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.

Hibiya Photo Shoot

About a month ago The Activist set up a meeting with me and a Tokyo newspaper to take photos of handbalancing (maybe photos in Ueno station with me doing the handstands in training clothes or my suit!) and an interview as well.

She really made this whole idea work all by yourself by using her contacts at the newspaper.  They covered her work when she was in her early 20’s, meeting the pope, receiving writing awards, etc.  Later, she wrote a weekly column for them.  To this day they still cover her work.  She said it was hard to promote my story since there is a business aspect to it unlike the grassroots, NGO, social projects she normally promotes.

Her first request was refused, but she re-pitched the idea to focus on my Japanese background and roots and my desire to bring a show to Japan – the timing is right because we are approaching the anniversary of the Expo and she has been pushing for the idea of profiling people related to the Expo.

She’s hoping that I will tell them about how the Expo helped me to embrace my Japanese background and roots and inspired me to stay longer in Japan – and only then mention my future plans about making a show happen in Japan.

Her advice to me is to change how we approach people and the media to focus on a good story more than the business angle.

On the day of the actual interview I made a little mistake when I mentioned that I met my Lithuanian roommates at Expo.  When I told my roommates about it they asked that Lithuania not be mentioned in the article because the Lithuanian embassy does not want to give the image that they used Expo as a way to get longer-term visas for Lithuanians.  The embassy is trying to make it easier for Lithuanians to come to Japan to work and are worried that it might look like they used the Expo to abuse the system!

Last week I finally received a copy of the article and sent thank-you notes to the reporter and photographer; and I, once again, thanked her very much for the effort she put into making that a reality!

CIMG6498

The article looks great, but I have to admit that in a weird way it made me feel a bit down.  After seeing how excited people in Canada, the USA, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore are about this project; I can’t help but wonder what I have been doing wrong here in Tokyo.  I blame myself; I think that I must be talking to the wrong people or saying the wrong things.  I also feel bad that The Activist has put so much effort into this project but that there has been no real payoff for her efforts.  It’s almost too much for me to let her keep helping out.  She has given 500% so far, and I am greatly in her debt, but she reassures me that she is still feeling positive about the project and is more than willing to keep helping out.  She has been an inspiration to me the whole way, and is a friend whose support I will treasure forever.

Acupuncture

I have had stiffness and pain in my neck for the last week or so, which is very unusual for me.  One of my good friends in Japan, The Journalist, knows an acupuncturist whose office/apartment is not far from my house, so after my training on Monday, we meet up and head over there.

The office is not unlike the acupuncturist ‘office’ I knew in Boston.  Basically, it is a thinly disguised house, with massage tables and an electrical stimulation machine in the corner.

The Journalist, the wife half of the acupuncturist couple and I sit in the kitchen, and I listen as the two banter a little about life.  She strikes me as an unusual Japanese woman.  Very outspoken, and rips into The Journalist a little with biting sarcasm.

I am the first to get acupuncture treatment that night, preceded by a nice bit of shiatsu massage.  She sticks five needles into my neck and then hooks me up to a machine that delivers low-level electrical impulses through the needles causing deep muscle contractions in my neck. It doesn’t really hurt, but it does feel strange.

I hear the husband return and exchange some barbs with The Journalist before sticking him with pins and making him scream.

By this time, my acupuncture electrocution is over, and he comes over to me to massage my tendons and ligaments with needles.  This hurts a little more, and I could really feel it when the needles hit nerves and blood vessels.  Again, not really painful, but very strange, like electrical shocks that come from inside my own body.

After the treatment, I really do notice that most of the stiffness in my neck has dissipated, but there is a residual pain from the needles, so it is hard to say what the net effect is.  The acupuncturists advise me to take it easy on my training for two day, and after The Journalist and I pay a nominal fee for their services, they take us out for dinner at an izakaya (traditional Japanese pub) near the station.

There, as the alcohol flows, we speak freely about all kinds of things.  Acupuncture, life in Japan, my job, and The Journalist’s foolishness.  Most of the food was delicious except for some of the more exotic parts of the chicken (the skin, gizzard, tail, ovaries, and heart) that I neither The Journalist or I have been able to get used to.  I learn the Japanese euphemism for ‘this tastes terrible’: ‘natsukashii aji,’ literally ‘nostalgic flavor.’ Think, ‘wow, that taste really takes me back…’  I guess the idea is that you get so lost in reminiscence that you forget to eat the rest.

But my God, go out for an hour of acupuncture and end up spending the evening with two new friends.  A whole new world for free.  I love my job.

Haircut in Harajuku

I recommend that all visitors to Japan get a haircut.

