TPAM 2014 report

The Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama 2014 took place from February 8th through the 16th. It coincided with the time of the heaviest snowfall that the Tokyo area has seen in several years. This complicated things a bit both for the organizers and for audiences, but luckily there was no need to suspend any of the shows in the program. I managed to go to Yokohama only one time during TPAM and tried to make the best use out of the few hours spent there.

RE/PLAY (DANCE Edit.)

RE/PLAY (DANCE Edit.)

The first performance I saw was RE/PLAY (DANCE Edit.), directed by Tada Junnosuke in collaboration with choreographer Kitamari. Based on a previous work with the same title by Tokyo Deathlock, the dance version of RE/PLAY is an interrogation of the meaning of dance. A background song is repeated several times and the eight performers have to execute the same choreography each time the song is replayed. The opening and the ending songs were repeated three times each, but in between it was only The Beatles’ “Ob-la-di ob-la-da” (I’m sorry I wasn’t inspired enough to count the times that this tune was played, forcing the dancers to do the same set of movements over and over again, but it must have been around ten times.) The interesting part was that, though the choreography was indeed the same each time, there was actually a gradual increase in the speed of the movements. This hinted at the way that the human body reacts when forced to repeat the same action over and over again. Endless repetition is unnatural for the living body, which responds through exhaustion. To the spectators, who were seated comfortably while watching this process of usage of the human body, it was enough food for thought. There was actually a moment within the performance, when the dancers stopped and just stood and looked at the audience. Being stared at by the exhausted performers for about three minutes in silence was a chilling experience.

Each performer has elaborated their own movements, so there are no two alike. Although each one’s individuality has founds its own expression, the dancers relate by confirming each other’s position and timing in the performance space. The overall sight is of a world where each individual can be himself or herself while taking part in the larger story of the community. This spirit is in accord with the concept of Symposium, the previous Tokyo Deathlock work, and as far as we can guess it probably is the defining trait of the theatre that Tada Junnosuke creates.

After seeing RE/PLAY I hurried up to the Yokohama Creative City Center, where An Exhibition called “Play” was taking place. Three artists united their efforts for this project: photographer Hamada Hideaki, designer Takizawa Kai and theatre director Shiba Yukio (mamagoto). Their idea of a “Play” was to have the spectator perform – within the photography exhibition (with the motto: “photographs are gifts to the future”), the visitor is asked to take pictures himself with a set of cameras placed there in advance; one can wear the several clothes exhibited, imagining how it would be to live the life of their previous owner; in the third exhibition, the viewer takes part in a quiet exchange of questions and answers. This collaboration was based on an open, interactive concept, inviting us to reconsider the idea of “performance”.

I was so absorbed by the exhibition that I forgot to take pictures of it, although it was allowed to! When I realized it, I was already on my way to the next venue, so there was nothing to be done. Though it doesn’t have any connection to anything, I’ll just post this picture from that evening in Yokohama instead. As you can see, the amount of snow was not to be trifled with.

Yokohama in winter

Yokohama in winter

For the evening I chose the performance of mum & gypsy, “R and the weightless surges”. Although I mentioned this company several times on this blog, it was the first time I saw them on stage. “R and the weightless surges” is a story about the members of a boxing club. One of them commits suicide and it is suggested that he had been badly treated by the others. A very physical performance, with a high pace and a rhythmical choreography is used to describe the man’s loneliness and the ever growing darkness of the inner crisis that eventually annihilates his existence.

The already established trademark of mum & gypsy’s performance style is “refrain” – the repetition of movements and phrases. Upon receiving the Kishida Kunio Theatre Award in 2013, director Fujita Takahiro was criticized for his use of repetition within the script. However, as far as the performance is concerned, the “refrain” proves to be most effective in expressing a critical situation rising to a climax. The words and the movements might be same, but the degree of tension behind them and the way the repetition is executed differs each time, so in the end it is no repetition at all, but rather a spiral effect revolving with an increasing speed. It is within this spiral that human bodies and emotions are put under pressure, being constrained to change shape, whether they want it or not. The performance style of mum & gypsy is most impressive and I invite you to see it with your own eyes, by watching this fragment of a previous performance, K to mayonaka no hotori de “With K by midnight”:

 

I hope these few impressions about TPAM 2014 gave you an idea of how vibrant this performing arts festival is. I am already looking forward to the next edition.

