The initial exchange introduced us to the amazing Takeshi Yazaki. He and his company, Arrow Dance Communication, were our long-lost siblings, closer to us spiritually and artistically than any company we’ve ever encountered. We put together a project with Arrow and spent six weeks in Kyoto at the end of 2003, creating You Are So Beautiful. These journals are from that extended residency:
Andrew’s 2003 Kyoto Journal
Saturday, December 7, Chicago O’Hare
The thing about missing planes is that you encounter the full gamut of customer service responses. It’s not a rationalized market.
1) The cheery, Texan stewardesses on our three-hour delayed flight to Chicago, grin and say “Think positive.” And I have this great feeling… “you’re going to make that flight!” And “What is modern dance? That sounds so neat.”
2) The American Airlines telephone operator, reached on Christy’s cell phone as we agonizingly sit on the tarmac in Chicago waiting for a gate, offers a flight to Tokyo three days from now, refuses to connect her with a manager, yells, then hangs up on her.
3) The harried check-in clerk who, informed by me that there was another Tokyo flight leaving in ten minutes, first denies its existence, then says it’s with another airline, then says it’s with a partner airline but it’s full, then runs after me screaming “Even if it’s not full, you’ll never make it in time.” Think positive.
4) The eternally helpful Trish Kelly who, reached by cell phone, locates 6 beautiful seats from Dallas to Tokyo.
5) The heavenly midwestern Kolleen, mother of three boys, corrals her big-haired friend and they devote 25 solid minutes to confirming seats on a flight tomorrow from Dallas to Tokyo, getting an early flight to Dallas today, offering hotel discounts, rerouting our baggage, and booking all seven of us through with sweet phrases like “Let’s try to get you into Dallas early so you can get dinner and some rest.” And “Let’s make sure you get vegetarian meals.” And “Let me talk to my manager about getting you guys seats together.” And “If you talk vaguely about needing accommodation to the agents in Dallas, they’ll probably give a free hotel and dinner.” Like the high-functioning, well-connected grandma of your dreams, she saved us with way more action than talk.
I found the booth promoting tiny Sony gadgets (laptops the size of sandwiches, cameras the size of film canisters), sent a few warning emails to Japan about our 24-hour delay, grabbed a goat cheese and black bean burrito (hell, yeah), and waited at the sunny gate to fly to Dallas.
We will get to Japan, only a day late, in time to salvage our Tokyo performance.
Sunday, December 7, DFW International
We spent a oddly restorative night at the Holiday Inn Select at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. The hotel was a shocking den of corruption and Soviet-style bureaucracy. The restaurant was closed, BUT the bar served food, BUT children aren’t allowed in the bar BUT you can get food to go BUT if you want to eat in the lounge you have to order from the snack bar waitress BUT she has no idea how to take you order BUT she is happily insists on $80 of airline food vouchers for our $57 bill and another $30 cash for tip. The airport shuttle driver tries to coax a bribe out of me for asking for a 7:30 shuttle before confessing that they have to take us whenever we want. A cashier hands Christy far too little change when she buys a Coke, acts like she doesn’t understand, then relents and gives her the difference. Still, we manage to get thoroughly rested and set off for Japan feeling dyn-o-mite.
Tuesday, December 9, 3 pm, on the bullet train to Kyoto.
We made them laugh. We pried an astounding number of chuckles and giggles from their stingy mouths. TAKE 3 was the only dance of the evening, entitled “Humor in Dance,” that received any laughter from the attentive, quiet-as-a-tomb audience. Our first piece of the evening, SWINGINGING, is a silent women’s trio, usually accompanied by a respectable chorus of gigglers. In Tokyo, the sound of a man unwrapping a piece off candy in the ninth minute was the only sound that penetrated the black, black silence. The showcase was intended, in part, as a sort of object lesson for Japan audiences: IT’S OK TO LAUGH AT A DANCE PERFORMANCE! Several Japanese friends assured afterwards that the audience members were laughing “in here,” as they gestured toward their rib cages.