It reminds me of how a professor I had at MIT, Professor Dorothy Hosler, explained how knowledge of materials science actually amplified our understanding of a human artisan who crafted a given artifact.  Once you know the immutable properties of the basic working materials, you are able to separate design aspects that are purely utilitarian and dictated by physics from those design aspects that are rooted in the creative spirit of the craftsman.  In other words, a lot of what a blacksmith does is directly related to the iron itself.  Anything beyond that is based on his own tastes, etc.

 

Getting your haircut in Japan and getting your haircut anywhere else are two experiences that are quantitatively identical: you get your hairs cut.  Iron is iron, a haircut is a haircut.

 

But there is a truly ritualistic feel to the 90 minutes of your basic “walk in” haircut in Japan.  I want to try to relate the experience I had last Sunday.

 

You walk into the store and all of the attendants greet you individually.  Your bag and coat and umbrella are taken from you and whisked away to a back room.  You then sit down with a hip-looking friendly guy who just seems to want to talk about hairstyles.  You flipped through magazines and comment on which hairstyles you like and hate and why.  Then, surprise!  He reveals that he is the one who is going to be cutting your hair. This ‘rapport-building’ approach has been a pretty common thing in my Japanese haircut experience.

 

Then they led you to the hair washing sinks which are often in a separate part of the store with dim lighting and calm music.  You are situated in a chair with the utmost attention to detail, and then receive a combination of shower and massage which can last about 10 minutes.  The water temperature is selected according to your taste, and the stylist makes sure throughout the shampoo that you are comfortable, that there is no water getting on your face or running down your neck.  Very nice.

 

Then you get walked to the stylist’s chair.  On the way, all the other stylists acknowledge you by saying “otsukarasamadesu,” a phrase which suggests that you are going through great pains to maintain your good looks as well as you do.

 

Once you are seated, the stylist proceeds to cut each hair on your head individually.  It might sound like I am exaggerating, but it is absolutely true.  They cut it with razors and clippers and thinning scissors and shears, just so that when you walk out of the store, it will look like you got your haircut a month ago, and it just happens to look this good today.

 

They select magazines for you from their impressive library based on their interpretation of your personality, and they will talk a lot about parts of the city that you have never even heard of, so time goes by pretty quickly.

 

When they are done, they walk with you back to the little yoga studio in back for another shampoo, with all of the other stylists acknowledging you as before, and once that is finished, they literally pack your face in hot towels and then place you upright.  Once you are unwrapped, they offer you another hot towel to use on your face, and walk you back to the chair (otsukaresamadesu…) for the real massage.

 

Ah, the scalp and shoulder massage as your hair dries.  The best part, according to me.  Finally they style your hair (again, one hair at a time, I promise you), and you go to the register to pay and receive your free thank-you gift.

 

They put your jacket on for you, and hand you your bags.  The stylist bows deeply and presents you with his personal card and the card of the shop as you walk out onto the street with a brand-new haircut, and not a stray hair clipping on you.

Railing Against Logic or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Box

There was a heavy mist in the air today.  Sort of a mix between fog and a light rain, it would be familiar to anyone who ever spent time in a port city like London or Boston.  What struck me was the fact that all of the people biking to work this morning were holding their umbrellas in the usual fashion, that is to say, overhead and parallel to the ground.

If you have ever biked across the Charles River in early spring on a misty, calm day, you know that this is an absolutely ineffective way to stay dry; you must hold the umbrella out in front of you to create a sort of windshield.

 

I passed more than 100 bikers this morning, and only one of them was using their umbrella as a windscreen.  Everyone else was holding theirs overhead, backs dry and fronts soaking wet.

“Condensed moisture comes from above, dammit, and that’s where I’m putting my umbrella, despite all evidence to the contrary.”

 

This is not the only logical challenge that has faced me these 15 months in Japan.  I was an aerial artist in a green building constructed “weld-free” out of recycled materials to be dismantled into component parts to be distributed to construction companies for reuse.

 

The architect took advantage of the fact that the building was only going to be used in the spring and summer months to make the building even greener by employing an electricity-free cooling system.  Essentially, the design exploits the characteristic heat gradient that develops in an opaque, hollow structure exposed to radiant heating (like a car in the sun or the 33-meter high tuna-fish can of this pavilion).  Basically, if you build the structure high enough, the bottom half of the volume will stay at a relatively cool 25-27 degrees Centigrade while all of the superheated air will concentrate itself in the top 10 feet of your structure, at temperatures of 43-47 degrees centigrade.

 

That is a great exploitation of statistical physics, but it did not take into account that the aerial performers were going to be performing strenuous choreography at that height in hermetically sealed costumes and insulated head-pieces.

 

By the end of April, we were working at 40 degrees, and notified the pavilion staff that we would not be able to perform safely if the temperature rose above 42 degrees.  They responded with dismissive inaction, despite the fact that we were sure to surpass this threshold within weeks.

