David’s 2002 Kyoto Journal

Kyoto Journals
In 2002, Headlong was selected to participate in the first US – Japan Exchange in Dance. Two Japanese artists, Takeshi Yazaki and Ko Murobushi, came to Philadelphia for two weeks and New York for two weeks. Then David and Andrew spent two weeks in Kyoto teaching, collaborating, and performing. We wrote these journals during the trip:

David’s 2002 Kyoto Journal

Sunday, May 26th

David here. Its been a week and I’ve begun to synthesize some of what we’ve been experiencing. First, I must say that the plane was brutal. A shock. I can’t believe that this is how it happens. And I am someone comfortable in discomfort. I have criss-crossed the United States in the stinky, boozy air of late night Greyhound buses with heavy strangers slumped on me while I inhaled their moist air; I have travelled a thousand miles in the back of an open pick-up truck in freezing rain and worse. No way I have travelled compares to the weird combination of numbing oppression and acute discomfort that NEVER ENDS in the belly of a trans-pacific jumbo jet. Like Andrew said, every one of the HUNDREDS of seats was full. I, too, cried during the film The Majestic (movies do not get worse), but I think my body was just trying to find out if it was still alive.

In a kind of existential zero-balancing, the horror of the flight was soon erased by the exquisite experience of staying in the traditional Japanese ryokan that is our home while we are here. Here is what I wrote after a couple or days here:

I am staying in a traditional ryokan that is at the top of a hillish mountain, surrounded by an enormous park full of exquisitely tended trees, flowers, brooks, ponds, gardens, ancient shrines and secret stone pathways. To get home, I pass out of the bustling Gion district into the tranquil, finely manipulated nature of Muruyama park. I hike through this beautiful dream where I cross small streams in a myriad different ways, from stepping stones and diaganally laid stone planks to tiny, polished, wooden beams. I pass turtles sunning themselves on each other and rocks jutting up from shallow ponds; the fragrant air is filled with the commanding caws of huge crows and the sudden tinny rattle of ritual bells clanging followed by two sharp claps. Finally, I arrive at the ryokan of tatami mats, sliding rice-paper doors, secret stone corridors, and green tea. I wash and then bathe in a traditional Japanese bath and then sleep on the floor on a futon-like stack of thin pallets piled high with fabrics and blankets and rest my head on a dense, straw pillow beneath gliding, paper-shuttered windows looking out to the raking, watery mountainside of stone, moss and trees. During the day, my room is a little like being at the bottom of a well: dark and muffled with thick, watery air as the diffuse sunlight filters in from the steep, sloping-up channel formed by the mountain side that cuts down to just below my window.

Some food observations:

Every place that we have had coffee has served excellent coffee. Coffee is always served with real creme, not even half and half. Creme. Excellent! Puts Kyoto right up there with Philly as a good coffee town.

Vegetarians eat well in Kyoto.Real well, and its not hard to find places to eat. A couple of days ago Andrew and I ate at a tofu place. We were given a huge slab of fresh, creamy tofu with exquisite little garnishes to eat with it. It was just right. Kyoto is known for its yuba which is a kind of creme from the making of soy milk. We had it raw and fried and it was just what geeky, veggies crave. Maybe our experience is akin to a meat lover finding an escargot-like dish prepared with salamanders instead of snails that tasted especially divine.

The dance artists:

