A Perspective on U.S. Dance

by Ritsuko Mizuno, Artistic Director
Japan Contemporary Dance Network (JCDN )

Three partners of the Japan Contemporary Dance Network (JCDN) – Ms. Kyoko Yokoyama, formerly the Program and Planning Coordinator of the Fukuoka City Foundation for Arts and Cultural Promotion (Fukuoka); Ms. Reiko Hagihara, Program Director of the Kyoto Arts Center (Kyoto) and I (Kyoto) – traveled to New York, Austin and Chicago for ten days in April 2013. During this trip, thanks to NPN’s arrangements, we met with twenty choreographers as well as the directors of New York Live Arts (formerly Dance Theater Workshop), Fusebox Festival, National Dance Project of the New England Foundation for the Arts, and DanceWorks Chicago.

We have spent the last two years visiting each other’s country, including the JCDN partners’ attendance at NPN Annual Meetings in Tampa and Philadelphia and several meetings with NPN members when they visited Japan. As we enter the third year, we have steadily deepened our mutual understanding of each country’s society, culture and recent trends in the performing arts field. In addition, our discussions about Japan’s future in the performing arts have been tremendously inspired by NPN’s significance in the U.S.

During this trip to the U.S., NPN generously met our request to see as many choreographers as possible in order for us to select a U.S. choreographer who would do a creative residency in Japan next year. When the U.S. curators made their recommendations at the TPAM meeting in Yokohama last February, they asked us a question: “For the creative residency in Japan, are you looking for choreographers who are good at creating a work with non-professionals in a specific community, or choreographers who are free to do what they want during their stay in Japan? What is your focus?” It is undeniably more logical to have a fixed focus before choosing an artist. However, we wanted to meet the choreographers first, to learn what each of them is currently interested in, and what he/she is hoping to create in Japan. We hoped to design the program based on these conversations.

(l to r) Ritsuko Mizuno, Kyoko Yokoyama, John Herbert, Reiko Hagihara, Kyoko Yoshida, Lisa Choinacky

(l to r) Ritsuko Mizuno, Kyoko Yokoyama, John Herbert, Reiko Hagihara, Kyoko Yoshida, Lisa Choinacky

Our extravagant hope was generously granted, and we had a brilliantly coordinated, productive trip in each city. We were able to meet a wide range of choreographers and explore various possibilities in a limited amount of time. Sixto Wagan, then artistic director of DiverseWorks, organized our visit to the Fusebox Festival and meetings with Austin-based choreographers. Yolanda Cursach, associate director of the performance program at the Museum of Contemporary Art, arranged performances, showcases, studio visits and meetings at various dance studios. For the occasion, she had reserved the MCA theater stage where many of these events took place. Kyoko Yoshida, executive director of the U.S./Japan Cultural Trade Network and consultant of the U.S./Japan Connection, accompanied and interpreted the conversations for us during the whole trip, and Renata Petroni, director of NPN”s International Program, organized the whole itinerary as well as the coordination of our New York trip. I would like to express my gratitude to these NPN partners and staff members for making the carefully planned and intricate arrangements.

I would like to share several things that made me ponder and inspired my thinking about the residency project of the U.S. choreographers in Japan. We were strongly encouraged to hear that all the choreographers we met had positive opinions about doing a residency in Japan.

I got the impression from most of the choreographers’ presentations that each has a clear idea and concept about his/her work, engages in a research process to deepen the concept, then develops and completes the piece. Thus, they know how to create a work that clearly communicates their ideas and their individual perception of the world. This process may seem obvious for creating an artistic work, but I feel that Japanese choreographers should understand this process more fully.

The ideas that artists were trying to address in their work were not always conventional. Indeed, the subject matter was often difficult to share with the general public. I saw that in many circumstances, the work’s focus was outside the mainstream point of view and/or consciousness. For example, Beth Gill, a New York-based choreographer, creates works that specifically focus on the body’s physical stance and on the relationship between space and dance through her unique perspective. In Japan, this kind of work could be presented only in the Tokyo metropolitan area, but in the U.S., it was presented at the Fusebox Festival in Texas. I was pleasantly surprised to see such work enjoying this broad exposure.

I also felt the energy with which each artist pursues his/her own style. For example, one choreographer would conduct long-term research on a grand theme to reach the point where his/her expression expands into other genres beyond dance, while another would begin the choreographic process from personal trauma, memory, history and identity, and eventually turn it into sublime and universal work of intense choreographic movement. Moreover, I was impressed with the generous capacities of the presenters, including the theaters and festivals that embrace these artists and their works. In contrast to the current circumstances in Japan, during the trip in the U.S. I was able to glimpse into the segment of the society that supports and accepts contemporary dance.

