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.

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 Business Debrief

In Japan, I have progressed a great deal on the corporate and government angles, but there is little more I can do there until we have a final video and product to show to them.  However, there are other places to look for support for out project and I have just wrapped up a week-long trip in North America.  It was an expensive trip, but to be honest, I feel that the information that was gained and the support that we have garnered was well worth the cost.  In summary, I am ready to continue to the next step of tour pre-production in Tokyo starting next week.  Basically, mission accomplished.

USA

Three organizations have stated their support and intent to help us bring our project to the Midwest by applying for grants, providing venues, promoting us as part of their season, and providing us with local audiences.  They also have extensive contacts with local corporations such as 3M, the Target chain of retail stores, and others who have teamed up as corporate sponsors for these arts organizations in the past.

They are very excited with how this project sounds on paper, and after my 20-minute presentation was completed, they had a lot of questions about our reasons for doing this project, and vocally expressed their excitement that such projects were taking shape in Asia.  I think that in the US, there is a real interest in being the first organization to present contemporary, cool work from the Asian sphere.  They were particularly sold on the idea of integrating multi-media into a traditional art form, as well as adding acrobatics to physical theater, and creating a visual, image-based production that is not script-based.

Of course, all of this interest is pending a viewing and approval of the final product and production budget.  One organization has already offered to come to Taipei to see our production’s premiere.  The organizations have requested that we not use their names publicly until they have been able to officially state their interest and support of the project upon seeing our premiere, and I have also told them that until that time, I will contact them only on a need-to-know basis as they are very busy developing their own work at this time.  Given that the Americans are very interested in seeing video of the creation process, primarily to see if the show is shaping up to be something they want to push as a flagship show for national touring.  I proposed that we include in the budget either rental or purchase of a GOOD video camera and editing system, or else to budget for the services of a videographer who could do it all for us in order to send really good quality footage to these theaters.

Personally, I think that if we might be able to secure Taiwanese corporate sponsors based on this unofficial support from the Minneapolis side, it would fuel our Minneapolis sponsor’s interest, and vice-versa.

To further sweeten the deal, one theater is part of a nation-wide collection of theaters that are particularly interested in promoting international performances in the United States, and they have suggested the possibility of plugging us into that network for a nationwide tour.  I do not want to be overly optimistic, but in my opinion, a stop in Minnesota is practically guaranteed if we make half as good a show as we are expecting.

I should tell you that Minneapolis is the closest city to a USA Montreal in terms of support for the arts, so I am very, very optimistic that with the theater (that recently won a Tony award and is considered the best contemporary theater in the nation) and this circus school (annual budget in the millions, connections with Cirque du Soleil in the works) cowriting a grant with us, we WILL be performing in Minneapolis on the 2007-2008 season.

And, I have a very good feeling that with this news, Boston will be even more interested in bringing us to their market.  The great thing is that if Minneapolis works, we will be able to treat it as a showcase for the fat cat agents who never leave the USA but have pockets overflowing with money.

The next step is to strategize with The Rocker’s Taiwanese producers to start a US grant-writing research binge together if this is a direction they are interested in going.  My plan of action for the next three months is to research grant opportunities at the municipal, state, and federal level in the USA for bringing in foreign performing arts, and to determine an official touring budget to present to our partners in the USA.

Canada

After talking with the SAT in Montreal, I have decided to begin speaking with the Canadian Embassy and other NGO’s in Canada and Japan to see what interest they might have in using our show as a flagship of modern Canadian technological and theater arts.  The problem I have run into on the Japanese side is that Taiwan is not recognized by the Japanese government, and thus, promoting the show as Taiwanese is very sensitive.  Now that we are able to promote it as the result of a Canadian creative collaboration that employs Taiwanese artists, many more channels are open to us.  On the Japan side, I will start by contacting the Canadian Embassy and Canadian/Japanese Arts organizations, and then begin speaking with Japanese Theaters the way that other Canadian arts organizations do.

Whirlwind Tour Part 3 (continued) – Montreal and Bad News

Montreal, which was just supposed to be a fun trip for me, ended up being related to this project as well.  My friend from SAT and I talked about how to generate interest about teaming up to write a grant to bring the multimedia circus show from Taiwan to Japan…

The problem is that we can not get the National Theater of Japan and the National Theater of Taiwan together; it is diplomatically impossible as Japan has a treaty with China to have no connections with Taiwan at all, so to get the show to Tokyo through governmental grants (the best way, I think), we need to have a Canadian face on it, which SAT can definately provide…

Their answer was a positive one, and we talked strategy about bringing the project to the Canadian embassy there when I get back… that will be the next step in Japan.

SAT asked me a lot of questions about what The Rocker could want from them for the festival, but I did not really feel comfortable answering them as we had never talked about that and I am not really sure what my role is, if any, in the festival planning.  On the other hand, I didn’t want to look like I was unprepared, so I basically told them that we are waiting for information from the National Theater and will give them specifics (budget, etc) as they arrive and that as we had worked with the video artists before, that they would have a pretty good idea what kinds of things that we would be looking for, so if SAT and the artists wanted to work out a small proposal, that would probably help us out.