So after a dreadful dress rehearsal (TAKE 3 was tense and brittle and not at all funny), I was resolved to browbeat the audience into laughing. My opening speech, which had collapsed into a scripted rush in the face of the Japanese translation, was the key. I faced the 200 Japanese rib cages, determined not to give up until they were with me. I looked each one in the eye. I explained that this dance was inspired by a painful relationship with my (fictional) ex girlfriend Kate. At the mention of the name “Kate,” I had them. They laughed, they loosened. They were with us. David stepped up and as soon as he turned his head toward the audience, they were chuckling away.
The evening concluded with a 30-minute dance by a Costa Rican company, distinguished by being perhaps the least funny dance I have ever seen. Long, slow posture changes by a duet seated in wooden chairs (chair dances are a universal language), accompanied by booming, pompous music, with long blackouts so they could move the chairs to a new part of the stage. An onstage costume change provided the obligatory almost-nudity (upstage, dimly lit), scant relief from this choreographic roofie.
Like the anti-drug articles that inadvertently teach the reader how to crush up and snort oxycontin, “Humor in Dance” seemed to convince its audience that supposedly funny dance is best met by funereal quiet. If you must laugh, do it “in here.”
Sato-san (head of Japan Contemporary Dance Network, our sponsor in Japan, and and a real cutie, with a boyish grin and sparkly eyes) professed himself “very happy” with our performance, the Japanese equivalent of rolling on the floor and barking with glee.
A side note: Japanese dance lighting differs from American lighting in several key ways. Things tend to be lit more starkly, with sharply outlined boxes of light on the floor. Where in America, we shape the body with a lot of side light, in Japan they shape the space with crisp corridors and down spots. There is less varied use of color. No stage manager calls the cues, the board operator just sort of learns the piece and does it on the fly, making the dress rehearsal rough, but the performance great. And they have these incredibly long telescoping aluminum poles so they can adjust lights that are hanging up high without climbing a ladder or a genie lift. They extend these massive poles, which bend under their own weight, and delicately change a shutter cut or an angle 30 feet overhead. It’s like cleaning someone’s ear with a 30-foot Qtip: impressive, but of dubious necessity.
After the performance, we had a celebratory dinner at a restaurant, small pre-ordered dishes crowding the table as we drank beer and chatted with the two Russian dancers whose dance had made us laugh quite a lot.
This morning we packed up and sent six of our suitcases ahead to Kyoto. Here’s the story: I packed terribly. I didn’t start until midnight (before leaving for the airport at 5:00 am). So I packed two big rolling suitcases, but they’re not really that full, and I could have simplified it. And one of the rolling suitcases has a broken handle, so rolling it is like herding a large autistic dog. The Japanese were quite visibly horrified by the quantity of luggage we arrived with, so I burn with shame every time me and my autistic dog crash and bumble in view of our hosts. They convinced us, quite reasonably, to send most of our luggage ahead to Kyoto. The tragic and telling fact is that the six of us can’t manage our own luggage without help. With the two kids to manage, there just aren’t enough free hands to carry our staggering TEN suitcases and SIX smaller bags. We arrive like entitled 19th-century imperialists, waiting for Sherpa porters to take up our trunks filled with oyster forks and backgammon tables.
