The 60 Second Plug: Sankai Juku’s “Hibiki”

Hibiki is described as a work of “unparalleled simplicity and poetic beauty”. What can you tell us about it?

To be honest, I have only watched the works on DVD. But let me say one thing: from just that, I can tell that it is a truly, truly, truly must-see, world-class performance. Awesome choreography, amazing lighting design, excellent costumes — and beautiful music by leading contemporary musicians Kako Takashi and Yoshikawa Yoichiro.

Sankai Juku has been around for 30 years now, winning multiple awards and taking butoh to the world stage. What more can you tell us about this ground breaking group?

One of Sankai Juku’s biggest contributions is how they’ve brought this underground art form to the mainstream through their regular world tours. Amagatsu Ushio is a rare butoh choreographer, who has succeeded in attracting a wider audience by presenting the form in a more accessible style — while still retaining its original aesthetics. Without Sankai Juku, I believe Butoh would not have established itself in the world map of dance.

Can you tell us a bit more about Amagatsu Ushio?

He is 57 years old this year — and still dancing! It is so amazing that he keeps his enthusiasm for creation and quality in his works even after 30 years. After he established his name in Sankai Juku’s 1st European tour, he has been a front-runner among butoh artists in the world. During the 1990s, he was also active in other things outside butoh, directing opera and choreographing non-butoh dancers. Now, Amagatsu concentrates on working with Sankai Juku.

Can you give us a brief background on butoh dance?

Butoh is a dance form, established by Hijikata Tatsumi in 1959 with Kinjiki, a work based on Mishima Yukio’s novel Forbidden Colours. Hijikata learned numerous dance forms — Neue Tanz (a form based on German expressionism), American modern dance, jazz dance, western classic ballet and several others — before he came up with Kinjiki. It is said that butoh was his answer to his problems with those other dance forms.

If you watch Hibiki, it will be obvious that butoh is so different from western dance techniques, with its rather Asian-oriented aesthetics — some say the form’s movements are based on a Japanese farmer’s daily work. It is an art-form where age is no boundary, which is why there are some butoh dancers who keep dancing even in their 50s or 60s.

Have you ever wanted to take up Butoh yourself?

Actually … yes: when I was a college student and still in shape. I participated in butoh workshops several times, and some of these were held by Sankai Juku members. My most interesting experience during a workshop was how the instructor never corrected my movements. “Is my movement okay?” I asked him, once. His reply was: “There is no such thing as a ‘correct movement’ in my class.” According to my instructor, the most exciting workshop participants are Tokyo businessmen / businesswomen. Since they are under a lot of stress, their movements are the most interesting and wild.

You are the head of the Japan Foundation KL’s Cultural Affairs department. How did you end up here?

After nearly four years of service in the Performing Arts division headquarters in Tokyo, I was transferred to Osaka and spent two years there. One day, I got an offer to come to Kuala Lumpur, as a result of my request to be transferred to a Southeast Asian country. I am very thankful for it.

Last month you brought in the KUDAN Project’s Yaji & Kita; now you bring in Hibiki. Who in the Japan Foundation decides what to bring in to showcase to Malaysians?

It depends. I propose some projects, which are mainly dance and theatre — as do some of my colleagues. Yaji & Kita was introduced from our headquarters in Tokyo. On the other hand, bringing in Sankai Juku was initiated by JFKL.

I knew their company manager and sent an email — just to push my luck, even though I was quite sure our budget couldn’t cover bringing them here. As luck would have it, the generous Sankai Juku guys agreed to come, flying here after their North American tour, and before heading back to Japan for their year end ‘cuti’.

How successful has your department been in its aim to ‘promote mutual cultural exchange between Japan and Malaysia’? What sort of difficulties have you faced?

One of our missions, I believe, is to plant seeds for future cultural exchange. JFKL is working to introduce Japanese arts and culture to Malaysians and to support Japanese language education. I still cannot say we have been ‘successful’ — it is an endless job.

It is sometimes hard to get enough attention from the press and public for our activities. We are not merely concentrating on introducing Japan; “How we can contribute to Malaysia?” is a question always on our mind. For example, we usually organise Q & A sessions or workshops after performances, to promote more interaction between Japanese artists and Malaysian artists / audiences. Most of the time, Japanese artists really love to do these, since they are curious if their style is accepted by Malaysians.

Ever had any lost-in-translation situations while dealing with Malaysians?

Not often, but there are some moments — mostly due to my poor language ability. But we work as a team with our Malaysian counterparts; they are very cooperative, with warm hearts and smiles. I am always thankful to these counterparts since the Japan Foundation cannot do anything without their support.

Where’s the one place in Malaysia you must take visitors from Japan to?

Zoo Negara! I’m not kidding. This is my favourite spot in KL. I love it, especially the elephant-riding and night zoo. Zoo Negara is famous among a small number of people in the arts community in Japan, because of my recommendation.

What other projects are JFKL working on?

We are now working with The Actors Studio for Taihen in Malaysia, a theatre project with the disabled. It will be held in early April, at KLPac. There’ll a Japanese drum concert in January, at the Istana Budaya, as a kick-off event for the Japan-Malaysia Friendship Year 2007. And I have to mention our year-long Weekend Japanese Film Show showcase, held twice a month at the Malaysian Tourism Centre on Jalan Ampang.

What have you been up to lately?

Now, my biggest mission is to work towards seeing many smiles after the Sankai Juku performance. I am also going to sekolah memandu to get my driving licence!

First Published: 21.11.2006 on Kakiseni

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