In the pursuit of ma

Issue #11: The Japan Issue

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A Diary from Japan, excerpts

“Time flows in the same way for all human beings; every human being flows through time in a different way.” 
― Yasunari Kawabata, Beauty and Sadness 



Time flows differently in all things Japanese.

In January/February 2019, I was the lucky recipient of a Saison Foundation Fellowship for Arts Managers. This is one of the very few artist-modelled residence opportunities offered to us, arts worker, non-artists. The Saison Foundation founder, Seiji Tsutsumi, owner of the Saison Group, established the foundation with his own funds in 1987. Behind the extraordinary philanthropist was a writer and poet known under the pen name Takashi Tsujii. The vision of the foundation was to reinvigorate the creative soil of Japan by opening it up to international cultural exchange in order to regain international perspective. Soft diplomacy before it became hype. True philanthropists before they became commodified.

My proposed project was to explore the ways in which Japanese tradition can be said to find expression within contemporary dance (and by implication within contemporary society) and more specifically, how cultural and artistic heritages are made relevant in the present though dance/choreography? What systems of narration, identification and imagination do they bring to contemporary dance practice, if any?

With the application, I was asked to write my vision. Not the curatorial vision I had for the organisation in which I worked, nor the artistic vision for this specific project, but simply, what I believed in.

It had been a long time since I was last asked this question. It has been a long time since I asked myself this question. This long-overdue exercise of introspection ended up being about time. Time and how insidiously it builds comfort zones of complacency; how selfishly and surreptitiously it does not make the invisible visible.

I knew this time in Japan would be about time. How it flows. How it holds.

And the interstices in-between.
This is a somewhat personal account of this time in Japan.


_ Morishita Studios

Tucked away in a quiet neighbourhood, these four studios are the beating heart of independent dance making in Tokyo. They can be accessed via the grants offered by the Saison Foundation, one of the very few existing. Private foundations such as Saison are the key players and investors in Japan – in the absence of a ‘proper’ ministry for the arts – and the festivals, grants, prizes and competitions they have created have shaped the landscape of contemporary dance in Japan in the last decade.

The studios are open early till late. They are rarely empty. Everyone works hard. I am thinking how important a place is to hold and unfold a practice, how important it is to invest in the mulch for the seed to grow. Dance needs a special space to emerge. Often. It makes it easier. This looks like a special place.

From my balcony, I see the artists leaving late in the night. This was most likely their second job of the day, being an artist is not easy here either. It has started to snow delicately. In the background, the next-door neighbour is parking his square car with millimetric adeptness, effortlessly, in a garage barely 2 inches larger than his car. It is a well-rehearsed choreography of precision. The silhouettes float away and the snowflakes bring balletic drama. All is quiet. I feel I am settling in.

_The neighbourhood

I explore the surrounds. Walk to the nearby Kiyosumi Garden. Splendid even in winter. The itinerary is a meandering through different styles of landscape arrangements, ponds and willows, tea house and one-legged cranes. I follow two elderly ladies adorned in lavish kimonos. I admire how expertly they navigate the pond stones as their kimonos only allow for minuscule steps.

They lead me to a plum tree on the cusp of blossoming where they remain silent and immobile. Cherry-blossoms are overrated. I think of Tanizaki praising the patience to hear a rock grow.  To feel the passage of time. Deborah Hay’s words resonate: What if every cell in your body at once has the potential to perceive time passing? Just before leaving, I had recorded a podcast with Deborah Hay.

“Will you risk leaving the path? The world flowers when you depart from the straight path because leaving it heightens your sense of just where it is. And, what if your choice to perceive and surrender beauty as life unfolds each and every moment, whether you are on the path, or off the path, is your only means of survival?”

Deborah Hay must have been Japanese in another life. I get lost on the way back. I roam the streets and do not worry. I am recompensated by a Melbourne hipster-style café. I’m thinking I should not fear going off the path.


Kabuki is the most exquisite (art)form of performed theatrical ritual.  It is my ritual. Each time I am in Tokyo, I go to see the kabuki show at the Kabukiza theatre. Time flows otherworldly in kabuki.

