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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

 

Tokyo Social Life

Our quasi-weekly picnic in Yoyogi Koen two weeks ago with The Author was excellent with lots of fine wine and imported continental delicacies.  An interesting mix of Japanese and American perceptions of what a Sunday picnic might entail.

But questionable weather conditions last week led to a generally lukewarm response for Thai festivities resulted in that week’s festivities being cancelled.  Unlike the weather, it seems like the Tokyo social scene as I know it is hitting a dry spell and in springtime, cabin fever is dangerous.  Last night, The Author and I may or may not have played a part in a giant flaming bag of dogshit of a mess (in the form of an unnecessarily triggered fire extinguisher) that was left in The Politician’s apartment building stairwell.  I really hope that there is no major fallout from it from him.  Late night and drunken fools.  Apologies sent.

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.

Anatomy of an Asian Circus Proposal

A couple of weeks ago I was out of town with The Political Scientist, enjoying the first day of vacation, so I was out of email contact when The Rocker informed me of a possible event in May for a Taiwanese film festival somewhere in Taiwan.  Last week I whipped up a nice proposal for a one-hour show with 7-9 numbers that can be divided up into two halves with a minimal amount of preparation time.  If there can be video or musical interludes, that number can go down.

I sent out emails to 5 acrobats including The Contortionist.  She told me that she would be able to come, so between my handstands, her contortion and her hoop that would be 15 minutes.  The next day, however, the film festival came back with the information that they want no more than 5 performers and that they all need to be Canadian.  This might be a big problem because it coincides with a lot of Canadian summer projects that are hiring up all the local artists.  The Rocker is arguing with them right now with the logic that we should be able to hire non-Canadians as long as we can call them “graduates from the National Circus School of Canada…”

But actually, I’m starting to suspect that the budget will matter more than passports.  If we do aerial stuff, we will need a Montreal rigger to install a single point for The Contortionist.  That would allow us to invite other single-point artists who do tissus, or rope and a floor act as well which doubles their productivity.  We’ll also probably need 4 days of rehearsal with everyone available a maximum of 10:00 to 22:00; music will be live, simple lighting, huge projection screen in the background.

So I’ve contacted a lot of artists and am giving priority to people who can multitask well to fill up as much time as possible.  If they really want an hour long show with just five performers, that is asking a *hell* of a lot.  I’m assume that one performer can hold the stage for a maximum of 5-6 minutes which makes seven the bare minimum, and even that would have a lot of time with no performers on stage.  Just in case I have contacted a lot of ground performers as well in case we get screwed with the aerial point and rigger.

This week, The Rocker told me that as usual for Asia, the budget is getting to be a problem – Taipei city thought that the embassy would pay more and vice versa, so now the number of acrobats we can invite with a rigger is 3 and all of the artists will need to be Canadian but that they will be OK with a 30 minute show.  Still, this a lot of time to fill with only three artists – and even this number is not confirmed.  When the producer called to discuss technical needs and the Canadian requirement, she kept asking me to reduce the artist fees.  I explained that artists of different experience levels will demand different rates and that they need to understand that with experience comes different levels of performance quality as well.  For example, new graduates from the National Circus School of Canada will expect different rates from experiences freelance professionals who expect different rates from established circus ‘stars’ with a long history working with other companies.  That said, if the Taiwanese partners can support the fees for a couple of graduates of the National Circus School of Canada and the Canadian Trade office can come through with their commitment to support 3 professional Canadian artists, I still think we will have a top-level show limited only by our technical resources and rehearsal time.  I took the opportunity to suggest finding corporate sponsors to invite a few more artists which she said might be possibility.

Then, at the last minute, The Rocker told me that I had to include his fees in the budget as well (I thought that he was taking care of his pay separately), and I’m worried that this will kill the project, but as he told me, “do not be too slack with asking a decent price, there is no way I want people in Canada to think we are setting up shows cheap (sweat shop) circus shows in Asia.”

Finally, just as I was preparing the last budget, the city requested that 1) we reduce the budget and that 2) we only invite artists who come from famous companies like Cirque du Soleil.  Impossible.  But The Rocker says that if they really want this thing, they can scrape up the cash, so I should send the budget anyways.  Based on the email we just got back, The Rocker doesn’t think it’s going to fly, but when I look at the budget we made; I feel that everything is reasonable based on their expectations.  Just have to switch to zen mode.  In The Rocker’s words, “Best thing about these kind of things is to submit everything.  Then forget it exists, if something pops up, all the better…”

Could be a lot of work for nothing, though.

Or is it?  As a result of all this work, I am now in contact with over 25 high quality, reliable artists who are interested in working in Asia.  If I could double that number over the course of the next couple of months, it might be possible to assemble a performance group on short notice for projects here.  A lot of Western artists are dying to get to Asia but have no idea how to get here on their own.  It would be interesting to establish ourselves as a company creating modern acrobatic events in Asia.  Another project in Macau may be on the horizon – if it is the kind of thing we can put up in a week, I am sure we can find interested acrobats from within the group of people I am already communicating with.  On the other hand, if we do start bringing more and more artists over to Taiwan how easy it will be to stay the go-between for the next event?  My thinking is that if we can stay involved in setting the standards for quality and the nature of the work that goes on over here, we can ensure our livelihood for a long run.