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The Politics of Meetings

So we just got out of what was promising to be one of our most stressful meetings: a sodan with the New National Theatre of Tokyo.

After meeting with them in March, I thought that one of the most relevant questions that the New National Theatre of Tokyo would ask us would be which Japanese artists we would like to work with, so I had made it a priority to do some research on that end.  Since this has to be a dance show (there is no theater department at the NNTT which still fucks with my brain), so I contacted seminal butoh companies to show them our work and see if they would be interested in collaborating.  A month ago I wrote to Sankai Juku so see if they would be interested in collaborating to create a new creation involving international New Circus artists in residence at the National Theatre of Tokyo in hopes that these two highly individualistic, visual, and physical performance forms will find inspiration from each other.  No reason to believe that this will work, but nothing lost in trying.  I saw their show in Chiba and tried to use the name of one of The Rocker’s old friends who used to work with them to secure a meeting but it didn’t work.  I did manage a quick meeting with one of their representatives though, and even though we didn’t get to talk about anything specific, I decided to try to set up the meeting with the NNTT and The Rocker.  I’ve noticed that my English emails often go unanswered but The Activist’s Japanese emails gets responses, so she offered to just call the National Theatre on our behalf and also to come with us to that meeting.

That’s when things started to get very serious.  They asked for a professional translator, for someone from the Canadian embassy to be there, and for a copy of our proposal in advance.  This all made me a bit nervous since our goal is not to present a finished proposal, but to find out what they will require from us so that as we meet different performing arts group while The Rocker is in Japan, we can tell them what sort of commitment we are looking for, etc.  The Activist therefore suggested that we look at the meeting as sort of a “sodan,” to get the director of the theatre’s thoughts on the idea and since the Canadian embassy has already said that they cannot send a representative on the day of the meeting, she suggests that we at least get written support from the embassy to show that we are 100% sure that they would support us.  I’m not actually sure if we will be able to get that because it is still far too early.  They do want to have a project, but they’d need to talk with the New National Theater or any other collaborators before they will sign something official.  It goes around in circles.

She was worried that Sankai Juku is not the best option since they actually have closer connections to Theatre de la Ville in Paris, but that who knows, perhaps the NNTT has better access.  She also asked me about the thematic possibilities of a Butoh and Circus collaboration but I could imagine a lot of different possibilities.  I remembered them saying in March that we would need to involve Japanese artists and that it would need to be a new creation.  Now, from my point of view, until we know how the National Theater wants us to structure the residency, there is no way we can start thinking about the theme or message of a new show.  That message and theme will depend so much on what artists we are working with (Sankai Juku?  Dairakudakan?  Another Japanese dance company? Freelance dancers?).

For example, The National Theater might want The Rocker to hold auditions for Japanese dancers and acrobats to cast in a show that he will then direct, they might want to pair us up with a Japanese company (Like Sankai Juku or Dairakudakan) and then let us come up with a concept and let us direct the collaboration ourselves, they might have a show in production that they want to add an acrobatic element to, and The Rocker and myself would serve as consultants for that show.

For example, the residency at the National Theater of Taiwan started when the Theater asked The Rocker to create a new show for the circus festival.  They just wanted to buy a show, and it is up to us to determine the theme, the artist we will work with, etc, etc.

It was very different when he was in residence with another Taiwanese dance company, where they wanted him to act only as musical consultant and composer.  In that case, they knew exactly what they wanted and they directed him very closely.

So again, if this will be a sodan I’d love to discuss how the National Theater has worked in the past and the way that The Rocker has worked in the past to see if there is any possibility of doing something in the future.  Of course, if there is some interest in seeing a live example of our work, we would like to again extend the invitation to see the festival in Taiwan.

Our main goal was to show that we are flexible, enthusiastic, and open to many different way of working, and that it has had good results in the past.  The Rocker has been working almost exclusively an artist in residence for at least the last four years, and helping artists collaborate is his specialty!  So we just want to introduce this fact and then see what ideas can come out of a nice discussion.  Who knows?  Maybe they have been thinking about the meeting from a couple of months ago and has thought of a project already!

In the end, despite all the stress and uncertainty, the meeting with the NNTT, The Rocker, and The Activist went really well. The NNTT gave us a list of people to connect who are doing a lot of new and interesting things in Japan.  Since the person we met with once had a famous dance company and now advises the New National Theatre of Tokyo as a movement coach for contemporary, modern dance shows, The Activist checked in with a dancer friend of hers who knew the producer we talked to by a nickname which suggested that they were quite close.  The Activist’s friend confirmed that the people on the list are the types of people that we should be meeting with, places like the Yamaguchi center for Arts and Media and AN Creative.

The last one is interesting because they brought my dance company from Boston to Japan, worked at Expo, and also runs the auditions for Cirque du Soleil in Japan.  They are involved in a lot of international dance collaborations with Japan and Canada, Australia, the USA, etc.   She’s been great and says that if we decide to move forward, we should not hesitate to ask her for any help that we might need.

