This article was originally published in the Japan Times newspaper on Sept 24 2014.
Kyoto Experiment, the city’s monthlong international performing-arts festival that debuted in 2010 and has been growing in popularity in the vanguard of contemporary performance every year since, is now set to embark on its fifth and most radical edition.
The ongoing success of this publicly funded event owes a lot to its mission to support artists in the development of fearless cross-disciplinary pieces, often over several years. Furthermore, a willingness to showcase overseas work, especially by lesser-known artists, has also helped to boost its buzz factor, and its attendances — which last year topped 20,000 to double that of the first year.
In addition, the festival’s artistic energy has helped to nurture a sizable year-round audience for experimental work in a city known more for tradition than the avant-garde.
With success, though, has come a dilemma: How long can an experiment remain an experiment before its risk-taking and groundbreaking expression become routine?
For this fifth iteration of Kyoto Experiment, running Sept. 27-Oct. 19, Program Director Yusuke Hashimoto is asking audiences and artists alike to rethink the fundamentals of theater — so much so that he devoted his two-page program note to self-critical questions about the festival’s direction, such as “Who decides when a show begins? Who controls what the audience sees? And who determines the value of theater?”
Clearly, Hashimoto wants to shake up the festival this year by empowering audiences through such measures as the abolition of reserved seating, with doors opening “almost exactly at the start of the performance.” In a similar egalitarian vein, he’s also encouraged seating/viewing arrangements that allow the same experience regardless of place — and “ticket prices set on a per-venue basis” rather than depending on a seat’s position. In short, as he put it, he wants “the act of viewing art to bid farewell to the act of consumption.”
Of the 11 shows in the main program, seven are from Japan, including four new works, and four from overseas — the United States, Colombia, Germany and France.
Kicking off proceedings will be the Japan premiere of “House of Dance,” a play written and directed by award-winning thirtysomething Tina Satter for her Brooklyn, New York-based company Half Straddle. This work of what’s been termed “heightened reality” that’s co-produced with the New York City Players follows the eccentric and often pathetic lives of four tap dancers stuck in American suburbia. The cast shuffles and twists between gender roles, shifting effortlessly through song, dance and black humor in a show that borders on the absurd, while offering a fresh take on the politics of identity.
Also in his 30s is Bueno Aires-based Colombian choreographer Luis Garay, who has two works in the festival. The first, “Manieres,” is a solo piece he created for performer Florencia Vecino, who is accompanied by a live DJ (Mauro Panzillo) as she pushes her body to the limits of physical expression in terms of time, rhythm and form. The second piece, “Mental Activity,” finds four performers on an object-filled stage exploring Garay’s notion that “science is pure poetry and, on the contrary, ritual is quite materialistic.”
In “Twerk,” choreographed by French and Argentinian artists Francois Chaignaud and Cecilia Bengolea, respectively, audiences are transported to a booming nightclub presided over by London grime-music DJs Elijah and Skilliam, where five performers channel the deafening beats through their bodies to produce a visceral, sexually charged show that challenges social norms.
In contrast, returning to Kyoto Experiment after their success last year with “Drawers” will be the all-female German-based performance collective, She She Pop. This time they will premiere their version of Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 masterpiece “The Rite of Spring,” in which they explore ideas of self-sacrifice in the family and society that grew out of a Kyoto Arts Center residency they were awarded last year.
From the home front, meanwhile, comes the culmination of Tadasu Takamine’s “Japan Syndrome,” a series of mixed-media works staged here over the last three years on the state of Japan in the wake of the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami and the ongoing nuclear aftermath.
In “Tsuaito Geba” (“Ghost Lines”), Kyoto-based documentary-film artist Takuya Murakawa plays with conventions of theater-making by enlisting a cast who will meet (if they turn up) for the first time on stage, having received letters he’s sent telling them how and when to get there, and then what to do.
Also countering convention, Kyoto-based Kinoshita-Kabuki will present their latest adaptation of a kabuki classic — this time Kawatake Shinshichi’s 1860 work “Sannin Kichisa Kuruwa no Hatsugai” (“The Three Kichisas, or the New Year’s First Visit to the Pleasure Quarters”), which tells a tale of three outlaws called Kichisa whose destinies collide in a complex unfolding of events.
Taking a less venerable bent, Contact Gonzo — a collective on the radical edge of performance — will use Kyoto Sanga F.C.’s stadium to explore connections between sports and performance in a piece titled “Xapaxnannan,” accompanied by the rock band Nisennenmondai.
If that’s not your thing, then the multi-discipline Osaka-based group Akumanoshirushi led by Noriyuki Kiguchi may hit the spot with “Mon Pere Giacometti” (“My Father Giacometti”). Starring Kiguchi and his own father, this play portrays a delusional painter with dementia who thinks he is the Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti (1901-66) — and who believes that his son is the Japanese philosopher and close friend of Giacometti’s, Isaku Yanaihara.
Finally, Kyoto-based Chiten will restage “Kein Licht (No Light)” based on a text by Austrian playwright Elfriede Jelinek, which they performed at Festival/Tokyo in 2012. This time, though, audiences will be able to check out the troupe’s new Under-throw studio in the north part of the city.
All in all, what unites this eclectic program is that each of its 11 productions challenges in its own way the conventions and promises of performance, both within specific traditions of theater and dance and also within each work’s own trajectory and borders. Set alongside Hashimoto’s additional challenge of rethinking spaces within the emerging institution that is Kyoto Experiment, this year’s event looks set to push so many envelopes as to present an appetizing prospect for anyone drawn to the virtually limitless horizons of the performing arts.
Cover photo: ‘Kein Licht’ from Kyoto-based Chiten. | © HISAKI MATSUMOTO