On the launch of the Kinosaki International Arts Center

This article was originally published in the Japan Times newspaper on June 4 2014.

The small hot-spring resort of Kinosaki beside the Sea of Japan in northern Hyogo Prefecture is as picturesque as it is peacefully genteel. However, with April’s opening of the Kinosaki International Arts Center (KIAC), this rural home to fewer than 5,000 now aims to become a major performing-arts hub as well.

In pursuing that ambition, KIAC’s focus has been set on sponsoring artists in residence, a rare occurrence in the performing arts and one that poses practical and conceptual problems — such as which disciplines to favor, what sort of profile to seek in Japan and beyond, and how to interact with, and involve, the surrounding community who may have yearned more for entertainment rather than artistic creation in their midst.

To cast light on such issues involved in this initiative, KIAC Program Director Yoko Nishiyama recently made time in her hectic schedule for a short interview.

To begin with, Nishiyama explained that the theme of this inaugural year’s residencies — “variety” — is purposely open-ended to allow both for experimentation as the institution begins to establish itself, and for wide-open artist-selection criteria in terms of age, backgrounds, genres and even projects at differing stages of development.

In the end, a four-strong committee chose seven applicants from a total of 25 individual and group submissions from Japan, Australia, Canada, China, Finland and the United States. Among those seven, four of their projects are dance-based and three are theater-based.

KIAC’s state-of-the-art building can accommodate up to 28 people, making it one of the largest performing-arts residency facilities in Japan. There is also one 1,000-seat theater and another with room for 300, though both are intended as preview spaces to showcase works in progress.

In addition, the center boasts six rehearsal studios, a kitchen for residents’ use and a cafe.

What’s truly astonishing in these generally cash-strapped times, though, is that the whole lot is being funded by Toyooka City, a municipality into which Kinosaki and four other towns were merged in 2005.

However, necessity was the mother of invention since, like many of Japan’s countryside communities, Kinosaki’s population has long been shrinking. To counter that creeping calamity, Toyooka Mayor Muneharu Nakagai has been promoting the town’s rich heritage, which aside from its renowned bathhouses includes a museum and guided tours highlighting its literary history.

To further attract visitors to this idyllic spot, which is easily reached by train from Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe, Mayor Nakagai also arranged for a debt-ladened prefectural meeting hall to be bought by the city, and for work on converting it for the center to start in April 2012.

However, the challenge Program Director Nishiyama then faced wasn’t simply to nurture “made in Kinosaki” work that put the town on the national and world map — but to justify the center’s focus on production, rather than presenting works for residents to enjoy.

“We’re asking all artists to create some projects that involve participation with local people during their stay,” Nishiyama explained, who is clearly proactive in this regard. “But sometimes it even seems difficult for artists to understand the mission of this institution,” she conceded, “so I believe it will take time to share that among them, residents and tourists.”

As part of that sharing process, KIAC will organize meetings, symposia and other networking events — with the first such activity being this month’s Japan Playwrights’ Association Congress 2014, with speakers including the leading actors Keiko Takeshita and Takuro Tatsumi and acclaimed playwright and director Eri Watanabe.

So is Kinosaki the right choice for an artist-in-residence center in Japan? Well, in his short story “Kinosaki ni te” (“At Kinosaki”), the writer Naoya Shiga (1883-1971) wrote: “I would be sunk in thought as I followed the blue little stream up that lonely mountain valley in the evening chill.”

If, as those lines suggest, thought and play intertwine in Kinosaki, then perhaps an old world infused with the artistically new will be a rich source of 21st-century performance.

Cover photo: Kinosaki International Arts Center. | Madoka Nishiyama.

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