Yumiko Yoshioka

DanceWatch Weekly: My vacation to Japan

You can go to Japan, or you can go to Butoh College here at home and catch Stephen Petronio, too

I have just returned from a week in Japan, and I am in an elated, exhausted, jet lagged, watery, impermanent state of being neither here nor there. My mind is still navigating Japan, but I am physically back in the beautiful, blossoming spring of Portland.

In Japan it’s also spring, and everywhere you look there are cherry trees in full bloom with cascading pink flowers and countless people posing for photos under them. This past weekend in Arashiyama, a district on the outskirts of Kyoto, spring appreciations/celebrations were in full swing. The Hozu River, which runs from the mountains down into Kyoto, is lined with cherry trees. Large families with young girls dressed in colorful kimonos were strolling in the warm air along the banks, taking pictures under the trees, shopping, eating ice cream, and socializing into the wee hours of the evening. It was idyllic.

I don’t think I have ever experienced, appreciated, or even noticed spring in quite this way before. The slowed down pace, the appreciation of the trees, of nature, of seasons, the color of the blossoms, the attention to family and tradition; it was all so beautiful and put me in a gooey, honey-like, euphoric state.

In Tokyo I was extremely lucky to get a last-minute ticket to see a tea ceremony, dance, and music performance by Kyoto’s renowned Geiko/Geisha and Maiko (Geisha in training) called Miyako Odori, a spring dance performance that has been performed annually since 1872. The geisha are consummate performers and hostesses who dedicate their lives to perfecting the performing arts. Becoming a geisha was the first respectable profession for women in Japan and should never be confused with prostitution.

Miyako Odori. Photo courtesy of Goin’ Japanesque!

The hour-long performance was a compilation of six dances celebrating Japan’s seasons while introducing us to famous places and beautiful locations throughout Kyoto—like the mountains, streams, and temples. There were 60 performers in all, live music and singing, lavishly designed sets and lighting, and gorgeous colorful silk kimonos for days. The movements were delicate, graceful, exacting, with not a finger out of place. The experience made me fall in love with ritual all over again and understand its importance in daily life.

In contrast to this elaborate classical experience was a Butoh class I took in Kyoto with choreographer Ima Tenko. Tenko directs her own, three-person company called Butoh Company Kiraza and was a member of Byakkosha, an acclaimed Butoh company that ran for 14 years and broke up in 1994. Tenko’s company performs every Thursday to a small audience of eight or nine; sadly I was not able to see them perform. But, I did take class with her in her studio that she rents in a Korean section of Kyoto that used to be mens’ garment factory before the war. Referring to time periods in relation to the war is common in Japan. Posted on the inside of the door to her studio is a poster of ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, performing The Rite of Spring.

Butoh dancer Ima Tenko performing Hisoku. Photo courtesy of Ima Tenko.

Even though she and I had language barrier issues, I still felt like I fully understood what she was saying. Movement speaks volumes, you know. It was almost like I could hear her speaking in English in my head even though she wasn’t. I found that her warm up exercises were familiar as they were based on modern and postmodern dance, and her themes of humans in nature are universal. We even did a sumo exercise, practiced the Butoh walks, which are based in Noh Theatre, and on the way Japanese people walk, and we scrunched up our faces and shuffled around like bent old ladies at the end of class to fully understand the experience of authentic movement embodiment.

I thought as a Westerner that going to Japan to take Butoh would be a completely unfamiliar experience, but it wasn’t. Even though I live 5,000 miles away, and I am not a regular Butoh practitioner, I still felt a connection with Tenko’s movement history because of the modern dance lineages that we are both tied into from our training that connect us all world wide. It was pretty cool.

And with that I offer you this week’s performances, some of which are Butoh based.

Continues…