Chaotic Anarchy of a Busker Festival in Japan!!! (Finishes promptly at 5:30PM. Artists are asked to please enjoy clean up after themselves.)

It took me 2500 yen and two-and-a-half hours by train (one-way) to arrive in Hitachitaga to see 90 minutes of street shows at their annual street festival.  My business was actually to meet with Christian, the artistic director of Cirque Francais, one of our main shows at the First International New Circus Festival of Taiwan.  Before that, however, I was able to see their show, a compact, efficient, and wild little street ditty with three performers and a lot of bare flesh (mostly Christian’s).

The show itself was 100% French street-show, and I felt some continental nostalgia.  Raw, spontaneous, and in-your-face, it was a welcome change from the mediocre street shows that pop up at Japan’s numerous tourist-traps like mildew in a shower.  Standard Japanese street fare is the victim of generations of inbreeding.  Each one reads like a dictionary of jokes that the performer has seen somewhere else, written down in a little notebook, and regurgitated out onto a public that really doesn’t know the difference.  In these shows, you would never see a thong-clad, graying, long-haired, man of sumo-wrestler girth held up on a slack-wire by six members of the audience while juggling torches and spitting fire as morbid clown-cheerleaders look on.

Cirque Francais, however, had more than enough of that to go around.

Japanese street artists just don’t have the experience to know when they are doing something that sucks.  Any performer worth his hat-full of change knows that an audience is a poor judge of quality; make their kids smile, and they feel that they have gotten their dollar’s worth.  It is a different breed of performer that actually wants to hone their craft, to transform a five-meter square of sidewalk with spectacle and art.

It is a brutal business at its best, full of politics and oneupmanship.  Second-tier artists at European festivals and street-performing hubs (Amsterdam, Paris, London, Barcelona) find that the environment is competitive and fractious.  Fill a chalk circle with twenty minutes of a quality show, however, and you will garner the respect and friendship of performers and audiences alike.

The key point is that a great show is inimitable.  It is not infantile jokes or standard issue physical tricks that make a show great, it is the performers themselves with their personality and generosity that are really earning their living out there.  This is where Japanese street performers (national and foreign) fail miserably.  They recycle their rubber-thumb jokes and borrow from some secret canon of balloon-animal humor and sell their juggling 101 tricks shamelessly and they make an OK profit for a days worth of work, but like so many other things in modern Japanese culture, they are just putting on the Western costume of something rather than redefining it for themselves.

I feel like there is no forum for grass-roots artistic innovation in Japan.

Christian would probably disagree with me, however.  I think that Japan is one of his favorite places to perform, and I can see why.  His company is importing a valuable artistic commodity that is utterly lacking in Japanese performances: chaos and rebellion.  The Japanese people who are drawn to Cirque Francais’ unmistakably European style are those Japanese artists who are looking for something more real.  It is a shame that the best performing artists in Japan must look outside their own county to find it.

Sankai Juku

I just got back from seeing the Butoh company Sankai Juku, and was very impressed.  I have seen a fair amount of Butoh, and was expecting slow moments where I would lose interest or doze off (not necessarily disrespectful; I am reminded of a famous quotation in a New York Times review their show: “It was marvelous.  I fell asleep.”), but was happily surprised by how quickly the 90 minutes flew by and how I was engaged throughout.

It was the first time I had ever seen them live, and was struck by how similar it was in pacing and structure to a modern circus show.  The stage design was superior in many ways, and the narrative arc was somehow more visceral.  Modern circus can learn a lot from its strange second cousin once removed.  And vice versa; I think that Butoh is very comfortable in the niche market it has gouged out for itself, but I would love to see its influence spread in wider circles.

I know; I sound like I want to kill the goose to get its golden eggs.

But, come on, goose.

Whirlwind Tour Part 2 (continued) – Boston

And today, another crazy one.  I had a terrible haircut, was unable to take a nap despite being very, very tired, and talked with one presenter from here in Boston.  It was in general very positive, but of course, they need to see the real show before they can say anything for real.  He really liked the show, though.  Of course, it is much easier for me to deal with the business side of things in English…

Even better since I had to hone it all in Japanese first!  It is like learning how to run underwater, I guess.  When you emerge, running itself is so easy!

