Performances at the sixth Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale

This article was originally published in the Japan Times newspaper on July 21 2015.

The sixth Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale is set to start July 26 in Tokamachi City and Tsunan Town in Niigata Prefecture, north-central Honshu.

Though this mountainous region is known for picturesque wintry snowscapes and lush green summer rice fields, it is beset with the socio-economic effects of an aging and falling population. Despite this, for ETAT’s 50-day duration it will come gloriously alive as people from all over Japan and beyond visit one of the nation’s — and indeed, the world’s — largest and most vibrant art festivals.

Bounded on the east by Japan’s longest river, the 367-km Shinano, which flows northward from the Alps to the Sea of Japan at Niigata City, the festival spreads across 760 sq. km of land. There, around 200 villages that are home to fewer than 70,000 residents in all will host 300 artists and performers from 40 countries — and nearly 500,000 “spectator-collaborators” (as attendees are known).

Fram Kitagawa, who has been general director of ETAT since Tokyo-based Art Front Gallery launched its first trial in 2000, has made a significant contribution to the development of the region through the arts, and since 2010 he has also been involved with the Setouchi Triennale art-led regeneration project spanning many small islands in western Japan.

Uniting both these initiatives is their determinedly site-specific ethos and their challenge to the dominant model of city-centered art festivals — as well as their strong and fast-growing connection with the performing arts.

Based on the idea that “humans are part of nature,” ETAT declares it aims to enlist arts as a catalyst for exchange between people and places, breaking barriers between the countryside and cities against the backdrop of rampant global capitalism, consumerism and environmental destruction.

This time’s ETAT theme — “Art is how people engage with nature and civilization” — extends the festival’s original concept in search of what Kitagawa described in a recent interview with the authors as, “an alternative ‘art’ for the 21st century; one that goes beyond existing definitions of art.”

He also explained why performing arts are now playing a key role in ETAT alongside artwork presentations and installations.

On one level, he said, the triennale emerged out of local summer festival performances tied to rituals such as ancient Shinto theatrical kagura dancing and the bon-odori dances performed during summer’s ancestor-venerating Buddhist festival of o-Bon.

On another level, Kitagawa said, “Performing-arts events in ETAT tend to be site-specific, embedded in natural and local environments, interactive and experiential in a tangible response to the participatory ethos of the festival.”

Before the 2015 triennale ends on Sept. 13, more than 200 performance-based events are scheduled, comprising commissioned and application-based works selected by Kitagawa and ranging from local community performances to works by national experimental theater companies including Sample, Nibroll and Yubiwa Hotel. As well, international offerings include works by Taiwan-based Lin Shuen Long, ones by the Australian street-performance company Snuff Puppets, and several international conferences and workshops.

ETAT is famed for incorporating abandoned buildings into the festival, and this time it features several newly renovated spaces.

Among these is the Kamigo Clove Theatre which is housed in a disused junior high school and now comprises artist-residence space, a stage and a restaurant. The venue will open on July 26 with an adaptation of “Hansel and Gretel” — subtitled “We’re Never Going to the Woods Again” — by the Tokyo-based Sample company led by playwright-director Shu Matsui.

In conversation with the authors, Matsui said his production transforms the Grimm Brothers’ 1812 fairytale about children abandoned by their parents into a “gloomy road-movie-cum-musical.” Hence, he said, he hopes to create a forest inside the venue, “a kind of Dantean circle of hell” in which the audience — like the famous siblings — will lose their bearings.

Then, on Aug. 15 and 16, Kamigo Clove Theatre will host the Nibroll troupe’s dance performance “Real Reality,” through which choreographer-director Mikuni Yanaihara has said she tries to make sense of the real in the context of a digital world in which “bodies” can be both extended and deleted in real time.

Meanwhile, Ookura Snow Shed will be the venue for the Sept. 5 and 6 premiere of “Heavenly Love III” by Tokyo’s all-female Yubiwa Hotel performance company led by Shirotama Hitsujiya.

In this piece created with 11 female students from the local Tsunan Secondary School, and set to be performed in a 500-meter-long former avalanche refuge, Yubiwa Hotel aim to connect with Japan of the Jomon Period (circa 10,500-300 B.C.), whose people’s rope-patterned pottery is often found in the locality.

Also referencing the Snow Shed’s surroundings, with its many wild deer, “Heavenly Love III” is intended as an immersive sensory experience bringing audiences into contact with the area’s rich temporal layers of human habitation.

Both Hitsujiya and Yanaihara are members of the Asia, Women and Performing Arts Collective founded in 2012 and inspired by the late dramatist Koharu Kisaragi. For the group’s inaugural project at ETAT, Hitsujiya will collaborate with Malaysian artist Minstrel Kuik Ching Chieh on a piece titled “Marriage in Asia” that draws on interviews with local residents on their experiences of mixed-race marriages.

In addition, on Aug. 8, Yanaihara and Hiroko Takai of the Tokyo Tanbarin drama group will lead a workshop and rehearsed reading of “Family,” a play by another Malaysian playwright, Leow Puay Tin. On the same day, an international conference titled “Asia, Women and Performing Arts” will be held to reflect on topics raised in the performances and workshop.

All in all, it’s wonderful to see this year’s festival continuing ETAT’s trend to feature more and more performing arts — with particular emphasis on site-specific explorations of places, peoples and histories in that beautiful, calming corner of bustling Japan. Try hard not to miss it.

Cover image: A scene from “Heavenly Love III,” which the all-female Tokyo-based Yubiwa Hotel company staged in Ookura Snow Shed, a former avalanche refuge, as one of more than 200 performance-based events scheduled for ETAT 2015.

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