Interview with Japanese stage artist Nanako Nakajima: The meaning of real

Nora Amin, Tuesday 15 Sep 2020

While participating remotely in the Cairo Experimental Theatre Festival, Nanako Nakajima talks about her complex and multifaceted practice


Dancer, dramaturge and Kyoto University of the Arts teacher Nanako Nakajima was one of the earliest artists to make the transition from traditional Japanese to contemporary dance theatre, extending her work outside Japan, notably to Germany. She presents a model of cultural and temporal as well as geographic border crossing. The former Valeska-Gert guest professor at the Free university of Berlin tells us it is time to ask what “real” means to us while facing the consequences of Covid-19 for the performing arts worldwide. Her project Dance Archive Box is as valid and global an example of how to extend or transform the life of a given performance while preserving its memory as any. Inspiring for the performing arts scene in the Arab region, this is an experiment in how a performance can change while holding onto the memory of its own transformations.

“My professional background has taken two different directions,” she told me: “research, and dance dramaturgy. I do research during the creative process of performances. Those two fields create balance in my practice as I need each to complement the other, the creative ideas and dramaturgical input along with theory. So somehow theory and practice combine create my work. In 2004, exactly 16 years ago, I started working as a dramaturg in New York. But years before embarking on that experience, I was trained in the traditional Japanese dance of Odori, which is close to Kabuki and Geisha dancing. We use kimonos and music played on traditional instruments dating back to 1700. It has become a small community. We share the same repertoire with Kabuki. Odori is the dance part of those stage traditions.

“I belong to the Fujima Dance School where I started dancing at the age of three, so it’s been 40 years now. This is quite an unusual background for a contemporary artists, but traditional dancers almost never work outside the country. Then again, I am interested in contemporary dance and European conceptual art. I have also studied theatrical performance and dance studies in the United States, Germany and Japan. As an academic researcher, I am now teaching dance studies at various universities in Japan, alongside my artistic career. I am very interested in linking my research topics to the dramaturgy and research of the production I am involved in as an artist.”

As for Dance Archive Box, which she produced while a Valeska-Gert guest professor at the Free university of Berlin in 2019-2020, “I had suggested a few possible projects to the university, so that one of them could function as a topic and vehicle for my guest professorship. We decided that it should be Dance Archive Box. Initially this project started in 2013. The first part was launched in 2014 in Tokyo. At the time I had two more people on the team as facilitators: the Japanese critic Daisuke Muto, and the Singaporean theatre director Ong Keng Sen. The people at the Saison Foundation (initially named after the department store) had established several artistic and cultural projects, such as museums and theatres, and they allocated funding to contemporary dance as well. The foundation wanted to make its own archive and to support dance artists producing ephemeral works. So it was decided to create the new archive project so that dance too could be archived, and so that the archives could also be used for future creations.

“I worked with seven dance artists in Japan to create the archive boxes. We designed as a process including a week of seminars and two weeks of workshops. Each artist archived his or her own seminal works. The artists created seven boxes exploring how they could be used by other people. They made their own stye of archiving. Some launched websites, others created an archive on paper. In 2015 we shipped all the archive boxes to Singapore, where a workshop was held for Asian artists to create a performance. A few months later we got together and presented the response performance in connection to each of the archive boxes.

“Ong Keng Sen, the Singaporean director on the team, was in charge of the 50th celebration of the independence of Singapore, a project presented at the Singapore International Festival of Arts in a postcolonial context. The project should continue to go to other places, within Japan as well. In the 2016 festival TPAM (the Tokyo Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama), I presented some of the resulting performances and invited new traditional dancers to create responses to the archive boxes. In Berlin I brought the boxes outside the Asian context for the first time.”

Speaking of colonialism and empire, Nanako says she experienced a context in which North and South seemed to cooperate as peers, but she also experienced how the original dance archive was absorbed into the German academic format. “All the participants were students, not yet professional artists. The purpose was more for education, so the attitude tends to become more sincere and scholarly. Students in Germany are well informed about archiving and colonial/post-colonial contexts, and they know the dangers of using archive boxes that have come from other cultural contexts. But I noticed that the Japanese characteristics in dance are transformed into a German understanding of ‘Japanese cuteness’, like an infant playful element. Some Japanese critics say that this childish character is against modernisation as Westernisation in dance, or that it is anti-technique, because the dancers in Europe are mostly trained in ballet while the Japanese dancers are not, so they tend to be viewed as ‘not’ ideal from the perspective of western dance. This is already a criticism of the ideal dancing body that was brought to the student archivists while making the archive boxes. Which brings us back to the Japanese context again while meeting each other across the world.

“Traditional theatre and dance had already been introduced to Europe, like Kabuki and Noh, but not contemporary dance. Contemporary Japanese dance is somehow ignored by the European audience. In that sense, the archive box transmitted the knowledge of that dance community to Europe. The interesting thing is that contemporary dance in Japan – the way it is all the world – has no specific technique to rely on, which makes it the most difficult genre to archive. For instance, we only have new pieces, because we continuously produce new work, and we do not re-stage old pieces. We do not teach dance to students because there is no solid dance technique to teach, no dance school, nor families inheriting that type of  dance. All of which makes that genre difficult to archive and to share. To preserve something or to historicise it, we need to create archives, although sometimes the archiving freezes the creations.”

Nanako also edited an edition of the Performance Research Journal on ageing in dance, raising questions about the experimental potential of the ageing dancing body in Japan. “We have many aged dancers in Japan, and the people do not criticise that,” she says. “They can still go on stage at the age of 90. They can still act on stage, maybe with a little support, but most theatres appreciate those performers because they are guardians of the theatrical tradition. They share the repertoire and keep repeating the same piece over and over again. You keep repeating till you get to a point when you can perform in an almost unconscious way, which is considered to be the perfect stage for actors and dancers. The settings provide that, they are fixed on stage. This applies to theatre and dance that are mostly traditional, not modernised. There is no director, no choreographer, only actors and dancers who make their own work, which they can also change because it is their own. The most difficult repertoires are those performed by the oldest  performers, depicting the old beauty. Nonetheless, in contemporary dance theatres it is not common to see the ageing body on stage.”

Returning to the present moment, Nanako comments on technology’s potential: “In post-Corona crisis times, maybe there is a greater possibility to talk about technology as a way to care for ageing bodies and to support them, because old people constitute a vulnerable group. Therefore the issue of the ageing body gets a new dimension after this pandemic, and requires technical support. Perhaps online performances can be more real than those based on live physical encounter. I am asking whether virtuality reduces the feeling of ‘real’ or not. I feel we’ve already lived in a virtual space for some time, and we’ve already been experiencing the post-human lifestyle, yet we are still connected. Online performances offer freedom from physical restrictions. The style of communication has also totally transformed. I am thinking how to make contact with older people during a pandemic without physically meeting them. The Japanese state is also promoting a robot-inclusive society, in order to support old citizens. Now it seems as if this virtual care is more necessary than before. And so maybe it is also time to question what is reality? My own reality is no more actual than my dream. My reality is small compared to the virtual world where I can meet my old parents, or speak to anyone I wish to communicate with. It is a space for greater freedom.”

Might it be possible to collaborate with Arab artists, though? “Collaborations are determined primarily by individual artists, this is much more important than geographic origins. I am always curious about someone I want to work with. Afterwards comes the stage of producing the art project, and this is when we need to search for funding or residencies, or individual grants, or sponsorship. But first we need to decide we want to work together.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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