Then it was off to meet my best friend from college and another friend who I have gotten to know better since college.  We met at a local bar/pub, and ate, talked for about an hour.  About real stuff, you know, and it was quite pleasant.  We talked about our friend…  caught up on everyone’s life, felt like we were 8 years younger.  Women, drinks, movies, literature…  very nice.

Then I went to another bar where I saw my gymnastics coach from MIT and my best friend from gymnastics…  Outside of work, my friend does this thing called ‘acrobatic dunking’ for the pro basketball team here.  His team should really go to Lithuania some day to do it.  We talked about women and life… very nice.

My coach told me that I can do an artist-in-residence at MIT any time and that he will make sure that it works.  I am very excited about the idea of lecturing at my old university for a semester when I have time.  I had a real Guinness, talked all about my life, heard all about theirs…  it is interesting how three friends can change over time, but still stay the same, you know!  Talking about performance, women, gymnastics… why we do it all, how young we were back then, how the world has changed, our world has changed.

In the end, my friend gave me a ride home in this custom-built car that he has had since we were freshmen… he build it from zero, it has been stolen and gutted three times, and he build it up again each time.  I appreciated it for the first time.  as a labor of love, as a piece of brilliant engineering, as the product of someone’s will to perfect something, as an automobile, and as a work of art.  Why was I never able to see things like that before?  What will I see in five years that I could never see now?

Then it was back to my other friends’ house for drinking and playing video games (American style catching up on things) and talking about women, women from college, what everyone is up to, about art, about plans.

I started thinking about the mental, emotional and physical, and how I am not amazing in any one of them, but what I can do that is maybe worth a little something, is to see how they all are interrelated and the role that they can play in a performance piece.  And how a performance can tickle those three parts of things… we criticized arts at MIT as being a little too mental, a demonstration, say, and I realized that when I come as an artist in residence, this is what I want to change.  To make art more human instead of less so…

All in all, a hell of a day, business, many friends, business and friends, and then friends.

I remembered songs I played with my best friend when we were in college and played them in the background as my other friend talked to my best friend’s sex interest on the phone…  just like college days.

Cleared some shit up about the girl in the hallway who is dating my other friend… in short, everything I thought was a little bit right and a little bit wrong.

I learn so much about life when I travel.. so far, things have been good except for some frictions about my last minute-request to stay with family on oahu two days ago that resulted in me getting a last-minute hotel room instead, but what can one do?

Tomorrow at 5am, on to Montreal!!!

Whirlwind Tour Begins: Honolulu Part 1

It is raining like crazy here in Honolulu!

Lets’ see what I can cover in the 12 minutes and 15 seconds of time that came with a 2$ purchase of internet access here in the Honolulu airport.

One night in America with Americans is enough to remind me about what it is that is so strange about this place.

I guess that watching a TV program about horribly sheltered children who never leave the house gave me a good perspective from which to view the whole of the American culture.

That is what we/they are…

Sheltered children.

There is a fear about what lies outside, and working from the other direction, the illusion that the people in charge are working to keep things as safe as possible here on the inside.

You want freedom?  You want to believe that you are able to make your own choices?  To fail and suffer indignity if you fall?  jJust look at this nice backyard we have out there with the streams and the ponds and the wild flowers…  but lest you stray too far, need we remind you that the animals in that wooded grove over there are all too willing to prey on innocent victims like yourselves.  Don’t say we didn’t warn you!  But it is important to remeber that we are the ones best equipped to keep you safe, both here at home.  What?  You want to leave our complex here?  Just imagine the dangers that await!  There is nothing in our power to help you if you are to go astray there!  Isn’t there enough strife and misery here at home to satisfy your morbid curiosity?

Racial strife?  Have you seen those blacks and whites?  Don’t you remeber that Blacks are far more likely to live under the poverty level?  Isn’t that unjust?  Why do you need to look to places like Africa and India, the Philipines and the Middle East to find instances of real injustice and shame?  We have that all here!

Religious issues?  Is the historical divide between Jewish and Musilm, Protestant and Catholic not enough?  Some people in the same town refuse to eat with each other because of a simple religious difference.  Marriages that were never meant to be… and let’s not get into abortion!  Thank God we have a seperation of religion and state unlike in the Middle East!  We are a religeous smorgasbord of a country.  And we have the right to choose!

