nine days of the event, we drank tea and ate sweets with the people who had come there to see us or to see an exhibition event. And in the time we spent there together, we showed our dance and went on walks and such. At that time, we had a lot of "encounters". I had prepared a lot of things, not only company dancers, not only dance, but also various hand games, music, picture-card shows and so on, and I invited the composer Makoto Nomura and the artist Takeshi Okada and others to join as performers too. Those two are really kind of experts at playing, and while we were drinking tea together they just started banging about on some instruments and we started dancing.
Then there was a strange phenomenon that started to appear, it wasn't only us presenting our performance to the people who had come to see us any more. Among the people who we spent time with there, there were some who came and turned it around and taught us hand games and such. For instance, when we tried a dance that was a sort of game of moving from place to place, someone would say, there's this kind of moving game too, and it kind of flowed on that way. Over the nine days we did it, people started to come by because they'd heard that we were there, and some even came to see us more than once. There was one elderly gentleman who started coming every day. He had been a signal soldier in the former Japanese Navy, and he taught us about the Morse code system, how goes like "dit-dah-dah-dit-dah" and how to do vowels and such. We used the rhythm and made music with it. Later Nomura even used it to compose a piece of music. The elderly gentleman had said "Just call me Na-nashi no Gonbeh" ["Nameless Gonbeh", i.e., "Mr. Nobody"], and the piece was called Gonbeh-san.
In this way, instead of the hurried kind of performing we'd done in Hirano, in this totally open space, in this place that we made where we could interact with various kinds of people, the communication started to take on many different forms. And by doing that, instead of having only what we had prepared and wanted to express, there were discoveries of new things appearing through the communication, and things occurring that could only be experienced through interacting with each of those people.
I said that I am a theater artist, and I think that what I call experiences in theater spaces are experiences that can only be savored at that time, in that place and with those people, these are wonderful theater experiences. That is what happened when we were there, at that time, in that place called Kurodani, and the expression that came out did so because of the appearance of a person called Gonbeh-san. I felt then that this was a truly thrilling theater experience. For me, what had been simply "harvest" started to change and take on the nuance of "the harvesting of encounters". I think that was an important Shukakusai.
SAKAMOTO: Another big turning point was in the fall of 1998. Again there were some fortuitous connections, and we were given the opportunity to participate in an exhibition called "Donaiyanen" that was held at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The curator was Éric Mézil, and apparently it had been ten years since a comprehensive exhibition of Japanese contemporary art had been put on in Paris. There were world debuts by Bubu de la Madeleine and Kyupi Kyupi, and Tadasu Takamine, Michihiro Shimabuku, Tsuyoshi Ozawa, Tatsuo Miyajima and others participated too. So it was an exhibition with a lot of people working in communication arts, and it was very stimulating as a way for people there to learn about the current state of Japanese public art. We put on an exposition of images of the nine days of performance that we did at Kurodani. And the other thing we did was "Performance no Demae" ("Performance Delivery Service"). We put up fliers in the exhibition hall that said "We will deliver performance" and whenever someone requested a delivery, we had them apply with their desired time and place to the art exhibition office. The "delivery service" was available for a period of about two weeks, and we'd thought well, it'd be nice if we have three or four requests, but then the applications started coming in every day, and we ended up fully booked! As for our terms, we started off with the first delivery by saying "We would like you to pay for our meals and for our transportation costs from the place we are staying to your residence, and we will eat a meal together and then do a performance in that place." It was really very interesting. We were able to meet people from many different communities. For instance, there were the somewhat upper-class public relations staff of the Louvre, the arts school students, the somewhat odd household of elderly folks who did it as a birthday present for their thirty-year-old daughter, the communities of displaced people from the eastern countries. And the food – we had many kinds of home cooking and local specialties and such, things that you could never find in a restaurant. Some long-lasting friendships also came out of this.
So we were able to make this one form there, called "Demae" ("Delivery"), and also further deepen "the harvesting of encounters". Before I'd had the image of creating our own place within a public space, but I wanted to dive in deeper and, if someone said "Ok, I want you to come here," to enter private spaces and to make such places into theaters, I mean, to performancize them. We'd go into some kinds of really private spaces and go inside the communities of the people living there, within the hospitality shared by all sorts of friends and acquaintances. And while eating meals together, we were trying to figure out just what kind of people they were, and to just take in what kind of space we had entered into in the first place, and this was really where we would start finding the stimulus for adapting repertoire works to each place and developing a flexible style of performing.