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Noh as a method – “The Maids” by Ren’niku kōbō

I first heard of this work about three years ago when it was touring Europe. Our professor of Japanese theatre theory presented it as an example of a stage where the “roles” are flowing from one performer’s body to another, with one role not being confined to one body. I confess I was at a loss to imagine such a performance at that time and a great question mark would have probably still remained in my mind I hadn’t had the chance last year to actually see the work.

Renniku kōbō’s signature style is defined by the use of Noh acting methods in creating contemporary theatre. While the great majority of their works is based on original scripts by founder and director Okamoto  Akira  岡本章, they also approach other plays, such as it was the case of Oedipus, performed last year in March.

The process of staging Jean Genet’s “The Maids” has undergone several phases before the variant I was able to see last year in August at Za-Kōenji. The three characters in the play – the lady and the two maids – have been previously performed by a mixed male and female cast, but this time the cast consisted of five actresses. Nevertheless, the concept of having several performers share one role has remained unchanged.

At the core of Genet’s “The Maids” – Jochūtachi『女中たち』in Japanese – stand the emotional conflicts between master and servant, the mixture of adoration and hate towards the master – psychological realities that are depicted with no intention of beautification. However, this play is more than about the hierarchical relationships of Western society that were on the brink of collapsing during the first half of the past century. It depicts the very subtle and painful interdependence between master and servant, between the adored and the adoring. The lady knows the two maids hate her and she keeps stimulating their hate, as if feeding on it. Genet’s style tends to be real to the grotesque, for there is a culmination of repressed hate just waiting to get manifest, reaching for a most dramatic climax.

Ren'niku kobo "The Maids" (Za-Koenji, August 27-28, 2013)

Ren’niku kobo “The Maids” (Za-Koenji, August 27-28, 2013)

The three roles are played by five actresses – Yokota Keiko, Maki Michiko, Yoshimura Chihiro, Tomosada Kyōko and Muramoto Hiroko. At first they take on the roles in turns, but as the tension gets higher, the speed of each role being handed over from one performer to the other increases. This results in a stiff exchange of lines that reminds of an automat. Behind it stands the concept of “a play within a play”, for the actresses are mimicking the maids who are mimicking the lady. Indeed, there is no attempt of “identifying” with the role. The distance between the actresses and their roles is obvious all throughout the performance. In director Okamoto Akira’s words the intention was to question the “role” and to dismantle the individual identity behind a role in search for the multiple selves that lie in the depth of the actor’s psyche. It was an attempt to revive the part of the “chorus” of ancient Greek tragedy, the collective voice that is supposed at times to take part in the action and at other times to take a critical stance towards the developments on stage.

This kind of conceptual theatre depends heavily on the imagination of the spectators or, to be more precise, it would not be possible at all without the participation of the audience. Taking to account that one role can be played in turns by all the actresses on stage, the spectators have to notice every change in voice inflexion or bodily movement, so that they can keep hold of which character is talking at a certain moment. Furthermore, apart from the red dress confined to its chair in the background, there are no other props used. Any other objects are suggested by gestures or only mentioned in the dialog. This is another point where the imagination of the spectators is called to fill in the gaps. In this sense, we are dealing with a very concentrated form of theatre, one that instead of dispersing the tension towards the outside – by making the characters’ conflict visible through suggestive objects and aggressive behaviors, it actually keeps the tension oriented towards the inside until the very last moment. The whole tension of the play, although latent, gradually rises to such a degree that it can only end up in murder. The killing of the mistress by the two maids was suggested on stage by an act of strangulation. However, in that single moment it was obvious for the spectators in which body resided the role of the mistress, such as it was obvious that the role of each of the maids was shared by two bodies. It seemed as if the hate felt by each of the maids towards their mistress had needed more than one body to be expressed accurately.

