Premonitions from the Past / Hauntings from the Future / Performance Experiments in Kyoto

Paper given online at the International Federation for Theatre Research Conference, Galway, July 16 2021.


Kyoto’s annual international performing arts festival, Kyoto Experiment (KEX), marked its tenth anniversary in October 2019 and with it the end of a decade-long run for festival founder and director Yusuke Hashimoto. The 2020 edition of the festival, led by a new team of three directors, was postponed until February 2021 due to COVID-19. The trio chose to frame their first festival by returning to the core theme of the event: “experiment”.

From the outset, KEX seemed like an improbable proposition for a city often viewed in Japan as culturally conservative. How to produce provocative work on a sustained collaborative basis? How to nurture a new regional audience for contemporary performance? How to meet the persistent demand for “newness” from the festival’s funding bodies, including the Ministry of Culture? And with all this, how to keep the whole organization “experimental”?

Part of the answer, as far as Hashimoto’s tenure as director is concerned, can be seen in the choice of themes for KEX 2019 – “Échos-monde: The Age of Ecology.”

The term échos-monde is taken from Édouard Glissant’s concept of mondialité. It is an approach to culture as something relational, plural, non-hierarchical, and chaotic in practice. Mondialité is a critique of the legacy of Western imperialism and what Glissant saw as its historic negation of cultural difference. It can also be read as the desire to resist the totalizing effects of globalization in the 21st century.

In combining Glissant with the global ecological emergency, Hashimoto was reasserting his belief in performance practice as a space-time for non-hierarchical and relational interchange in which experimentation is the production of a type of “newness” that is totally heterogeneous to the “newness” that circulates in the global marketplace, and through which new languages of performance might emerge – not (predominantly) reliant on western cultural tradition.

In 2021, the new chapter of KEX returns to the starting point by asking what an experiment in performance might be? What does it mean to experiment during a global pandemic, within a global ecological emergency, and against the backdrop of a global far-right political current?

Drawing on fragments from a decade of KEX, with particular attention to the 2019 program and works including Choy Ka Fai’s “Unbearable Darkness,” Chelfitsch’s “Eraser Mountain,” and Niwa Gekidan Penino’s “Octopus Monks: Ritual of Forgetting”, but also with an eye on KEX’s new direction in 2021, this paper examines the intersection between place, time, people and environment in the context of Kyoto Experiment’s eleven year history. 

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