When non-Westerners express themselves through a Western art form, the question inevitably arises: How do they make it their own? There are countless answers to this question, and watching how Japanese artists approach the challenge is part of the fun of the contemporary art scene.
For some—think Takashi Murakami’s manga paintings—the solution is hit-you-on-the-head overt references to Japanese culture. For others, the approach is subtler. You wouldn’t guess it based on first appearances, but Toshiko Oka’s dance group Ensemble Sonne is actually informed by the ancient theatrical tradition of noh.
“Over the centuries, noh theater took on a mature shape in Japanese culture,” Oka tells Metropolis. “Its vivid spirituality comes from its stylized simplicity. Our work aims to present a collage of this spirituality and of space as a form of art. We believe that we can deepen universal themes such as the sorrow, harshness and intensity of life in the process.”
In the decade and a half since returning to Japan after studying dance in Germany, Oka has built a repertoire based on a Zen-like “serene contemplation of the world.” Her work is characterized by the oppositions of stillness and movement, silence and sound, as well as light and darkness.
Her new piece, Fleeting Light, explores these themes in the context of a contemporary world in which time seems to continually accelerate. “For example, for the last ten years we have had mobile phones,” Oka says. “It’s very convenient, but at the same time we may have lost something—we may have forgotten some important things that we can’t get back anymore. I think about what it means to live now, and about the evanescence of life.”
Oka’s working style is collaborative. She gives her dancers some poetic words—in this case, images such as “tranquil waters spotted with darting fish, trickling light composed into a melody”—that suggest the theme of the piece, and allows their imaginations to run wild. She then fashions the movements they generate into a coherent work.
For Fleeting Light, Oka worked with dancer Megumi Nakamura, formerly of the renowned Netherlands Dance Theater, and music improviser Kazuhisa Uchihashi. Best known as the founder of free jazz group Altered States and a veteran of numerous international engagements, Uchihashi should make Fleeting Light a piece to remember. Working with electronic effects and guitar, he conjures murky, ambient atmospheres that are disturbed occasionally with unsettling stabs of noise and feedback.
With both Oka and Uchihashi hailing from Kansai, Fleeting Light promises a welcome taste of the performance art scene in western Japan, which Oka describes as smaller and characterized by more stately movements than the fast-paced choreography preferred in Kanto.
Ensemble Sonne Contemporary Dance Company presents a piece with guest performer Megumi Nakamura.Mar 6, 7:30pm; Mar 7, 3pm, ¥2,500 (youth)/¥3,000 (adv)/¥3,500 (door). Theatre X Tokyo, Ryogoku. Tel: 03-5624-1181.