Our students are wonderful. We specified that we wanted creators, i.e. choreographers and directors as well as dancers, and we have an incredible bunch of artists. They throw themselves into the work with fervor and precision. Quite a few of the students are Butoh artists. I am learning how profoundly Butoh opened up the doors to all kinds of non-traditional performance here in Japan. Like Cunningham, the Judson Church and the DIY (do-it yourself) movement all rolled into one. Happily we have all these hungry freakers who run like hell with everything we give them. And there is a real sense of community here, like Philadelphia, so the artists have various degrees of familiarity with each other and often have performed with each other. I think it contributes to a friendliness and intimacy that makes the work we do in class more playfully embodied. And, much to my surprize, people will do any old weird thing with their bodies, including touch and contact. They seem much less attached than many americans we have worked with, to having to manifest dancerly skill, even though many of them are clearly well trained technical dancers. Again, I am assuming the Butoh influence is at work here. It must be said however, that we have a special bunch of artists in our class. Obviously, the dominant paradyme for non-traditional dance, here in Japan is “Classic Modern”, Jazz and Ballet. The Japanese Contemporary Dance Network, our hosts here, is striving mightily to create a space in the culture for the more experimental, contemporary performance work that, by comparison, we take for granted in the U.S. There is certainly nothing like a Fringe festival here.The Japanese culture at large, from what I can gather, has no room for this kind of work. The structures for learning, practicing, presenting smaller-scale, locally generated work seem to be sparse to non-existent. And the artists aren’t funded at all. Every one who does this kind of work here is juggling crazy schedules, no sleep, and crazy commuting to do what they love. U.S. resources, meager as they often seem to American dance artists, seems massive to Japanese artists. Here in Kyoto there is JCDN struggling for a foothold. But there are no CECs, Painted Brides, Fringe Festivals, DTWs, Danspaces, PS. 122s, the Kitchen, the Knitting Factory, The Japan Society in NYC, etc, etc. And nothing like the small foundation funding and state support for local, emerging artists on up to larger foundation support we get in the United States. Although these resources in the U.S. seem small and are highly competed for, being here in Japan makes me reflect on the acute language of deprivation that surrounds all discussions of resources for dance back home. In Japan, the U.S. is a model for how to cultivate and support independent, experimental dance art.

Collaboration:

We have begun collaborating with Takeshi and Megumi! After 1 1/2 rehearsals we have come up with more material and ideas than we could possibly realize in the time we have left to rehearse. We’ll just have to come back to Kyoto or bring them over to the U.S. to truly finish this piece. Takeshi started us off with a knotty arm idea that has us grabbing and re-grabbing eachothers arms until we’re in a strange and beautiful quartet web. It reminds me a little of the section in “Gracelessness” where the women are gathered around Andrew and light touches turn into an entaglement of arms.Takeshi’s section has a distinctly Jackie Chan-like tempo and execution to it however. When we are working on it, the four of us always devolve into hilarious Hong Kong action flick chops and feints complete with expert sound effects.

Takeshi is one of the exchange artists in the this residency project and we had an instant connection with him when he came to Philadelphia in March. We met Megumi when Takeshi invited us, spur-of-the-moment to improvise with his company at a gallery opening here in Kyoto featuring photos of Takeshi’s company. She is one of his dancers and speaks english well. Nine of us were packed into a tiny corner of the gallery while we went for broke dancing. It was exhilarating. Composing elegantly in performance with dancers who you are laying eyes on for the first time is incredible. His dancers were all excellent improvisers. They were both structural and open in their dancing: alert to developing themes and ideas that appeared, composing the whole space as a group with a sustained sense of choreographic coherence; and they were idiosyncratic and fearless with their movement choices. Needless to say, we were in heaven.

Well, there is so much more to tell: the other things we tried out with Takeshi and Megumi; the mounting controversy about what exactly we are going to perform in the concert here at the end of the residency; and other cross-cultural exhilarations and confusions. But it’ll have to wait as I am off to observe a rehearsal of Takeshi’s company. Yay!

Tuesday, May 28

Now we are busy, busy, busy here in Kyoto. Its begun to feel like life in Philly: running from one rehearsal to a teaching thing to another appointment and so on. Yesterday we had a 6 hour rehearsal with Takeshi and Megumi, followed by a JCDN event called “The Possibilities of Dance”,where the exchange artists shared their residency activities and dance philosophies with the public.

I am loving the work on the new dance with Takeshi and Megumi. Playful and serious all at once. Even with the communication complications, specific ideas get tried out, re-worked, varied and tweaked. We all seem able to push any idea no matter who originated it. It feels very Headlong. Although, yesterday we were missing Amy and her ability to know when to put a stop to the endless experimenting with a single thing. After all, we are on a bit of a deadline here and need to perform this monster in a few short days!