 

We found out that the building was actually designed with panels under the roof that could open to let the hottest air escape and asked why they had not been employed.  After all, the best way to cool down a car that was parked in the sun is to open the windows, no?  Impossible, we were informed.  The panels needed to stay shut “in case there is a typhoon.”  We explained to the pavilion staff what they must have already known, that typhoons do not simply spring up offshore at the last minute and that we were sure to have enough warning to close a few panels – indeed, in the case of a typhoon, the entire site was to be shut down, rendering moot the question of cancelling shows.

 

By mid-May, we were working above 42 degrees at the request of the pavilion management despite our repeated insistence that it was a health risk for the performers.  They insisted that they were working on the problem, although they seemed to be spending most of their time either observing the performers or suspending a 3-D matrix of thermometers from the ceiling to verify that yes, indeed, it was hot.

 

Finally, one day, at the suggestion of the riggers, I missed a show at midday when the temperature got above 44 degrees when they did not like the fact that I seemed pale, my face was cool to the touch, and was nauseous after my sixth show of the day.  The pavilion staff came up to plead with us, but I told them that if the riggers told me it was not safe, I was not going to literally risk life and limb at 33 meters and 44 degrees.

 

They were upset.  It was my last show of my shift so when my replacement arrived, I took the bus home.  I had just stepped into the door of my apartment when I received an urgent page.

“The afternoon performer has passed out from the heat and an ambulance has been called.  Can you come back and do the rest of his shows?”

 

Of course. I had no choice but to agree; I had already missed one show that day, and anyways, once the sun set in the evening, the building radiated the excess heat away quite efficiently resulting in a rapid cool down.

 

In the weeks that followed, the pavilion staff made several costly, temporary, or just plain illogical attempts at a solution.

 

One was to paint the roof of the pavilion with a special reflective paint.  Fine in theory, but the pavilion was white and reflective to begin with.

 

The temperature kept rising.

 

Another was to build a false roof.  When I first heard this idea, I thought it was great.  They were going to build an auxiliary roof outside, effectively shading the entire building from the direct rays of the sun.  No such luck.  The false roof was a 9 square meter open-sided drywall platform that was suspended from the ceiling.

The temperature kept rising.

 

They moved up air conditioning units.  Again, a great idea in theory, but as anyone who has taken an elementary class in thermodynamics knows local refrigeration at one end results in a net production of heat at another.  Thus, if both ends exist in a closed system, therefore, mechanical and electrical inefficiencies result in an increase in temperature.

 

The temperature rose faster.

 

And finally, the coup de grace, they installed a system to pump  cooled water from the basement to the top of the pavilion.  Basically, they were electrically pumping metric tons of water into a giant, stagnant, rooftop pond.  So much for saving electricity.  But, happily:

 

the temperature stabilized.

 

Unhappily, it was still too hot to work safely (it was now July) and the hottest month of the year was just around the corner.

 

I am happy to relate that in the end, we found a solution that allowed us to perform the entire month of August without missing a single show due to heat.  The solution?  The panels were opened.

I have met philosophical and political Japanophiles and Japanophobes and I too have swung back and forth between these two extremes.  Both sides would have their own analysis of this experience.

The Japanophile:

 

The Japanese are a culture that values group harmony and consensus above all else.  In order to solve a problem of such import and magnitude, it was important for all of the engineers involved to carefully think out the nature of the problem and then discuss the solutions thoroughly before acting.  This is in contrast to the American duct-tape, quick fix mentality where people compete with each other to solve the problem as quickly and as cheaply as possible and get credit for their ingenuity.  Therefore, the window solution was seen as nothing more than a temporary fix that would inconvenience the technical team and cause disharmony in the group.  The Japanese corporate system is built in a “bottom to top” model where ideas filter from the engineers on the design floor up through middle management and finally put through to the big bosses.  It is strange that Westerners from the more fascist “top to bottom” school of thought are unable to see the benefits of the democratic Eastern system.  These acrobats should have been flattered by the time and effort that was spent on fixing the problem.

The Japanophobe:

 

The Japanese are a culture that distrust all things foreign and obsess about hierarchy and status.  Xenophobic by nature, they would have never considered taking the advice of a foreign group. Entrenched in a prejudicial elitism, they preferred to solve the problem through better design and technology rather than the decidedly low-tech solution of opening a few windows.  The reason that it took so long to find a solution is that the Japanese educational system rewards conservatism and conformity and stifles the development of creative, lateral thinking.  The Japanese engineers were simply too mentally inflexible to see how a perfectly designed building that was functioning exactly as designed could present a problem to anybody, and were unable to step outside of the situation to see a way to fix it.  The failed attempts at solving the issue were undoubtedly a result of the paranoid corporate structure in Japan in which an idea posed by a superior is necessarily supported by the underlings who would never dishonor their bosses by questioning their infallibility.