Plaza outside of MCA

Plaza outside of MCA

Another difference with Japan is that U.S. artists actively reach out and knock on new doors to open up possibilities for themselves. For example, Allison Orr, whom we met in Austin, is a choreographer who has been actively involved with the community. She wanted to bring attention to a group of manual laborers such as garbage workers, who are indispensable but invisible to our society, and she wanted to create a dance piece involving them. Instead of asking the project’s producers to set up the activities, she took the initiative herself and went to their workplace to work side-by-side with them in order to build their trust. If a U.S. artist wants to pursue something that is crucial for him/herself, he/she doesn’t just sit around waiting or expecting something to be set up for them by others.

This made me think again about what the essential motivation of the creative process should be and how the relationship between society and dance could become “exciting.” This is a question not only for the artists but also for the theaters and the administrators. In recent years, JCDN has placed an emphasis on dance in the communities and helped to spread this type of activity throughout Japan. This trip offered the opportunity to make us question once again how successful we were in examining the possibilities of dance.

What I found the two counties have in common is that, although contemporary dance artists’ activities and programs are increasingly seen nationally in Japan, the long-time trend of concentrating the work in the Tokyo metropolitan area continues. We share this with the U.S. in terms of the concentration of talented choreographers in New York. After the 3.11 Earthquake, however, we have seen more artists moving away from Tokyo to other parts of Japan. It was interesting to learn that there are some U.S. artists moving their base away from New York City. I wondered if we share a similar trend of de-centralization. Some artists, who have worked in New York City for a few years, move away and are able to continue their activities in the new hometown without slowing down and to tour nationally as well as to NYC. The artists who move away from Tokyo are doing the same, but the difference is that the number of presenting venues and festivals outside of the metropolitan area in Japan, compared with the U.S., is much smaller. However, the belief that artists have to be based in Tokyo or New York City is not as strong as a decade ago. Today, there seems to be more artists who are capable of balancing their individual values with their creative activities and societal discourse. Thanks to NPN’s geographical inclusiveness, we had the opportunity to talk with choreographers who are based in Austin and Chicago, not just in the New York metropolitan area.

I found artists’ activities and programs in different parts of the U.S. uniquely distinctive. It may be because NPN connects each region nationally through their network, and as one of the organizational goals, it promotes regional activities/characteristics nationally on an equal basis. NPN’s system and activities support presenters, festivals and museums in different parts of the country to pursue their unique mission through their own programs, and promotes mutual support between and among NPN Partners, independent artists and companies that help them survive and thrive locally. When it comes to how a network should work, I think this is a model we should learn from.

For instance, I was amazed to see an organization like DanceWorks in Chicago thriving. They put in place a system that supports dancers and choreographers and teaches them to be independently successful. Needless to say, the company’s success largely rests on the efforts and beliefs of the director who has a strong sense of mission. I also had the opportunity to attend an evening program that combined three different companies of dance, music and theater, presented as part of a joint fundraising event at MCA. This kind of program, designed to support fundraising efforts and co-organized by the presenter and the independent choreographers and companies, doesn’t really exist in Japan. The evening taught me a daring approach to developing an audience who would attend genres beyond their usual interests, and to cultivating opportunities for new individual or organizational patrons/supporters by cooperating with the artists of multiple genres. The event provided me with some ideas and references for the future, even though donating money in the arts has not yet become a common practice in Japan and there is a vast difference in the culture of charitable giving between the two countries.

(l to r) Sixto Wagan, Nora Chipaumire, Ritsuko Mizuno

(l to r) Sixto Wagan, Nora Chipaumire, Ritsuko Mizuno

We had dinner with Nora Chipaumire after seeing her performance MIRIAM on our last evening in Austin and the conversation I had with her further inspired me about possible directions we should consider when planning this project. “I do not want to work for a one-shot deal bound by a fixed framework. I would like to take time to work on a project I really think is meaningful over the course of two to three years.” I agreed with her completely. I strongly feel that we want to make the project truly meaningful for both the U.S. and Japanese sides.

I would like to sincerely thank the artists and the presenters who spent their precious time to introduce us to their work during our stay. Now, processing all the information and reflecting on the experiences we gained during this trip, it is our turn to think about ways of developing a program that will stimulate and energize the dance field in Japan. We truly appreciate NPN’s continued support and cooperation, which are indispensable for our mutual endeavor.

June 2013

The U.S./Japan Connection is funded in part by the Center for Global Partnerships, a Division of the Japan Foundation, the U.S./Japan Cultural Trade Network, and by the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission.

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