To collaborate meaningfully — for a piece not to merely be a politelyarrived at jumble of ideas, or to be dumbed down to some kind of lowest common denominator between the collaborators — is a complex and difficult art. Strong vision and real investment in the ideas being worked on must be married with an ego-tempering sense of trust in the other artists; and good listening and imagining skills have to be deployed with complex communication abilities. Each collaborator must be a real leader, fearless in presenting and convincing others of the strength of their ideas, and at the same time an enthusiastic supporter of the other artists’ ideas. Of course it helps when you are delighted by the imaginings and beings of your partners! But I am stunned that we have found this in people we barely know, from a culture far, far away. But it truly seems that Takeshi’s and Megumi’s sensibility is very similar to our own.

We attended a rehearsal of Takeshi two days ago and watching him work with his lovely dancers (3 men and 2 women were there that day) was exciting. He seems to be interested in any performance technique that is right for the particular piece he is working on. Although his dancers are good technical dancers, there is no attempt to showcase the technique for the sake of technique as in so many modern choreographers’ work. The deep movement skills are deployed to generate and execute beautiful movement images that don’t neccesarily look like phrases of codified dance vocabularies. And yet, all the elements of phrasing, physical intelligence and control are there. For example, there was a section where four men are standing side by side with their arms hanging straight down. Very slowly their fingers begin to twitch and move slightly until they seem crawly and insect-like at the end of their arms. Then they begin to creep around on their own bodies, becoming more sentient and gropey. Soon they are groping each other, everywhere their arms can reach without moving their torsos. And then their arms are flailing amongst each other like dangerous blades that they begin to duck and ward off. Before you realize it, a full on melee with limbs flying, erupts among the disassociated and oddly helpless torsos of the men. Suddenly, with a crash they all freeze and one man lies crumpled on the floor with the others carved above him in an entwined and reaching tableau. A full-on, virtuosic movement event has occurred without a whisper of pre-digested technical dance vocabulary on display.

May 28 – June 3

Andrew and I have this basic vocabulary construction when we are in rehearsal and trying out new ideas. We’ll have barely begun to try something and then we’ll suddenly say “we could do it like this, or like this, or like this, and if we do it such and such way we could then do this or this. ” We’ll interrupt each other with a “hold that thought” and a few more “or” scenerios that involve alot of spatial gesticulating and body theatrics to indicate the possible choreographies, and the conversation will finally conclude with an “okay lets just try this one and go from there.” Usually after trying out one or two of the possible scenerios, the path becomes clear and we move on. I call this the “or, or, or…lets try it” approach. I think it can be pretty daunting to be around as we interrupt eachother and verbally change the course of a dance three or four times in a minute. In the beginning, with Takeshi and Megumi, we would remind ourselves to slow down and boil the “ors” down to a coulple of possibilities that we could present clearly to them. But in the last rehearsal, while all four of us were standing around talking about an ending that Megumi had proposed, I suddenly heard Takeshi say “or”. His one hand was floating in the air with his fingers splayed indicating where each of us were in space and then with his other hand he traced a second pattern in the air next to the first. And I realized that we had just gone around the circle with each person proposing variations on Megumi’s ending while someone else interrupted and elaborated with an additional “or” or two! Needless to say we immediately tried out one of the idea pathways with a shared sense of the other possibilities echoing all around us.

Speaking Japanese:

Saying something like, “hmmm, that would be okay” is like saying that would be awful. Saying, “thats interesting” is the same as saying that’s bad. I found this out when students in our class would finish a dance structure and I would say they made such and such choice and I thought that was interesting and their faces would invariably look sortof serious and disappointed.