So this morning, Marie Takamoto, who seems to run the city of Tokyo single-handedly, came and helped us ship out our luggage (one weighed in over 25 kilos, and had to be lightened to avoid the Slipped Disc Fee). Then we set off awkwardly for our Video Presentation at the Tokyo Performing Arts Market, Japan’s big presenter conference. Unfortunately, we arrived ten minutes late. But more unfortunately, there was no one there to attend the presentation. So the three companies – Headlong, the Russians, and the Costa Ricans — sat as the Japanese proceeded to feel absolutely awful around us. The sense that this was a loss of face – a nightmare for the Japanese — meant they all completely shut down emotionally and administratively. As our lovely and amazing interpreter Mineko said, we should have photographed each face as they entered the empty conference room. The complete collapse of everything they believe in, the shame, the unbelievable discomfort. No one could stay in the room, it was just too awful, so it remained literally empty, a cavernous embarrassment shrine. Various functionaries opened the door, crossed the threshold, then turned and fled as if they had just walked in on someone masturbating. Bill Bissell arrived, disappointed that the presentation was (seemingly) canceled. Finally two more attendees arrive (perhaps to attend the next presentation, but no matter), and at 10:25 we were hustled into the conference room and the Russians began by playing a relentless 20-minute tape of a butoh-like solo, the dancer reciting Shakespeare sonnets in Russian as she tossed an inflatable sex doll in the air. He fast-forwarded with great purpose, gravely announcing “Next section” as the tape showed a scene indistinguishable from the last. There remained about 15 minutes for the last two groups, and we happily let go of our prepared presentation: a brief company intro, some talk about BRITNEY’S INFERNO, a video clip, and an announcement of our Arrow collaboration and Hotel Pool. We just squeaked in under the ironclad 11:00 deadline, stepping out in the hall to stand around like awkward wallflowers, hoping a presenter will ask us to dance. They never do.
Wednesday, December 10, 10:30 pm,
Yoshimizu Ryokan, Kyoto
It seems we are forever destined to become enmeshed in the Japanese tangle of shame, disapproval, loss of face, and poor planning. We are constantly having a high-status Japanese lay out a series of problems and say “Please, discussion.” This usually involves sitting around a low table late at night wandering through tatamae (official stated position) in a vain search for honne (actual opinion). Our decision not to stay at the unheated hostel we were booked into is now legend in Kyoto. Just this morning I met a dancer from Condors (a Tokyo company famous for being big, loud, and entertaining) who had been in town for less than 24 hours, and had already had more than one conversation about Americajin departure from Air Kyoto hostel.
We fled to the magical serenity of Yoshimizu, a ryokan (traditional inn) at the top of Murayama Park. It is one of the most sensual, lovely places I have ever slept: tatami mat rooms, sliding screens, low tables, two beautiful baths. David and I stayed here last time we were in Kyoto and it made a huge impression on us. Spending two days here with Nichole and Christy was delightful. The nighttime walk up through the park is magical.
So Ritsuko-san from the Japan Contemporary Dance Network (our hosts) made a blizzard of cell phone calls and we found two singles at a sort of business hotel/apartment place, and a sort of two-bedroom (one real bedroom, one small changing room) apartment over Nishikidori, a market street much like the Italian Market in Philadelphia. After some elaborate “Please, discussion” among Headlong, we are all getting situated.
Thursday, December 11, 11:30 pm,
Apartment on Nishiki-dori
I am now a real resident of Kyoto. I have an apartment. I have a Japanese cell phone (the first cell phone of my life). I have a bike with a basket. AND I HAVE GODDAMNED SLIPPERS THAT FIT ME! Thanks to a diverting detour to the 100-yen store (at 115 yen to the dollar, it’s cheaper than the Dollar Store), I got myself a pair of black stretchy-terry slippers for less than a buck. Things in Japan, often more expensive than USA (we paid 16 bucks to copy two keys), are occasionally much cheaper.
Christy and I had a hilarious trip to the supermarket that included:
- Confusion about whether the “natural foods” section was a separate store with a separate checkout. Faced with this dilemma, we did what any fearful gaijin would do: we dropped all our natural foods and fled to the regular aisles.
- Apples the size of an 8-year-old’s head. And they are delicious. Our attempt to set out a fruit bowl at our new apartment was foiled by the relative size of Japanese bowls (small) and apples (huge). Our bowls fit precisely one apple, less a cornucopia than a Magritte.