The time of kabuki is the ma – the space between two movements.  It plays the same role as a conjunction in writing. It is the unchoreographed unperformed pause for a movement to be able to exhale out the emotion it generates. Ma gives the space and time to the performer to not ‘mean’ anything in that particular moment and opens the possibility to be in full communion with the audience. As this is precisely the moment when the audience can grasp the invisible force of what is unfolding. Sometimes the ma can be quite long, as the performer focuses on its energy to reach all the way to the last row at the back of the theatre. This moment of stillness carries as much value as the sophisticated movement preceding and following. Such stillness does not imply nothingness, an absence of being but rather an un-being to the being. It is what some call an aesthetic of ‘incompleteness’, an invitation for us, the beholder, to complete, to interpret, to imagine, to intervene and finish what the dance has to say.

_About Kazuo Ohno

I have asked Takao Kawaguchi to record a podcast with me. Last time he was in Melbourne for the inaugural AsiaTopa festival, his famous About Kazuo Ohno sold out 2 months before its opening. Who would have predicted such an international success for this work which was a scandal at its Japanese premiere? For here he was, he who has never danced with Kazuo Ohno, not even a Butoh-ist, not even claiming to be part of that community, dancing (to perfection) the master’s greatest oeuvres. Some saw imposture. I saw atonement. This is not a classical Butoh exercise on delving into one’s of interiority, it is one of total self-erasure. This is about abdicating the self so that someone else’s corporeality can inhabit it to the bone. To the mind. It is not comfortable. Takao says the second he feels comfortable with some movement, it means it is not good.

The process is relentless. The work is never done.
I remember the conversation with Bojana Cvejic on self-performativity. This man is going at the very opposite, against the currents, to find not authenticity, but what is. It is not about you, it is what is within you, and around you and everything in between. This should be taught in schools.

It can’t be. It’s hard work. It’s never ending work.

_ The underground

Takao takes me to Scool in Mitaka for an evening of performances. One needs a local guide to find this tiny studio at the top of some stairs in between a ramen restaurant and some vending machines. Scool has everything an alternative underground space has: it is small, it is poorly equipped, everyone is multi-tasking, no one expects to be paid or make any money at the door, and yet, the second you enter, you feel the vibrancy of the place brimming with creative energy. I see a series of vignettes of various Butoh, dance and mime solos. Three of the works speak about Fukushima, two very subtly, one with clatter and bells. It is by a Japanese dancer living in Berlin whom I know. He feels he can be more political in Europe. But there, everyone is political so it is not so radical. We go for dinner after. It feels good to be with underground artists doing unpretentiously important things. Takao is worried about what the Olympics would mean and do to venues like this. Will everyone have to be part of the big game?

_ Ikebana lesson

First Ikebana lesson in Japan. Time sits still. We are working with cherry blossoms and tulips. Tulips are mischievous. One must anticipate how the flower will behave in time, with time, my teacher says. Naturally.

_Queer politics

I am seeing the famous Tokyo Gegegay. From the balcony where we old people have seats, I see the masses of youngsters, all dressed alike and simmering with impatience. The show is impeccably constructed, perfectly choreographed and Mickey, the superstar, seems funny – the house laughs at every sentence. There are fabulous costumes, party songs, sad songs and the audience knows the lyrics by heart. And the dances. They are all in sync with the artists. They all dance! And it is bloody complex choreography! I will later learn that this is how dance is taught in schools and universities. This is the first time I see an openly queer show on stage here. I can guess the space it opens. Japanese literature and arts have been infused with queer erotica since time immemorial but in every day(light), it is a different story. Critics will later tell me they regret Mickey’s choice to go down this path. He was a promising choreographer after all. They think it is just entertainment. I think it’s queer politics. These kids can dance their difference now. You are never alone in unison.

_Japonismes, orientalismes, oh la la!…

Takao is speaking on a panel at the French Institute and I accompany him. Reluctantly. The Japan Foundation is debriefing the gigantic French year-long season Japonismes, organised in literally every important festival or venue in Paris in 2018. A large selection of Japanese dance and theatre, from the most traditional – a kabuki stage was custom built for the occasion at the Théâtre de Chaillot – to the most experimental (Takao). The French have always had a love for Japan and it has always been reciprocated (croissants are definitely better in Ginza than in the Marais!). Surprisingly, Butoh has had an excellent reception in France, where it was appreciated and conceptualised from the beginning. Japanese choreographers living in France, such as Sankai Juku or Yano Hideyuki, left an indelible mark on all the great choreographers of the 80s.