I am on the plane home now and I am having the vague anxieties that I guess come with transcontinental dislocation. If I try to figure out what I am feeling anxious about, the best I can figure is that as Kyoto disappears so suddenly and thoroughly behind me, I begin to wonder if the last two weeks have been completely real. Will the things I have learned, the tremendously moving experiences I have had stay with me? It has seemed perfect, almost like a dream, doing fully, exactly what I love to do. We made a beautiful new dance with two incredible people who are now in my heart; we met a whole community of people and artists who were generous, intelligent and exciting to be around. What we had to offer in and out of our workshops seemed deeply appreciated which made us feel useful. That’s a special feeling: that what you have to offer is something that is hungrily taken, consumed as a need. The artists in our workshop were truly incredible, wonderful freakers making their own way in Japan in an art form that they could only be in out of sheer need to do exactly that. The pace of the days were perfect, long and busy, but surprizingly relaxed. This sense was no doubt aided by all the hours spent at the beautiful Kyoto Arts Center with its beautiful studios and a cafe serving endless runs of coffee and tuna-potato club sandwiches. After the second day in Kyoto, we were so busy that I didn’t do any sightseeing or shopping. So, on the last day I was rushing around with Megumi as my guide, dashing around Kyoto with many cell phone calls by Megumi to find out where this or that shop was. The most helpful calls were to Sada-san. He is the whiz-kid extraordinaire, who, in addition to making an exquisite hipster map of cool cafes, low-to-the-ground galleries and 2nd-hand clothing stores for us arty gaijing, dashed off an exquisite design for Headlong business cards which are absolutely neccessary to have in Japan.

“Arm’s Length” – the dance we made with Takeshi and Megumi:

There is this lovely section in “Arm’s Length” that occurs to a one-minute eltro song that repeats 3 times. First, Megumi dances a solo where she begins walking downstage straight towards the audience. Her arms delicately take flight and pull her torso in a swivel around to the side where she briefly begins going perpendicular to her forward path. Only briefly though: a limb pulls her body gently and all-of-a-sudden back to her forward-walking pathway. Now her body flickers to the other side and then, once again, resets forward. Finally, she abandons her path for good and walks off to her left where she passes a still Andrew who begins to follow her at arm’s length as she circles back upstage. As the music’s last meloncholy notes fade they come to rest at the place where Megumi’s solo began. The short song starts again for a second time and Megumi begins to go through the exact same motions she has just completed, only this time it is a duet where Andrew keeps almost catching up to her, almost touching her and continually falling away in the opposite direction from where Megumi’s body keeps tugging her. The duet ends with Andrew continuing to walk straight downstage, alone, as Megumi walks off to the left. They both begin to circle opposite sides of the stage as they head towards the upstage starting position for the third time. This time Megumi draws Takeshi and I into motion as she passes us: Takeshi follows behind Megumi while I begin to circle far downstage to end up directly opposite the three arriving together at the top of the stage as the song ends and begins again for a third time. Andrew and Megumi’s duet repeats exactly as it has before, the two of them continually missing each other in space and softly falling away from each other. Only this time as they drop and spin away from each other, Takeshi is glimpsed between them in the flashes of space seen between the swinging doors of the duet pulling away from each other and resetting again. Takeshi is alone in what is now a trio, dropping down to the floor and reaching up, sometimes reaching or waving towards the two figures moving faster and inexhorably away from him. This is my favorite moment in the whole piece as I am sitting very still downstage, back to the audience, hugging my knees watching them as they all move sighingly towards me, in and out of arm’s length of each other, dancing together and alone at once. At that moment I feel like it is a secret world that I am watching and I am its only witness.

