This article was originally published in the Japan Times Newspaper on October 21, 2017.
At a certain level, the act of resettling overseas unsettles the idea of home itself. It ruptures the narrative of belonging that we construct through attachments to people and places. For the immigrant, home is no longer an immutable fact, but a space between memory and desire — always elsewhere. This sense of estrangement is perhaps most strongly felt when returning “home” after a long period of leave. As Czech novelist Milan Kundera once put it, going back reveals “the substantial strangeness of the world and of existence.”
Yumi Umiumare (who goes by her stage name), a butoh dancer and performance artist based in Melbourne, Australia, describes this experience as “cultural disorientation.”
“A lot of my work reflects on cultural disorientation; I also try to provoke questions about cultural stereotypes in Japan and Australia,” the 51-year-old says.
Her work uses the disruptive potential of disorientation to challenge the barriers that form in discourses on cultural difference — between nation states, or within the communities she traverses.
Disorientation is also part of Umiumare’s trajectory as a dancer, particularly her transition from ballet to butoh.
Having trained in ballet throughout her teenage years in her native town of Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, she went on to pursue a degree in physical education at Kobe University, where she earned teaching diplomas in Japanese language and physical education. Instead of pursuing a career in teaching, however, she opted for a job in corporate advertising at Recruit Co. in Tokyo, a move she recalls as a period of productive struggle.
While trying to keep up with the demands of company life, she continued to attend dance and theater workshops, immersing herself in Tokyo’s thriving performance scene. Thus came her first encounter with butoh — through the famous company, Dairakudakan (Great Camel Ship), whose workshops left an indelible mark.
“Coming from the ballet world, butoh was beyond my comprehension at first. The dancers would suddenly explode with energy on stage, rolling their eyes with saliva dripping from their mouths,” she recalls. “‘What the hell is going on?’ I thought. It was liberating for me, but frightening at the same time.”
Launched in 1972 by Akaji Maro, a former student of butoh pioneer Tatsumi Hijikata, Dairakudakan mixes the intense corporeality of early butoh — staging the body as a canvas to harness the monstrous, absurd and comedic dimensions of human life — with bold visual spectacle, and social and political satire.
Umiumare joined Dairakudakan in 1989 and traveled around Japan with the company. In 1991, when the company was planning a tour in Australia, Umiumare went to Maro to ask if she could join the tour. She was accepted on the basis that she would leave her corporate job. So she did.
The 10-day production run in Melbourne marked the beginning of Umiumare’s life-long relationship with Australia. A partner she met during the tour helped her organize performances there and aided her in obtaining permanent residency. In 1993, she settled in St. Kilda, a suburb of Melbourne known at the time for its grunge subculture and artistic community.
“It was a very hip place, there were a lot of artists walking around the streets. It had a very free feeling. I was attracted to that freedom,” she says of the neighborhood. She also appreciated that “everyone (in the area) would give me feedback and tell me what they thought (about my work).”
Over the next decade, Umiumare produced a body of work in response to her experience of migration, part of which was a four-play series called the “DasSHOKU Project.” “Dasshoku” means bleach in Japanese, but is also a pun on the German word for shock. The series took the form of a cross-cultural cabaret merging elements of butoh and burlesque in a playful and provocative examination of Japanese cultural stereotypes.
“Butoh and cabaret may seem like total opposites, but they are actually very close in the sense that they explore darkness moving toward light; and they are both able to find humor and satire even in the deepest states of despair,” Umiumare says.
In the first installment, “Tokyo Das-SHOKU Girl” (1999), Umiumare played a “very conservative Japanese girl” who suddenly changes into a “crazy blonde” and starts dancing.
“The point of DasSHOKU was to bleach off stereotypes,” she says. One such stereotype was the ganguro girl — young women known for their dark tans, bleached hair, heavy makeup and clashing clothes.
The series’ second installment “Das-SHOKU Hora!!” — a play on the Japanese term hora (“hey, look”) and horror — presented an improbable gathering of characters: a yamanba (a mythical mountain witch), a ganguro girl, a salaryman and a mad scientist. The scientist tries to cure the girl of her “cuteness” and redeem her from the fleeting world of appearances. The play’s stark juxtapositions — fusing the comedy of cabaret with the twisted darkness of butoh — exposed the superficial spectacle of commodity cultures.
The most recent iteration of the project, titled “DasSHOKU Shake!,” was performed at the Melbourne Fringe Festival in 2012. Working with members from the Osaka-based comedy troupe Theatre Group Gumbo and four Australian performers, the production explored experiences of “shakes, shaking and being shaken” in response to the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.
Once again, the butoh cabaret style opened the tragi-comical dimensions of the subject matter allowing the cast to move between scenes of handshakes, milkshakes and bodily rattles to shaken identities, and being shaken out of daily routines. The play questioned the ways in which catastrophe shakes the human psyche: “Does devastation transform us, cleanse us or bleach us?”
There is a strong sense of the comic at play in Umiumare’s work, including her prolific use of puns, but always as a means of accessing the traumatic core of human experience. This is deeply connected to butoh’s emphasis on the body over language and on being present in performance. Initially, butoh was a way of returning “home” in postwar Japan. Not a return to the past, but a bridge to the future. This social dimension is very present in Umiumare’s recent work, particularly in her collaborations with different minority groups in Australia, from aboriginal communities to women in the sex industry.
After 25 years of living in Australia, Umiumare’s sense of cultural disorientation may be minimal, but her sensitivity to the estrangement of others is stronger than ever. Where does she “belong”?
“It may sound like a cliche, but I think I belong in myself,” she says. “So, wherever I go, I have to belong in me and I have to remind myself of that. Because in moving between places, I am always adapting. At the end of the day, I have to be back within myself, which is made up of the many cultural layers and colors that I have picked up over time.”
Cover image: Yumi Umiumare in “DasShoku Shake!” in 2012. Copyright Vikk Shayne.