Then, when we were doing Delivery in cities around France, we visited many communities in connection with exhibitions, and then near the final day we did a wrap-up performance, because I had started thinking that it would be good if we could invite back the people we had met and make a performance for them. What I came up with there was where Dai Shukakusai ("Big Harvest Festival"), the stage version of Shukakusai, actually began. So this came about through incorporating the "Delivery Performance" and the final stage performance of the Delivery series, and inviting the people we encountered back again to the theater venue. The key phrase that I found there began to change, from "the harvesting of encounters" to "the harvesting of the cycle of encounters". Then I attempted to create a process through which certain people we had encountered would be invited back, in a suitable way within our theater venue performance, and the 100-kai Kinen Koen ("100th Commemorative Performance"), the shows we did in Paris in 2002 and several others were done with this kind of format.
On the Invasion of Private Spaces
diaTXT: With the "Delivery" Shukakusai, you went into the homes of total strangers. In such instances, for those inviting you there might be a sense of security having an artist come from a museum, but from your standpoint, you have no idea who they are, do you? I think that it must have taken some nerve to go into such private places yourself, and that there could be quite a few cases when it was pretty difficult to improvise communication with just anyone. But that kind of thing hasn't ever happened to you?
SAKAMOTO: Oh, sure it has. I had many quite exciting experiences while doing Delivery, repeating it until we'd completed a certain number, and while the ones we did in Paris were very much involved with exhibitions and therefore had a lot of people interested in art, when I've tried to continue it in Japan to see what would happen, I've discussed with the other members that we should keep on with it until something comes out or we get tired of it. When we started out doing it in Japan, we went to kindergartens and nursery schools, day-care centers, facilities for disabled people, and then also private parties and various people's homes, we went places where, from the small children on up, the community as a whole doesn't have much connection to art, and I realized that there really were groups of people for each place, and that there were huge differences in the character of each place. And even with the children, there are differences in the nursery schools and day-care centers. It also differs depending on the school. When I've gone to centers for mentally disabled people, I've thought, well since I'm going there, I'm aiming to bring the people there with us together into the piece and sing and dance together, and the disabled people don't have any barriers at all, and they just come right up to us and enjoy themselves from the start. On the other hand, there have also been people who have a terribly difficult time breaking through.
In those kinds of places, I really have the feeling that I could cultivate the art of drawing-out as much as possible, while sharing meals and honing my sensitivity,the creativity from the specific experience of what is generated via people being present at that time, with those people, and in that place.
diaTXT: In a space that is different from theater venues, you're eating food and grinning from ear to ear, but your head is turning round and round. How is the artist named Kosei Sakamoto born there, or is it that the question of how to be as an artist becomes important? But I am thinking that the closer one approaches private space, the more the necessity of being an artist begins to disappear.
SAKAMOTO: It's complete chaos, I mean, we're just sitting around chatting, you know, it's no different from your average party! It's like, where's the performance?! (Laughter) I think that's the thin line. For sure. But personally, I think that there's something really avant-garde going on here.
This has been rather suppressed in contemporary performance and we don't see much of it anymore, but this principle of "at that time, with those people, and in that place" does exist. "At that time" is what starts when you pay at the door, get your ticket torn and take your seat, "those people" means we who are on the stage and the audience with whom we interact face to face, and "in that place" is the theater where we are restricted for a certain defined time, which in a sense becomes the passage of a defined time via mutual agreement.
And you know, with the Delivery performances, when we went into those kinds of private space, basically there was a huge increase in factors that were out of our control. Because the place is, first of all, something that we don't know until we go there.
One thing that I thought was so interesting when we tried it, was how while it is a particular private space, the people who invite us there are really opening up a particular place to us. So they start to take on a role of someone opening a show at a theater venue, like a sort of mini-producer. And of course I'd thought about what kind of people I should invite to make it enjoyable, and there are contractual agreements and such for it. Then, with the feeling of distance or back-and-forth dialogue there, and with the most exquisite timing manageable, there is that moment when someone just says "okay" and it starts. Because at that time, there are eye-to-eye exchanges between the group members about how is this person standing or what is their viewing arrangement, and from that, well around here, in this space, it would be nicest to dance using the space in this way, you know, or get in closer among these people and just break out singing and so on, there is this dialogue going on. And further, since we're all here in this place, in this interaction between people, there is really no need to say, these are the seats and this is the stage, or to try to make the space into some kind of mini-stage.