I put in another dollar.  What the hell.

And cultural diversity… remember that we are a melting pot.  And like any good melting pot, we force every potentially polarizing cultural influx to simmer and melt into the mean.  We want cultural sludge devoid of any sharp edges or tastes that might offend anyone else.  We’re not Europe, for Christ’s sake; how can those barbarians stand each other?  They make nice wine, though.  Just look at how our music reflects our diversity!  Rap music, rock music, alternative rock music, heavy metal, gangster rap, r&b, soul music!  Even that nice Lopez girl with her ethnic sound!  And our movies!  Anything you want!  Comedies, horror, action, romance!  We cover the whole spectrum, so you can be sure that there is not a single slice of the emotional spectrum of life missing from your silver screen!

Stay home.  Don’t call out.  Be safe…  we have enough danger here for you.  And if not, we’ll be sure to import enough to keep you safely on your toes.

I am glad to live with my two roommates in the Refugee Camp.  Discerning taste, class, fire inside.  I hope that they both see how much I enjoy living with them and how much I learn from it.  Missing them both already.  There are an infinity of people here who could use The Model’s style critiques…  another infinity who could use a sardonic barb from the depths of The Political Scientist’s irony well…  both of them live their lives with their eyes and hearts wide open, and with a fragility that insures that what happens outside is never so far from the inside that is living there.

Last night I wandered Waikiki with my ears to the streets.  Raining hard, I was just in a T-shirt and my brown courdorys, getting soaking wet in the warmth of the middle of the Pacific. Hawaii is so small you can really believe you are on a liferaft like in ‘The Life of Pi.’  The clouds and the waves pushing us wherever they will it.

On the way home, iI pick up some rum and coke for 7 dollars with the intention of getting a little drunk and then writing, but half a drink, and I pass out on the bed from the fatigue of jet lag.

I wake up in the morning, and pack everything up.  Drive on the freeway and remeber what it feels like to live on a Pacific island.  I remeber what it feels like to live in America, to be an American.  Hundreds of millions of bodies, two or three minds.

Political diversity!  We have that too!  Two political parties!  Enemies for two hundred years!  That’s division.  That’s diversity.

Letter Home From Japan

I am still in Tokyo.  It has been more than a year since setting foot back on this volcanic archipelago of my childhood.  In many ways, the Japan that I remeber has crumbled into the sea.  That Japan stays forever in my memory, but what remains – presently – before me, is a land of opportunity.  It is like my ‘wild west’ has shot far past California and the Polynesian islands to come full circle and rest here in the ever-renewing, ever-crumbling Land of the Rising Sun.

Here, I can be what I want to be.  I can be White or Asian, American or European.  I can be an Artist or a Businessman or a Scientist.  I can be young or old, exotic or commonplace…  whatever I say is what I am.

I am trying to produce this show.  Starting in June, I go to Taiwan to make a new circus show.  I am working with a director friend of mine as new project coordinator and assistant director.  I am trying to produce the Japanese leg of the tour.  We are also directing the first major modern circus festival in Asia.  We get to work with former classmates, cirque du soleil artists, and some of the biggest names in circus today.  I will finally be a “producer” with a company starting to making a name for itself.  I am brokering deals larger than any I ever imagined while living in a one-room apartment with two Lithuanian roommates and no shower.

I’m reading voraciously.  At least two books a week.  Science journals.  Social criticism.  Philosophy.  Novels.  I read in French, in English, in Japanese, anything to stay mentally active.

Most people aren’t as interesting as these opportunities are so I don’t lose to much time to social things.  The friends I do have are as close to me as they are different from each other.  Journalists, politicians, teachers, public relations experts.  They keep me moving in different circles from each other so the water around me cstays clean and swiftly-flowing.

I have my vices…  I like to drink, I drink a lot every couple of weeks, and I like flirting with women.  I’m liking it a lot more than I was liking having a girlfriend.  Every month, I find I need to spend money on a nice dinner and show to feel like (despite my less than luxurious living conditions) can still appreciate finer things from time to time.