From my point of view, the pavilion staff had a problem that was not going to solve itself without action.  The obvious (to my eyes) solution was staring them in the face, but they were unable or unwilling to acknowledge it and take the logical step towards implementing it.

 

In the same way, the bikers this morning had to know that they were getting wet, and saw it as an inconvenience.  Otherwise, why bring an umbrella at all?  Again, the problem is right there, literally flying in their faces, and they are unable to make the slightest adjustment from the perceived status quo to fix their situation.

 

In the end, I can think of no explanation for this somewhat autistic aspect of the Japanese national character.  On a good day, I can explain it away as a Japanophile, and on my worst days (like when I am stopped on the street for looking “un-Japanese,” searched from head to toe, asked to present my papers, and then forced to wait while they run a check to make sure that I have not stolen my bike), I condemn such behavior like a true Japanophobe, but in neither case am I any closer to understanding it.

Inflate the Reality

So at the end of March The Rocker has included me in a pitch he made to a festival in Korea and three weeks ago I got last-minute confirmation that I would be going with him.  Like he says, forget about things and sometimes you get some nice surprises!  It will be a great networking opportunity, and also the chance to meet face-to-face to discuss a lot of the Taiwan festival details.

I’m supposed to write an article on “The Creation Process of Canadian Contemporary Circus” and to present “Three years training process in the National Circus School of Canada and how Canadian circus became a more theatrical, unique style.”  The Rocker will be presenting on “why Canadian circus and physical theatre grew to be such important and successful part of Canadian culture.” He will be introducing his past work in music fusion in China, the visual movement, and physical theatre in New Circus in Quebec using a lot of DVDs.  He says that when working in a different language with an interpreter, he prefers to let the images speak for themselves.
Following this advice, I’ll show how I developed my number, showing many versions of my number as it evolved through the school from its first version to the one we see in the DVD, why I went to circus school, and what exactly is the process of training, the new groups coming out of the school that are moving away from Cirque du Soleil style and creating a even newer form.
We’ll also talk together about how I ended up in Japan, the Rocker ended up in Taiwan, and where we are going with all this.  So far, the video I’m preparing is looking really great!

He told me that we need to present the school and Cirque du Soleil in a positive way, offering only constructive criticism as we are in no position to make enemies (he also told me remind him of what he just said, because sometimes he has a big mouth).  The Rocker quote: “Keep the lies, that’s the way we do things…not even white lies…just inflate the reality.”

Looks like it’s going to be fun! Too bad the focus has changed away from “the picking up of girls; theory and practice.”  I had already finished my first draft.

Since The Rocker is able to stop over in Japan on the way to the Korea festival I have set up a meeting with the Canadian embassy in Tokyo to formally introduce The Rocker, his work, and our plans are in Taiwan.  I will explain that I have been in contact with the National Theater of Tokyo and that they expressed interest in receiving a proposal regarding a potential residency and that we would like to have the embassy’s backing, and also to find out what resources we would have available to us as he represents a Canadian organization that is dedicated to bringing Canadian art abroad.

If everything goes well, I’ll be asking her for her support as we contact my people at the National Theater to set up a meeting for us on our free days. I’m also trying to find some local production companies to meet with but so far no luck.  He knows a small circus company that seems very sincere who are trying to set up a circus school in Tokyo and The Tokyo International Festival is also reviewing our materials to see if they can make time for us to meet with them.

He’ll be staying at a ryokan in Ikebukuro that he found online.  I just want to make sure that he knows that he’ll only have communal restrooms and a communal bath.  At least it will be a new experience (assuming they don’t have ryokans in Taiwan…  they very well might!)  Just to be safe, I’ll send him a primer on ‘ryokan etiquette’ so that he’s aware of the differences between hotels and rokans (there is no bed; the maid will come in to set up a futon during dinner time; which slippers to use where, etc.)

Oh his side, he’s been busy connecting with his contact from the Singapore Arts Festival this week and getting info on a Shanghai project run by one of his Macau friends.  Evidently some things he pulls together are very good, and some just drop out of existence.  He even met with some Japanese buyers – evidently there is a lot of support for Canadian/Japanese collaborations right now – and he’s thinking of travelling to Kyoto to meet one of them when he is in Japan later this month.  Japan is a very small country, really.  Nothing more than a half day away by train.  Kyoto is about two hours or so away by bullet train and costs about 200 dollars one way, so if the guy is interested in what we are going to be working on in Taiwan, then it would definitely be in our interests.