Well, how, as a performance space, how the dancers and performers take positions with respect to the arrangement of the people present in that place, and the way the atmosphere in that special, unique time goes through transition, I think that you can't really make a skill out of it, but I know that the number of places you've been to, I know that's crucial. I think that there is some kind of artfulness of dialogue, of certain moments in time and certain people, that has been nurtured into being. So, while being in these really private spaces, there is actually some kind of subtle code that is created.
The Restructuring of Communication
SAKAMOTO: So, by extrapolating from connections with the person inviting, a particular performance space takes shape within that private space. Within people's minds. By within their minds, I mean that we act in that space as if we are conforming to certain rules of everyday life in that place, and then, veering away from that a little, the performance begins. And then it's like we slip right back into the everyday again.
diaTXT: Private places and times are something that for me would be difficult to share, but I think that, and maybe I'm going out on a limb here, maybe in that moment it turns into a kind of public place, small though it may be, a shared space. That is what you are making, and you were talking about later bringing this way of working to the stage, but you personally, or should I say Monochrome Circus, you haven't really thought about Shukakusai as something you did in these places that you could later do in theater venues?
SAKAMOTO: No, I haven't. Rather it's that this form of discovering is, first of all, a lot of fun. We're just simply doing it. We are able to meet many kinds of people, really see inside various social worlds, some of which are small, individual spaces, small private spaces and small communities, and the more we perform, the more we can see, wow, these people here are so alive! So, in a sense, there is an aspect to the work as a whole that teaches us a huge amount about society.
You know, for me internally, while performing continually, the very act of working out the process of restructuring communication has been extremely interesting. It's as if, starting from our very first time, gradually with each performance we've done, we've been saying, "Ah! We can construct this performance more in this way." There have been so many discoveries through that process, and that's partly why we have continued to use it.
Communication Is Created from the Body
diaTXT: Incidentally, I heard that you studied aesthetics in university, but did you take any dance lessons then?
SAKAMOTO: Around the time when I'd reached the point where I was a bit frustrated with theater, and I'd been thinking for a while about giving it up, I saw the art of a street performer, in front of the Pompidou Center in Paris, who was using his whole body, and then I went all out and became a tree. All the way. And people started dropping in money. I did it for about a month, and made some friends and had some pretty good encounters.
diaTXT: So you do have that kind of experience, after all.
SAKAMOTO: Yes, I did quite a bit of that. Sometimes just really being a tree, and sometimes gradually starting to move, and during the month that I did it I made friends with various artists. Well, I had various encounters there, and I felt that the creation of something by just diving into it with my own body, that through that some kind of communication could appear, was something that I might be able to believe in. Those things would later become a major foundation for me.
It really wasn't until much later, after 1996, that I could start thinking about things such as the body through method training, with a more dancerly approach. With the start of Shukakusai, through various workshops and choreography, and through making my own pieces, little by little from 1996 onward, I started to learn about becoming conscious with regard to movement and about what kinds of movements and sequences are produced when the phenomena of the body, or of two or three bodies, are put into an abstract space.
When Art Comes into Existence
diaTXT: I think it started in the nineties in Japan, when we have started to see a lot of works in formats that present some kind of expression through entering deep into the everyday places where people are. With this kind of format, it seems to me that unless the artists open themselves up to the point that their own private sensibilities and internal aspects are just about forgotten, the other people will not reciprocate. While this kind of new relationship is in itself very interesting, one starts to wonder if this can be called art.
SAKAMOTO: So, if you have a narrow-minded sort of ego, you can't make the kinds of pieces that come into being in such moments. Okay, well you've got to be open, but when you are opening yourself up, just how far should you go? There is that question, but my intention has been to produce a type of adaptable performance format that addresses aspects of all kinds of people, places and times. But the works were losing character, or getting a bit too optimistic for the kind of communication, and I couldn't push myself into those places where the pessimistic things, the narrow-mindedness, the dirty and painful things are.