I get job offers frequently for nice, stable jobs that I will not like.  Interviewing for such jobs helps me practice negotiation and learn for myself that business is all about convincing people that they need you, and then proving it.  It is about finding out what you are worth, knowing what you are worth, getting more, and then living up to it.

I am enjoying myself, but whenever I give myself a break, I get depressed.  A fifteen-minute break from the computer writing business emails or running from meeting to meeting makes me feel like I am building everything on a lie; that everything is escaping me.  I wake up in the middle of the night to edit publicity videos, to write web pages, to contact investors.  I am never alone from my thoughts.

This is why I love meeting people.  They provide the best way to escape my own head.  I simply enter theirs, care about what they care about, and learn about a world that is as alien as any extraterrestrial planet:  my world as seen by someone else.

I am forcing myself to take a break.  I will go to Hawaii and Minnesota at the end of March, and will only allow myself 3 business stops a week of no more than 4 hours each.  I will think of nothing, and write all the time.  I will climb mountains and hike rainforests and drive in lazy loops and piercing treks across the plains.  I will excersise outside and breathe clean air and smoke a cigar on the beach.

All this will come to an end.  If I accomplish what I truly hope to accomplish in the next two years, it is time for another change.  It is time for university; it is degree time.

I am sure that someday in my life I will grow up and settle down.  I am sure that someday I will find a way to keep my mind on one path, but for now, at age 28, there are so many mountains to climb and so many paths to take.

Science, art, business, politics, writing… who know what it all means and where it all leads.

At least I have moments, every couple of weeks or so; in the neon underbrush of Shibuya or the quiet, European streets lining the inside of the Yamanote loop… in Japanese lessons with the woman who has taught my father, sister, and me for almost 22 years…  biking through the rain, or drinking a fragrant, inky wine with a beautiful woman over a savory meal and spicy political discourse a quarter mile above the quiet chaos below…  when I can step outside of myself, my life, into the realm where I exist close to the people I love – my family – a place far removed from the four dimensions of everyday life.

Where your presence warms my spirit and moves my soul and makes me understand that wherever I go, whatever I do, I am not alone in the world.

I hope to make you all proud someday,

Your loving son and brother,

The Travelling Acrobat

Japanese MBA

Doing projects in Japan is very different from the way of doing things in Canada and Europe.  There, I used a sort of ‘do it yourself, it’s just so crazy it just might work’ kind of philosophy.  I think my friends here understand it in theory, but the idea of lots of little companies banding together to get something done is a little weird here, I gather.  they are used to a big company footing the bill and taking little companies along for the ride, which I think contributes to why everyone says that it is so hard to innovate in performance art here in Japan.

I keep learning more and more about what my Japanese contacts think are important:

  • Be visual.  I am noticing that the people I am talking to are very visual.  Until they see a diagram or something, nothing registers.  For example, one person asked that I draw up a quick schematic of what a project like this entails.  I can do a basic one, but I need to run it by The Rocker quickly to see if there are any things I am forgetting.  I’m also looking for programs and brochures of The Rocker’s past shows and creating a DVD of his work and starting to work on translating these publicity materials.
  • Have letters of intent. The idea is simply to show that there is interest and the potential for financial support to bring our show to Japan.  They have this “no risk investment” ideal (is such a thing even possible?) and I need to feed it at least in practice.  If they know that another party sees this show as a valuable product, they will be more willing to jump onboard.  This is an interesting thing I have noticed in Japan…  you could have the Mona Lisa here, outside on the street in Ginza, and no one would give it a second look.  As soon as you have a lineup of 15 minutes to see it, though, you will suddenly find that everyone in Japan wants to see it and it will take reservations and a 4 hour wait in like to get a peek.  Same psychology, I guess.
  • Have letters of introduction.It seems that it helps if an established foreign director writes some sort of brief letter of introduction that lends some official weight and credibility to the things I am saying.  My friends at the largest Asian ad company are writing a letter that says that they support my work as an artist and businessman and The Rocker is writing one that says something like “We’re trying to push performance art in new directions in Asia and to show it all over the world” and that he appreciates my work as a showbusiness guy and creator.  I’ve been reading a book about the Edo period in Japan and in an interesting parallel, letters of introduction were just mentioned as well.  There were very strict rules regarding samurai, and being an illegal ‘ronin’ was severely punishable.  As such, unaccompanied samurai were expected to carry letters of introduction from their daimyo, saying that they are allowed to be wherever they are.  Furthermore, a letter of introduction was required before being allowed to meet anyone of great importance so that people would know it was not some rogue samurai on a suicide mission.
  • Look like an actual company.
  • register a website name
  • get a company email address
  • get a mailing address in downtown Tokyo (in Ginza or Aoyama-dori), through friends if possible
  • get business cards made for the project
  • Know the market and meet experts.  Visit theaters to get an idea of space available and range of prices, meet with some people or contact some people who have produced shows in Japan to get a good idea of publicity needs and costs, and definitely keep networking with creative people who can lend their energy and good thoughts to our project.
  • Get used to company profiles. If people haven’t hearD of you or your partners they are going to ask for something called a “company profile” that all Japanese companies are required to put on their website.  It talks about how big the company is, how much money they earn, how long they’ve been around, etc.  Obviously, mine is pretty useless and very easy to do, but to make up for that I do need to get corporate profiles of any potential Taiwanese investor organizations.

