Friday, April 27, 2012

Seeding Japanese Culture One Commission At A Time

Shadows of commissions past: (l-r) Other Here, Partch, Dogugaeshi.

Japan Society stirs New York City's proverbial melting pot not only through regular whisks of Japanese culture, but also by piecing together completely new stews through commissioning American, Japanese and artists around the world to create new works.

Since the inception of the Performing Arts Program in 1953, the Society has presented nearly 650 performing arts events (approximately 2000 individual performances). Some twenty of these have been wholly original works created in recent years. Japan Society Artistic Director Yoko Shioya, who heads up the Performing Arts Program, explains:
Over the past decade, Japan Society has continued its efforts to commission non-Japanese artists to create works which are somehow related to Japan – whether they are based on Japanese literature; incorporate the stylized forms of Japanese performing arts; draw inspiration from Japan’s unique culture; include a collaboration with artists from Japan; or utilize Japanese traditional art forms or techniques.
Playing a more dynamic role than typical of the commissioning process, the Society goes beyond pledging kick-start money. It provides consultation for the artists in order to aid the art-making process by coordinating with residency partners and collaborators, helping clear Japanese copyrights, and providing means of practicing traditional performance techniques, for example. Through the active “seeding” of Japan-related creativity in the U.S., the hope is that the artist’s vision is allowed to grow beyond what was initially conceived. These performances go on to successfully tour throughout the U.S. and sometimes internationally with a lot of care taken to pair the shows with suitable presenters.

Since its inception, the Performing Arts Program commissioned a number of smaller scale works. After receiving an Endowment from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in the early 00s, commissions increased in scale and regularity.

Highlights include Basil Twist’s screen door puppetry spectacle Dogugaeshi, which received the prestigious Bessie Award and New York Innovative Award, and has been remounted several times since its 2004 premiere, including in Japan and most recently at D.C.'s National Cherry Blossom Festival centennial anniversary; Harry Partch’s Delusion of the Fury, the second-only full production since its 1969 premiere, featuring Partch’s mammoth musical instrument inventions (you can play electronic versions here); and Big Dance Theater’s fantastical The Other Here, which launched Japan Society’s centennial celebration in 2007.

A Global “(glowing)” Dance Of Darkness

Opening today, Japan Society’s latest commission (glowing) is by renowned New York-based choreographer Kota Yamazaki and his company Fluid hug-hug. Breaking tradition, the commission is for a Japanese artist, yet the scope of the work is truly global, blending Japanese, African and Western aesthetics, as beautifully illustrated by the piece's trailer:

Inspired by novelist Junichiro Tanizaki’s In’ei Raisan (In Praise of Shadows), Yamazaki uses the slow and deliberate Japanese form of contemporary dance known as butoh to express the novel’s idea of the subtle beauty found in the recesses of darkness and shadows. Taking butoh to another level, elements of African dance are introduced by dancers Marie Agnes Gomis of Senegal and Shiferaw Tariku of Ethiopia who are joined by Japanese and American dancers to round out the cast of six. Architect Robert Kocik, trained in traditional Japanese carpentry, is responsible for the scenery while lighting designer Kathy Kaufmann replicates the descriptions of a dimly lit Japanese house interior described in In Praise of Shadows. Koji Setoh composed the original score and sounds for the show.

As Yamazaki’s triumphant return to butoh—Japan’s dance of darkness—something he trained for many years in but distanced himself for a while, he seeks new discoveries through its comparison to African dance and exploration within profound Japanese architectural aesthetics. As the name of his company suggests, Yamazaki seeks a fluidity like water in the movement as well as between people of different cultures in order to smoothly and creatively exchange ideas.

Having premiered at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), a co-commissioner for the piece, and with stops in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, (glowing) was called a “spare, contemplative and strangely beautiful work” by the Albany Times Union. The tour concludes at Japan Society on Friday, April 27, and Saturday, April 28, at 7:30 pm. Observation seats are still available for the Saturday movement workshop from 1:00-4:00 pm.

--Sean Tomizawa 

UPDATED 5/1/12

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