- The which-sauce-is-it black hole. After several near disasters at Tokyo restaurants — Sato-san screaming in slow motion “No-o-o-o-o-o, eeeeeet’s nnnnnnnot soyyyyyy saaaaaaauce” as Amy grabbed the oyster sauce and tilted it toward her noodles — we were prepared for a sauce wipeout. Christy meticulously compared the English/kanji sign for “tamari” with the kanji on scores of bottles, and found some tamari.
- Scallions that are two and a half feet long.
- Self-bagging. True at most Japanese supermarkets. Cashier takes each item directly our of your basket, scans it, and places it in the basket left behind by the last person. You take that basket over to the bagging area, and your old basket becomes the transfer basket, and so on.
Sunday, December 14, 11 am, Red Rubber Ball Cafe
Laid-back french music (think Astrud Gilberto) plays as six Japanese cool cats and I sit drinking our coffee and the light-filled moderne Red Rubber Ball. The waitress speaks better English than anyone I have met here. She had “Rufus Wainwright” written on her hand in pen, showing that hipsterism is a truly universal language. Coffee here is $4.50, no refills (
never in Japan), but worth it for the warm smooth vibe. As the saucers read: “My favority pastime is spent the eating and drinking cafe.” Amen.
Last night a rather elaborate journey to a town outside of Osaka to a see a dance performance by a famous duo. (Apologies– I could understand the names after repeated attempts.) The piece began the “turn off cell phones” announcement (for the first time in my life, I had a cell phone to turn off; I have accepted the mark of the beast.)
(A slight divergence: cell phones in Japan are now offering two Orwellian services coming soon to a handbag near you: television reception, and position locator. You can now watch TV ALL THE TIME with certain Japanese phones. Eliminate those annoying moments between TVs, erase the last few remaining times of reflection: the train ride, the wait for a bus, the elevator. And you can find out the location of the person you are talking to. By triangulating cells, your phone can tell you approximately where your child, husband, political dissident is. The Devil will come dressed in a shroud of convenience.)
After the cell phone announcement, there was an INCREDIBLY long silence as the house lights stayed up and nothing happened. For a solid eight minutes, we sat there and NO ONE MADE A SOUND. It was an excruciatingly beautiful Japan moment: having been told the piece was about to begin, we would have sat motionless and silent forever. In Haruki Murakami’s “Underground,” his compilation of interviews with survivors of the Aum Shinrikyo nerve gas attacks on Tokyo subways, he recounts chilling stories of functionaries and salarymen going about their business even as their vision blurred, they lost control of their limbs, and they vomited uncontrollably. They simply could not be budged from the rutted grooves of their everyday road.
The dance was of a genre I adore, but its particulars lacked build and flow. Two dancers overtaken by gestural worlds and movement states, a charming, if predictable, interlude with hundreds of ping pong balls, and intrusive, boisterous music choices: marching bands, classical choirs. It was dynamically quite flat with more than one false ending, and though events occasionally recombined with a subtle puzzle logic, very little coherence or development.
We saw our friend Maho Semiji there — choreographer who took our workshops here last year — who bowed VERY deeply and offered an amazingly formal greeting in English, something like, “I am saddened by the long absence of Headlong Dance Theater director, and honor his return.” No high five, no “Wassup?” What’s a gaijin have to do to get a hug around here?
Monday, December 15, 6 pm, Red Rubber Ball Cafe
Just me now in the hipster cafe. A hilarious Sly and the Family Stone cover, delivered flatly in slightly accented English.
We have finished our first week of Arrowhead. This morning, Takeshi, Megumi, and I met to discuss the overall theme/concept for the piece. The general feeling in the group has been toward a more open, slightly abstract idea, nothing too narrative.
(A brief digression: the coffee here is so strong and good. In America, I start each day with a big old cappuccino, and the standard coffee here has been just as satisfying: dark, flavorful, and served with a tiny creamer full of heavy cream. Coffeehouse culture is really taking off here, sadly evidenced by the proliferation of Starbucks and Tully’s — an obvious Starbucks ripoff. When I told Megumi that I kept hearing the same samba music in different cafes, she said that there are certain CD sets for coffee houses that all the cafes buy.)