I was making stage works concurrently, so I was collecting material from those aspects but I guess there's a bit of a gap between the stage works and the Shukakusai series. Actually, this was really bothering me in around 2003. And I still have some issues about it now.
At this point, I think that if there is any dance or performing arts work to bring out now, it would be an attempt at dialogue between bodies, just taking that as far as possible. Maybe it's just my personal philosophy, but maybe trying to bring things into existence is important. Maybe I won't know if it's taking on existence, maybe it doesn't matter. It could be that some things just do not take on existence. However, if there are bodies that are working to bring things into existence with each other, with various fellow bodies, isn't there something that can be discovered? But I do think that it doesn't go anywhere when bodies are just moving without any awareness of trying to convey something or have a dialogue, and no matter how long that goes on, no meaning will arise from it ...
diaTXT: Does that mean that, even if there is such a gap, performing arts can come into existence whenever there is an awareness of mutually triggering and pursuing it?
SAKAMOTO: I guess it's the mutually held intention of trying to bring into existence something that is creative. Even if it's not as far as trying to bring something into existence, I think there has to be some kind of intention, to want to speak with the other person. And recently, I've been having some unusual experiences relating to "speaking" that aren't even problems of language.
I've been doing a piece called "Refined Colors",which uses LED lighting, in collaboration with Takayuki Fujimoto from Dumbtype, and I've been many places around the world with it over the past three or four years. One time when I was in Spain, I was riding in a taxi. The driver says, in Spanish, "Where ya from?" I answer, "Japan, Japan" and he says "When ya goin' back?" in Spanish. I answer in Japanese, "In a few days". And then he comes back with "Oh, in a few days?" in Spanish. Then he asks me, "How ya goin' back?" and I tell him, in Japanese, "I'll go to Toronto for a bit, then go from London to Hong Kong, and then I'll return home." And then he comes back in Spanish with "All that flying, hey, that must be tough." I felt that that situation was so special, and it left an incredibly deep impression on me. I'm absolutely helpless in Spanish, but he was speaking in Spanish, and me in Japanese, and we were communicating. It was because there was a strong desire to understand, or because there was a will to bring some dialogue into existence.
Contact is Dialogue
SAKAMOTO: Another thing that is important to me is that I have been teaching Contact Improvisation for a long time. I have always been searching for frameworks within me, or for frameworks for bringing contact into existence, and this has also taken on a philosophical bent over the past one or two years. It's only recently that I've become able to just come out and say "Contact is a dialogue." Contact comes to exist in the places where bodies attempt dialogue. While I don't know if the response to a partner's "fluttering" contact approach will be a "poking" or a "patting" or a "lapping" or what-have-you, but if there is just the awareness of making a dialogue by coming into mutual contact, it is possible to build a process of a language of only two people, a dialogue of only two people, and in a more generalized form we can also of course construct a methodology for communication between around ten people.
I've come to realize that with the vocabulary and the grammar I teach for learning to be understood by others, there's nothing that you can do that I'd say is really wrong. But of course, you have to know that if you do something that would harm another person's body, it will bounce back and affect you. And then, we can throw our bodies into dialogue for whatever is to be expressed at that time, whether it's a stage piece with some aspects of dirtiness or darkness, or instead something rather carefree – we become really free when we can take this kind of stance. Regarding the issue of expression losing character, more and more I feel that I can say that anything goes, and it's gotten easier for me to say "Hey! That's it!", to bring up things that I couldn't approach before. I've learned to take the dirty things too, the things that hint of sex and such, the parts that make people avert their eyes, and in a level-headed way incorporate them into my work. Even as I kept on telling myself to open up more and more, I guess there were still some barriers somewhere.
Up until now, through the making of shared things by entering private spaces and communicating, I still had this "public image", and by that I mean that I've had inside me an image of what is possible in public, and for the dialogue as well, I think that maybe I've wanted to make a good dialogue, to make a beautiful experience.
And instead of an open opposition after all attempts at opening, I am aware of an obsessiveness on opening, an ego.
Translation Seth Yarden
diaTXT / Kyoto
Published there 05/28/07
on corpus: 23.9.2007