Lithuanian Christmas and Grad School

For Christmas Eve, my roommates are hosting a traditional Lithuanian feast in our terrible little cell of an apartment for some of my closest Japanese friends.  It’s an intricate affair with twelve courses of traditional dishes that are prepared the same every year.  Twelve because of the twelve pagan months in the old tradition, and because of the twelve apostles in the newer Christian tradition.  It’s pretty solemn, with no music, just calm conversation, no alcohol (though I think that the new Lithuanian custom is to bend that little rule a bit).  You need eggs to signify beginnings, apples because of Adam and Eve, fish because of Jesus… some other things, but I can’t remember them all just now.

On Christmas day, I hope to do something fun outside to enjoy the crisp air.

Science

Lately I’ve been reflecting on continuing with performing arts versus returning to science.  I am at a crossroads and if I decide to continue along the path I am on, I will hopefully end up as a producer and director of shows, arranging international tours and residencies and things like that.  This is a long-time dream in many ways, but on the other hand, I have been missing science for the last year or so, and I worry that if I do not do something to maintain some sort of science knowledge, I will never be “let back into the club,” so to speak.  I am feeling like if I do not steer myself back towards science soon, I will miss the boat completely, and a return to science has always been an option for me – timing is always such a tricky issue, though.

It is frustrating because I love both worlds, but I cannot pursue both at the level that I really want to which means that trying both will actually hurt my chances at either.

So I guess 2006 will be a real test for me.  I will be directing two shows and hopefully managing their tours from Taiwan to Hong Kong, Japan, and Canada with The Rocker, and hopefully producing and performing in a new one-man one-act show to shop around for my own tours in Europe and the USA.  But at the same time, I’m starting to apply to jobs in science, specifically biological, astronomical, and geological/planetary science-related research positions.  The plan is to apply for an astronomical data specialist at the Gemini Observatory at Mauna Kea.  It involves almost exclusively acting as a local consultant for visiting astronomers in dealing with the Gemini database and aiding with processing and handling of image files in IRAF… reading the job description brought me right back to my undergraduate years.  I’m also applying for a job that involves nothing but observing Near Earth Asteroids night after night after night…  once again, thesis work memories come flooding back.

As I go along, I’m going to need to evaluate what I am getting in terms of experience, happiness, and money from my two possible paths, and eventually I need to make a decision.

Politics

Politics is coming into the picture because I have realized that the two things I like about this life I have right now is the travel, the flexibility (well, both kinds, I guess), and the person-to-person contact…  I like trying to make people sign up to do things they never thought of doing before to make the world a better place…  or, if nothing else, help me eat better in the short-short-short term.

The education imperative

I DO know that I need to be well on my way to a higher education degree by the time I am 35… this is a very important life goal for me, as I feel that I owe it to my family and to myself to put some closure to my academic life.  So as I see it, the next 3-5 years, no matter what I am doing, must be with an eye on that goal.  A degree in biology, physics, planetary science, business, political science…  I really don’t know.  I am interested in all these fields equally.  I still have a lot of thinking and living and deciding to do.