Took more notes from the meetings in Tokyo with The Rocker today.

[The Travelling Acrobat] was asked to come onboard The Rocker’s project last fall as assistant director for a circus-themed opening ceremony for the International Arts Festival in Taiwan.

We presented our proposal to the National Theatre and at the same time began researching the possibility of an exchange with Canada to produce a Taiwan/Canada tour exchange of artist groups.  That idea was favorably received and we also heard of interest in a Hong Kong engagement.

It was at that time that I was asked to investigate and gauge interest in bringing the show here to Tokyo.  So far we have had a strongly favorable response, but the problem is always the same – finding a way to integrate this show to appeal directly to a major corporate sponsor.

In Taiwan, we have a CKS Cultural Center and National Theatre residency to create the first collaboration between Taiwanese performers and Canadians.

To make this happen, we are using our connections at Cirque du Soleil, The National Circus School, and Tohu in Montreal.

Canada is famous for acrobatic dance and circus and multi-media performances, e.g. Carbon-14, La La La Human Steps, Robert Lepage.  We work with video artists, choreographers, and musicians.

On the Taiwan side, there are groups like Tai Gu Tales Dance Theater.

This is what brings us to you today.  We know that you represent excellence and progressive thinking in the arts.  We think that a collaboration could be interesting for you because an international circus arts project has the potential to:

  • Create an intimate connection with the audience
  • Appeal to a younger generation
  • Stimulate artistic creation in a new art form for Japan
  • Offer workshops, classes, and coaching
  • Stimulate deeper international exchange
  • Merge with video and multimedia materials and live music
  • Present modern, thematic work
  • Integrate the dance and theatre programs

 

In 2006 I undertook an international arts entrepreneurship appreticeship under "The Rocker" between Tokyo, Japan, and Taipei, Taiwan with a few trips to Bangkok, Thailand, Chennai India, Ahmedabad, India, and Chuncheon, Korea.

The Beginning of the Apprenticeship

Was interesting taking notes during The Rocker’s pitch to the Canadian embassy in Tokyo.  Here’s how he explained our work in a nutshell:

What do we offer?

  • A high-quality product of a recognizable brand at an extremely competitive price
  • An openness and a flexibility to work with your client’s needs and wishes
  • The potential for a long-term relationship with an experienced circus production team and their network of event producers in Taiwan and Greater China.
  • The unique opportunity to have a first-hand role in marketing the circus brand to the Japanese public

The Human River

I had a Russian circus coach in his sixties, Alex, who could still do standing backflips.  He was able to pluck you out of the air one-handed if you were about to land on your head; it was like being caught by an oak tree.  He looked like a bear, he walked like a zombie, and his secret to maintaining his form was taking good care of his intestines.

People have strange ideas about how their bodies function.

It was a Russian coach fad at my school; fasting one day a week and fasting one week a month.  It was all part of a solemn ceremony which culminating in a glorious herbal enema to keep your colon clean, supple, and rubbery like a nubile squid.

I wasn’t ready to go that far, but he afforded me this advice:  Eat a grapefruit every morning; don’t eat anything cooked, never talk during a meal, always eat meat last, and enjoy a handful of organic peanuts before physical activity (softdrinks are poison, and processed food is good to make your stomach feel full, but it won’t do anything for your body).

He was my teacher, I listened, and it made sense, at least when training 12 hours a day like the good circus school students that we were.

This kind of ascetic eating regimen fit with his personality.  Even his sense of humor:

One day, the denizens of a small village awoke to a loud, rhythmic pounding.  Each pound was punctuated by a man’s screams of pain.  The villagers, shivering in the morning chill and dressed only in their nightclothes, left their huts to find the source of the screaming.  In the middle of the public square, a man was repeatedly striking his phallus [Alex always said phallus when he told this joke or any other joke that featured a penis.  He always lowered his voice and blushed a little when he said it.  Ever seen an embarrassed bear?] with a blacksmith’s hammer.  The patriarch approached the man to ask him why in the world he was punishing his member so.  “Doesn’t it hurt terribly?”  “Of course,” replied the stranger, “but nothing compares to blissful respite that comes between each strike.”

My Lithuanian roommates have explained that this is actually a very Eastern European kind of joke.  They tell another one that I like:

A wife walks out onto her porch where her husband is looking at the sky with a serene smile on his face.  “Why are you so happy?” she asks.  “Our neighbor’s house is burning down.”

I told this joke in Boston to a mixed audience of Canadians, Americans, and Bulgarians, and sure enough, the Bulgarians laughed while the North Americans waited for the punchline.

My point was that people have lots of different theories one how to best care for their body.  The FDA of America has a great one, which happens to be very different from that which is professed by their Japanese counterpart.  But I think that having your own cartoonish view of the human body is helpful, as long as it makes sense to you and it keeps you healthy.