For now, they seem shy to get in contact with the National Theater for whatever reason, so I’m offering to act as a liaison to free The Rocker’s hands from that aspect of pre-production, and will keep the SAT happy by reducing “fuzziness” and the amount of guesswork and effort on their part.  Once the ball gets rolling, I am sure that we can step out of the process, but until then, I am anxious to keep forward momentum on their involvement — I know that The Rocker wants me to focus more on the acrobatic and programming side of the festival, but my interest in the SAT angle is more from the point of view of a future in Japan since if the SAT is involved we are much more attractive from the point of view of potential partners in Japan.  Additionally, given the fact that the SAT has been successful in winning a lot of Quebec arts grants and that they are really interested in making a first appearance in Japan, I anticipate that if they are involved, they will support us a lot in our efforts to tour over there, from both an artistic and financial standpoint.

I also talked with two friends over a beer, which was supposed to be informal, but they also knew about the festival since I’d already contacted one of them about participating as an emcee with me.

We talked about ideas for what we might be able to do for a duo, and we came up with some good ones.  we are both excited about that idea, and would be able to be quick, quality, and largely as self-sufficient as needed.

My other friend showed me her clowning DVD which is pretty good. I’ve worked with her in the past and she is particularily good at animations, and good on stage as well.

I had very bad news in Montreal that I owe money to the Japanese government in taxes, something that I was not at all expecting.  This means that my financial situation suddenly went to critical, and that I am in a little bit of trouble.  After I pay the government, I will have exactly enough money to get me to the end of June, but at that point, I will be broke.  I was budgeting to be OK until the end of 2006 even if there was a huge problem with the show and everything, or if my fee was going to be smaller than I am imagining, but now everything has changed.

I really believe in this project, and I want to be there helping in whatever ways I can, but at this point, I am really relying on an artistic team-level fee.  After this news, I contacted The Rocker in person to start talk about our financial expectations, because if I am way off-base on the sort of fee I might be earning on this project, I am in danger of having to drop out and return home.  Before this bad news, I was willing to take a risk for the sake of the project, but that luxury has been very quickly taken from my hands, and I am panicking a little bit.  It is probably for nothing, I know, and I have always and continue to trust in The Rocker’s judgement, but losing the magnitude of money that I have lost is incredibly unsettling.  I’d also like to talk with him about what I can do to help with the organization of the festival.  If he does want my help, what is most important to me is that I make his job as easy as possible for him without stepping on his toes.

Preparing now for meetings with the producing director of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, the artistic director of a youth circus and school, the Hennepin Theater District, the grantwriting and programmation people at the Ordway Theater, and their counterparts at the Guthrie Theater.  I will also be talking to a big theater in a smaller, wealthy town.  The idea is to get these big-name theaters and organizations to co-write and co-sponsor a grant to bring the show to the US for a one-shot deal or a little tour…  essentially we’re acting as our own agent.

I am also looking to find agents in New York that have worked with circuses in the past.

So things are going well except for the big hit I took yesterday in the financial department.  It has been a real shock to me, and frankly, I am a little scared.  for now, it is business as usual, though, so I put it in the back of my mind.

Whirlwind Tour Part 3 – Montreal

Yesterday I woke up early to get to Montreal…  got there exactly on time for my lunch meeting with the guy from Circus Theatrical, my former boss at the Expo.  Now he gave me so much advice and tells me that he is about to quit his job, but no one knows it yet.  Strange to be changing levels like this.

Then, I go to school, and am surprized that everyone there really still remembers me and my number; even people I have never talked to.  They talk me into coming to school at 6 to see their Evaluation Concept shows, and I change my meeting schedule to make it work.

Meet with my friend from the SAT, talk a lot of stuff about Taiwan…  I feel I have a big responsibility, but don’t know how to take it on.

Go to school see the Evaluation Concepts, mostly the same shit that we used to do, but also some good stuff, see all my favorite teachers and a really good friend from a long time ago, and then meet my ex-girlfriend The Gymnast which is weird, of course.

To dinner now with my friend again to finish our business…  talked, laughed, then on to the house of one of my friends, a younger clown from school, where I stayed up til 4 talking about clowning and old times and changes…

Wake up at 8:50 to drive her to work and move out of Montreal, meet my SAT friend for dimsum at 12:00 and then my best and favorite teacher for two hour lunch at Club Sandwich, the old hang out, finish moving out, give away half my stuff to charity, and now trying to find one last friend before I leave… then 20 hours of driving straight to Minnesota to have a drink with my sister!

A Canadian Partner

I met with a Montreal producer visiting Tokyo yesterday.  We got on really well and just sort of hung out around Tokyo, chatting, and looking at girls for about 8 hours.

CIMG5146

I really think that he and his company could benefit from supporting new circus development in Asia and Japan.  They want to reopen an out-of-business theater in Japan and run it like a Canadian theater with emphasis on bringing cool art people together from both sides of the Pacific instead of on making lots of money, essentially what The Rocker is trying to do in Taiwan, and what I am trying to do between Taiwan and Tokyo.

Their problem is that they do not have a project to sell yet.  My problem is that I do not have a government or an organization behind me to lent a little weight and credibility to the project when I talk to people.

If we could combine this project with theirs so that it showcases not only what we are trying to do artistically in this show but also what can be done in Asia, I think it is a win-win situation all around, potentially guaranteeing us a venue in Japan for future projects.  This is huge.  I just thought of this while the two of us were getting drunk together, and mentioned it in passing.  He seems interested, but needs more details.  He is in town a few more weeks, so I will try to set up another meeting, but first, it is this Saturday at a bar for a Montreal-style party.

I imagine that this organization that he is with has access to some sweet government grants to bring Canadian art to other countries.   If we can combine a pull from Canada with the push that we have from Taiwan, and me here in Japan staying in contact with local investors…could be great!