So we are working in a far more open way than Headlong usually does, which is exciting. Takeshi wants eight chairs or stools or cushions, and the dancers never to leave stage (all costume changes at the chairs). So that will be our spatial organization: shifting constellations of seats and bodies defining different spaces. And then a general them of “lining up:” divide, compare, (mis)translate, merge. That is how I wrote it in the meeting. This comes largely out of the material we have already generated. I estimate we have created about two hours of rough material so far; much will be discarded, some developed further, but all will contribute to our shared process.
Tomorrow we have a day off to think some things over and relax. Then I think the process may get a bit more focused: refining existing material and generating specific new ideas. We will probably divide up sections and rehearse two things at once a lot. We have four main directors, but really everyone is a choreographer, so our flexibility is immense. We have access to Takeshi’s sound designer, who can find, create, and mix music as needed. And we will play around with making some short video sections, cutting them if they don’t feel integrated.
I must stress the amazing connection we have with Arrow. When we dance together, there are amazing synergies of formal movement choices, character, relationship, and attention. I have never seen Headlong integrate so seamlessly with another group of artists. They are so like us, and yet they challenge and stretch our dancing, our process. After all the travel, the language barriers, and the cultural differences of coming to Japan, there is this immediate wordless connection when we dance together. This kinesthetic art form, so often a burden we carry in a language-centric world, is a magical space for connection, boldness, and humor across our cultural divide. I would work with these dancers all the time if I could. And it is immensely gratifying to find artists that share our questions, our impulses. We are not alone.
Both Christy and Nichole have made great strides in acquiring Japanese dance language, so warmups are peppered with “Ashi yubi” (toes) reaching, “Me sen hidari (look to the left),” and “Shinkokyu (deep breath).”
(OK, now some French woman is singing a samba version of “Day By Day.” That’s a first.)
I find real joy in trying to live Japanese. Putting away my futon and bedding each morning, changing into slippers for the 8-foot walk from the dirty shoes area to my bedroom, then kicking them off and walking sock-footed onto the tatami-mat floors. Riding my granny bike down one-way streets choked with pedestrians, tiny cars, and motorbikes. Eating noodles for breakfast. Buying just enough food for a couple days to fit in our lunch-box sized refrigerator. Taking cell phone calls as I sip my coffee. Eating miniscule cups of ice cream (about a quarter of an American scoop). Bowing. Giving constant sounds of assent while another is talking. Saying “Maybe, I think it’s good, yes? What you thinking?” Taking up as little space as possible at all times.
The Japanese have ingenious, often frugal, sometimes wasteful ideas about heat. Many spaces are unheated: hallways, entryways, toilets. And heaters are only turned on when people are in the room, so there is always a long warming up period in the studio. In this cafe, there are heaters on, but the door is wide open. All of us patrons have blankets over our laps. In many restaurants, there are space heaters underneath the sunken tables, creating a warmer space around your legs, an echo of the home tradition of a heater underneath your low dining table, and a sort blanket skirt surrounding it, so that when you kneel, your legs are in the warm under-space, and you don’t heat the room. Hot towels at restaurants provide an initial moment of warmth when coming in from the cold. Some bicycles have built in glove sleeves on the handlebars. I saw a front-mounted baby seat with a plastic windscreen shell enveloping a two-year-old, a toddler in a plastic bubble. Very few Japanese wear hats, and almost no one wears the knit ski-caps we all sport. Many schoolgirl uniforms have short skirts and no tights, exposing a lot of skin to the cold, often accessorized with 80s-vintage white leg warmers bunched around the ankles. Though it may provide a modicum of warmth, it seems more connected to the schoolgirl fetish than to their comfort.
Well, I’ve moved on to beer (birru), a seamless transition in this land of unregulated liquor. And the cell phone calls keep coming (from Takeshi, David, and Nichole). Now if I could only get TV on this damn phone…