I’ve been blown away by how sharp the dancers and choreographers in our workshop have been. Most of them seem to have had a clear sense of form, structure, and pattern. In the United States, we often spend a lot of time getting students to see, manipulate and compose space. In Japan we only had to nudge the class in the direction of considering space and they were quickly all over it. The same held true with variations and transformations of movement themes and qualities. And yet they were very fluid at generating and performing movement that wasn’t purely technical, but were rather more complexly expressive. But the expression came through a deep sense of form and structure. My naive speculation about this difference has to do with the manic way self-expression is stressed in the United States, an outgrowth of the national values of radical individualism. American artsits are often continually concerned with what they are feeling and the need to express their all important Selves. What amounts, in many cases, I think, to a fetishism of self. Americans are so obsessed with trying to express what they frame as a unique set of feelings with an identifiable energy and style that marks them as artists, that they don’t try to develop the formal and structural skills that give life to all that feeling. Its the form and structure which creates a bridge from that “feeling” to being understood by other people. Whereas (and this is rabid speculation), many of the Japanese dancers we were working with come at it from the other direction: they take form and technique for granted and perhaps are concerned with asserting, generally speaking, more of a unique self than has traditionally been embraced in Japan. But it happens in the context of inhibition about individual, Self expression. Japan, as many people told me this past two weeks, has had a tradition of a somewhat oppressive attitude towards any insistently unique expression. Artists are used to highly elaborated formal concerns that have long been established and approved. And this is where Butoh comes in as a radical door-opener and permission-giver. Butoh appears about fifty-five years ago, and on a movement level (I am not going to get into what it represents philosophically), it is characterized by incredibly unusual, idiosyncratic, bodily expressions. Signifying “ugliness” is acceptable. And it calls itself dance. The effect of that form on todays’ young dance artists, who aren’t soley identified with the classical Modern, ballet, and Jazz dance, I think is immeasurable, even when they don’t consider themselves making Butoh dance. These dance artists call what they do Contemporary Dance. Roughly equivelent to experimental modern or post-modern dance in the U.S. The Japanese dancers we met had no hang-ups about what movement should look like, even when they were incredibly trained technical dancers. And as I described earlier, when watching Takeshi’s rehearsal, many of our students were highly trained technitions although you would never see straight, technical, technique-class movement.

I feel like I have said so little about actual Kyoto: the tiny winding alleys crowded with oversized doll houses that turn out to be actual homes and businesses (truly, on these hidden streets there would be many a doorway that came no higher than my chest and I am not a tall man!); major stores that exist up winding stairwells on 2nd and 3rd stories; the funky, small-tired, sometimes folding bikes that are everywhere; the sense of hidden and obscured things and places in very open space that has nothing to do with my assumptions about public vs. private; insistently traditional spaces flooded with flourescent lights; combinations in people of being direct and indirect, of having shame and modesty, that do not fit into a western opposition of these values. I experienced a deep sense of a consciousness thats ticked to a setting on an entirely different compass than that of the West.

Anyway I feel that there is so much concrete stuff that I haven’t even begun to mention. But, thankfully, Andrew has detailed alot of the actual facts of our life in Kyoto, so I don’t have to! And here I must say how spectacular Andrew was in Kyoto. All the Japanese fell in love with him. They adored him for his authoritative lucidity: quickly picking up on the colloquial and informal japanese ways of talking (he picked up enough japanese quickly enough to be able to tease them about their pronounciation of his name, as well as make fun of his and other gaijing pronounciations), and for his incredible geniality, generosity and spactacular kareoke abilities. His english is so good! they said alot, getting at a kareoke value that has its own evaluative category: the ability to pronounce the english like the original singers of the songs. It didn’t seem to occur to people that, being english speakers, that was an ability that came naturally! Although, the value of that fact may have been belied by my own feeble attempts to sing kareoke, producing results that were not consistent with the original versions of the songs in any of the categories of melody, rythym, intonation, style, or perhaps even, legibility of recognizable english sounds!

Kyoto was amazing, a truly special experience that will be resonating with me for a long time, influencing how I think of the possibilities of dance in the world. For one thing I feel determined to work harder, to make better dances! Its impossible to be around talented, intelligent artists and not feel spurred on to create a higher level of work. What does that mean exactly? I am not sure right now but I have some inklings. I’ve been thinking about the unique ways that a choreographic sensibility organizes meaning; how dances allow for all kinds of registers of physical meaning to associate and cohere in ways that contain both specific, physical moments and meta-levels of general meanings, moods, flow and patterns. And I’ve been thinking about how this can be applied to physical performance that need not look like technical dance but relies on profound physical intelligence and virtuosity nontheless. True, these are things I’ve been thinking about for a long time, but somehow, seeing the post-butoh, hungry, fully physcial, virtuoso, wide open artists that we met in Kyoto has opened up my thinking even more along these lines. I feel less stuck in a dance-y-dance vs. theatrical and athletic physicality opposition in my own mind. I feel like many things were begun in Kyoto and I look forward to continuing them. Headlong must collaborate with Takeshi, Megumi and Arrow Dance Communication! I would love to explore the possibility of inviting a handful of the super talented Kyoto artists we met to come to Dance Theater Camp next year.