For me, I believe that the key to everything is water.  Lots of water.  If I can keep a steady flow of water through my body, I find I can train harder without being sore the next day, I am more flexible, I have more energy, it is easier to maintain my weight (or lose weight when necessary), and I can drink alcohol with no ill effects in the morning.

For me, I see the body as a riverbed which is constantly polluted by our everyday actions (like every other riverbed you have ever seen).  If you can keep that river flowing at nearly flood levels, all those pollutants (lactic acid, alcohol, excess nutrients, etc) will be washed away.  I also see water as a sort of lubricant for cells, particularly muscle cells, that help them to work more efficiently.

I know that this is all a huge oversimplification and sounds a lot like a placebo (based strongly in sports medicine and common sense, of course), but it does serve as a nice little feather to hold onto when I force my body to do impossible things.

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Thai Dinner With the Producers

I have been working like mad on the trailer video for the new creation, but keep running into problems getting the videos ripped onto the computer.  I have also prepared proposals for the artists we want to work with already (saying that nothing is certain, of course) so as soon as The Rocker give the word, I can send them off.

On the networking front, I met with a French circus artist, Christian, and his friend who produces 20+ festivals a year in Japan and who is very interested in seeing the Taiwan festival.  The Author also introduced me to two producer friends that helped him get the job at the Toyota Pavilion.  They invited me to come to the office of their company, Tokyo Productions, when I get back from Korea to talk about possible projects we can do together.

Casting Calls

The former Cirque du Soleil Chinese straps duo has dropped out of our show.  They have only a military passport and no papers that allow us to process their visas for Taiwan. Because of the artist database I am building, I already have at least three options for replacements and one of those options is The Contortionist. As it turns out she will be available after August when her contract with Cirque Theatrical terminates, I suggested her as a possible replacement.  I haven’t told her anything about the Taiwan project, but I can definitely say that she is a real asset to any project she is involved with, so I mentioned it to The Rocker.  We might be able to use her skills in the creation.  Contortion, Contact Juggling, Aerial Hoop, Singing, and Tango Dance.  I’m not interested in trying to get back with her or anything; this is strictly professional.  I could do straps at the same time that she does her hoop number like I did in Shawinigan.  That always worked pretty well, the audience likes the two simultaneous aerial acts. I would need about a month to get my number back up to speed, though.

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.

Circus, Shaved and Naked

Too much writing for work, and not enough writing for fun, but that’s life.  I am writing a proposal for a project.  I don’t want to go into details because nothing is certain, but this is the motivation behind it.

Long Lost Cousins

It is a fluid and flexible performance style which lends itself to surrealistic imagery and interpretation.  It is inspired by and borrows from an eclectic amalgam of sources while carving out a niche for itself in a strange limbo between dance and theater.  It is one of the youngest styles in the world of performing arts; emerging on its own in the latter half of the twentieth century to define itself in its own terms on a grass-roots basis.  In contrast to more formal performance styles with emphasis on formalized technique and universally accepted style, these rebellious artists focused on the simplicity and individuality of the human body itself.  In doing so, it was the performer as an individual, rather than the choreography, that came to define a performance.

As with most young art movements, each new generation brings with it a new voice, and in recent years, there has been a trend toward an intimate “humanization” of the style while preserving its extraordinary and almost cathartic physicality.  Although accepted and celebrated by audiences around the world, especially in France (one of the creative centers of the movement), it remains virtually unknown to Japanese audiences.

The name of this groundbreaking and unclassifiable art?  Well, take your pick, as the preceding paragraphs describe both Butoh and the modern acrobatic dance movement known as Cirque Nouveau, two apparently dissimilar performance styles that, closer inspection, could be long-lost cousins.  We are proposing a first-time creative collaboration between Butoh performers and Cirque Nouveau acrobats.

Critics of Cirque Nouveau are quick to point out that, while visually stunning and spectacular, the art form has a tendency to stay at a superficial level – “full of sound and fury; signifying nothing,” so to speak.  Butoh works, on the other hand, are critically praised the world over for its brooding depth and “simple complexities.”  We are hoping that by introducing Western acrobats to Butoh through workshops and collaborative creation, we will be adding a new dimension to their performances as artists and as individuals.

On the other end, while it is often noted that there is no “ideal body” for a Butoh performer; that having great flexibility and/or strength will not necessarily help you in learning the art.  While this is certainly true, working with Butoh students who possess a contortionist’s flexibility or a handbalancer’s strength might allow a Butoh director to tread into previously unexplored territory.  We believe that it is exactly this potential for discovery that excites all artists and creators.

We are very excited about the possibility of working with an established Butoh company under the auspices of a joint residency.  This proposal is only the first step towards what we hope will be a mutually beneficial and groundbreaking collaboration between practitioners of two of the world’s youngest art forms: Japanese Butoh, and Canadian cirque nouveau.