The Light across Waters

by Sha Cage
Curator, Intermedia Arts | Minneapolis

Representatives of NPN/VAN Partners, alongside staff, embarked on a trip to Kyoto, Japan from November 3-10, 2016 to see adventurous new work from Japanese artists as part of the Kyoto Experiment. The group included Ron Berry from Fusebox in Austin, TX; Anna Trier from Links Hall in Chicago, IL; myself from Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis, MN; NPN/VAN’s U.S.-Japan Connection consultant Kyoko Yoshida; and President and NPN/VAN CEO Caitlin Strokosch. Half of us were new to Japan and brought wide-open eyes and hearts, while the other half were curators who had traveled there with the program in the past. They helped navigate the area and were anxious to get reacquainted with the Japanese partners and artists whom they’d previously met. The weather was on our side with most days landing in the mid-50s and 60s. Sun, warm breezes, walkable nights, food to die for on every corner and the autumn foliage the area is known for…. what else could we ask for!

We were nestled in the heart of downtown Kyoto which made things incredibly easy to get to by foot or a short taxi ride. Kyoko well prepared us for everything from directions from the plane and baggage claim to the domestic shuttle and details on the train trip into town to taxi and other travel and cultural tips to navigating on very little knowledge of Japanese.

Our schedule brought us to different areas and performance venues in Kyoto. This was one of the highlights. Not only were we able to view large scale work in open air and large proscenium theaters (Rohm Theatre), as well as intimate showings in renovated gallery-like performance halls such as the Kyoto Art Center (a renovated elementary school that now houses multiple spaces including a performance hall, book store and open courtyard), but in our journey to and from we were able to experience the physical and cultural landscape of Kyoto by bus, train and, occasionally, a taxi. We got to know each other as colleagues through reflecting on performances, commenting on aesthetic / gender/ and cultural choices, and ultimately gaining a fuller understanding about the importance of cultural exchanges like this. June Jordan, in essays before her death, talked extensively about the value of cultural exchange. In particularly about Americans leaving the comforts of our soil to be ’in’ dialogue with other artists and cultural works in other parts of the world; to debate and discuss and question and compare and share and notice parallels in an effort to nurture; and grow broader sensitivity and understanding. Clearly she was onto something. This program, unlike many other in the U.S., has the ability to do this.

Works included, but were not limited to, Ryoji Ikeda’s datamatics at the ROHM Theatre, Michikazu Matsune’s Dance, if you want to enter my country! at Kyoto Art Center, and Kinoshita Kabuki’s Kanjincho at Shyunju-za. Ryoji’s datamatics was an intensely captivating, multi-sensory experience, while Kinoshita Kabuki’s Kanjincho –a full scale traditional narrative performed on a white runway platform with audience on both sides able to see each others’ expressions – was inventive and layered with surprises. It provoked a lengthy conversation over dinner around non-traditional casting choices.

We experienced a dramatic turn of events on November 9 (November 8 for our friends back home). The presidential election in the United States impacted us in ways that words are likely unable to express. What started out as a day to explore and eat and shop and visit temples quickly turned into an hour-by-hour tracking of the election results. Anxiety followed by fear by anger and, ultimately, confusion for most of us. For me, receiving the final results was debilitating and left me in a dazed state. I remember a flurry of texting with the members on the trip that started early and into the day, which then slowly trickled out as we all accepted the results. There was silence and grey everywhere. Hours went by. I decided to leave my room and just walk the streets, eventually hopping in a cab to visit one of the famous temples. Something, anything was better than this pressure in my chest. We had been scheduled that night to see our final play. The plan was to meet in the lobby and travel there together. But the unspoken suggested that each of us were in our own worlds of grey… just processing and trying to make sense of things. Then there was a call. Kyoko phoned and said she was in the lobby. It was a breath of fresh air to reconvene with our colleagues and embrace and shed tears and reaffirm the importance of art and work like this. That night, sitting in the theater watching Avidya: No Lights Inn, Kuro Tanino and Niwa Gekidan Peninoo’s brilliant work that so effortlessly spoke to issues of intimacy, community, family and isolation, I was able to release an exhale. We were able to exhale together. Afterwards we walked the streets in search of a bar, the perfect bar. We found the only bar still open…. Bar K, and Anna and Ron, who had been there before, were elated.

Talking with Yusuke Hashimoto about his past seven years of programming at the Kyoto Experiment and his future vision, alongside the cultural obstacles Fumi Yokobori’s region is facing in relation to immigrants and class disparities, was eye opening. Our last day’s lunch with Nori Sato, founding director of Japan Contemporary Dance Network (JCDN), was mind-blowing as he talked about the essential work he is doing with the 3.11 Tsunami-impacted communities to move through trauma using the reclamation of traditional artistic practices. Nori is able to articulate the deep impact his festival and programs in Tohoku region have had, and he has been skillful and patient in bridging collaboration attempts between the traditional and contemporary artists (which is typically uncommon). Meeting him and watching documentary footage of his work was inspirational.

This trip has been remarkable in its ability to stress the importance of building intercultural understanding and partnerships through art and exchange. As we have now come back to our own cities and homes and programs and stepped foot in an America that looks very different from the one we left, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that this trip has changed us. Our holistic experience alongside the renewed importance of the role of art in the days that lie before us is clearer than ever. Our resilience to strengthen our allies through exchanges like this and, most importantly, re-ground ourselves in the work.

We are grateful for this experience….for it will stay with us for days to come.

In Light!
Sha




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