One of the most interesting aspects of this work is its relationship to Noh. What is the key element that connects Genet’s world of maddening passions to the world of Noh? If we look at the most popular types of characters whose stories are at the center o Noh plays, we find either restless souls of the dead (in case of mugen nō  夢幻能 “dream noh”) or monogurui – “desperate” or “mad” people (in case of genzai nō  現在能 “present day noh”). In both cases we deal with characters whose selves are alienated – they do not belong to themselves anymore, so to speak. This fact is expressed effectively through the chant of jiutai 地謡 – the chorus in Noh, consisting of eight performers who sing the lines on behalf of the main character at certain moments. There is an obvious attempt of director Okamoto Akira to establish a fruitful exchange between the role of the chorus in Greek tragedy and the one of the jiutai in Noh.

As far as the expression itself is concerned, the deep, powerful voices and the strict control of bodily movements are also connected to Noh acting techniques. The stiff, tension-filled choreography mentioned earlier reminds one of kata 型 – the fixed sequences of gestures and movements, which form the base of Noh acting. Keeping the tension of the conflict oriented towards the inside results in the restrained expression so often associated with Noh.

With this work Ren’niku kōbō managed to present a very subtle form of theatre, involving the audience in a psychological play that kept them alert until the last moment. When the red dress spread on the chair in the background was replaced by a white one in the end, a feeling of relief spread through the audience. There is no redemption through murder, but a great load of hate had been certainly done away with. It is through meticulous concept, informed by explorations in the essence of theatre, that Ren’niku kōbō keeps pushing further the limits of dramatic expression.

The company’s upcoming project is the staging of a Noh play written by contemporary poet Naka Tarō 那珂太郎, entitled  Shikōtei  始皇帝 “Qin Shi Huang”. This stage will be a collaboration with nōgakushi Kanze Tetsunojō 観世銕之丞, himself a performer very open to expanding the possibilities of the art of Noh through experimental theatre. The performance will be hosted by the National Noh Theatre on March 20th.

Tokyo Theatres in February

As I mentioned in the previous entry, the main event in the performing arts world this month is TPAM – The Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama, going on from the 8th through the 16th.

The TPAM Showcase consists of about 24 stages for audiences to choose from, presented by artists working in the front lines of contemporary Japanese theatre. Here are some performances which I personally look forward to:

  • Hanako nitsuite “About Hanako”, which is the 7th work in the series of Contemporary Noh Plays produced by Nomura Mansai. It comprises a Butō version of the Noh Aoi no Ue 『葵上』, a contemporary theatre version of the Kyōgen Hanako and a new take on Mishima Yukio’s modern Noh play Hanjo – all under the direction of Kuramochi Yutaka. (Theatre Tram, 5th -16th February)
  • RE/PLAY (DANCE edit). The highly acclaimed work by Tokyo Deathlock director Tada Junnosuke will be recreated in a dance version, in collaboration with choreographer Kitamari. (Steep Slope Studio, 14-16 February)

    TPAM 2014 - Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama (8-16 February)

    TPAM 2014 – Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama (8-16 February)

  • “Happy Days” by theatre company ARICA. Beckett’s play will receive a fresh approach through the stunning stage art by Kaneuji Teppei and the performance of former Tenkei gekijō actress Andō Tomoko, which are the promise of a work definitely worth seeing. (Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse No.1, 3F Hall, 14-16 February)
  • “Noise and Darkness” 『騒音と闇』by Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker 革命アイドル暴走ちゃん. This new work wearing the signature of Nikaidō Toko, the mastermind behind the controversial Banana Gakuen, will give us the opportunity to experience at a very physical level how close is absurdity to our everyday lives. (Sotetsu Honda Theater, 14-16 February)

The festival features also an International Showcase with stages by performers from France, China, South Korea and Finland.

The weight given to choreography and bodily presence on stage and the tendency to rely less and less on the word of a script is not only the common feature of all these works, but the most recent trend in Japanese performing arts. TPAM is a great opportunity to witness all this in real time, so don’t miss it if you’re in the area.