The panel conversation comes to the self-congratulatory conclusion that it was a great success and the French audiences are as in love with Japanese culture as ever. Toshiki Okada, the enfant terrible of Japanese theatre – who didn’t need Japonismes to tour as he is the chéri of many large European theatres – challenges the purpose of such an exercise. He is not interested in creating work for a specific market, not does he care what French audiences think about his work (the Japonismes work got some bad reviews). He says exclusions stimulate fantasy. I want to meet him. I am sure he has seen right through this seemingly cultural exchange exercise of great panache, circulating certain artists, certain works, for certain audiences. I wonder how Japan deals with the tensions of localism versus nationalism versus globalism? I know how France (still) indulges in a certain mis-conception of orientalism.


Saburo is a master in what I call danced calligraphy – his work has the refinement, the sophistication and the elegance of an ancient piece of calligraphy. This is the kind of choreography I never grow weary of watching. There is an inimitable, diaphanous fluidity of the gesture, so pure it is close to the divine.

It is like listening to Bach. I only know two or three other choreographers in the world who are choreographers-master lace weavers (Australia is blessed to have one in Russell Dumas).

It is very rare in Tokyo for a choreographer to have a space. I think Saburo’s work wouldn’t be so sophisticated, if he didn’t have this space. When the practice is THE work, the practice needs to be practised.

Tonight, I am seeing a solo choreographed by his long-time performer/partner Rihoko Sato. It is directed by Saburo and I see Saburo. And yet, as I settle in to expect the usual display of choreographed exquisite-ness, I gradually start to see something else. Or rather more. I see something new. A different kind of sublime. I see the exquisite performer, as always. I can guess the exquisite choreographer she has become.  I wonder who knows first when the master has nothing left to teach the apprentice: the master or the apprentice?

_On criticism

Kazuko Kuniyoshi is a prominent critic in Tokyo. We meet to talk about the role and value of dance criticism in Japan. She is precise and knowledgeable. She talks about dance critics as opposed to dance journalists. She likes to be seen as a dance critic, “because a dance critic has to show some kind of vision for the dance world”. She says there are three types of critics: analytic, “impressionists” and judgemental. The ideal criticism comes from the “impressionists”. High quality criticism must always be based on personal impression. But this is the most difficult to achieve as a critic needs to be well read, to see everything and be unbiased. But like everywhere, there is more reporting than actual criticism and space in the newspapers is limited. Dance sits under music or theatre sections most often. End of the year must-see recaps never include dance. She deplores that writing about dance is not brought back to the body more, so that can people can see in what ways it can speak to them.

We talk about dance training, offered more and more in universities. Students are taught to be dancers not choreographers. She wonders how one can make the same dances after Fukushima. She wonders why the younger generation is so apolitical. Apathic. They do not want to ask questions. She thinks Takao Kawaguchi is the most political artist in Japan now. “He is a very much a critical performer for our times.”

_Super Premium Soft Double Vanilla Rich.

Before I jump on the Shinkansen to Kyoto, I manage to see Chelfitsch’s much acclaimed Super Premium Soft Double Vanilla Rich. This is Toshiki Okada at his best. He is famed for his hyper realistic fiercely irreverent depictions of everyday Japan. Set in a 7-Eleven, an institution in the lives of any Japanese, the piece tells the story of a girl who is devastated that the store had discontinued her favourite flavour of ice cream. The piece is about hierarchy, consumerism, pressure. Everything is on the verge of implosion. It is about us and the lonely dependent automated machineries we have become. All this drenched in a lifeless, sterile rendition of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. I see French-style satire. It’s like Germinal transported from the mines into a supermarket.

I get impatient as I can’t find my favourite “7-Eleven Chocolate Tapioca Filled Chocolate Balls with roasted Green Tea Latte” in Kyoto. Toshiki Okada knows how to cut to the bone.

_KYOTO, ‘mysterious radical”

Kyoto is a different world. Zan Yamashita, whom I visit in his studio, is telling me space is easy to access because everyone works outside of the funding system and there is no money anyway. So, there is more time for introspective research and reflection. The art here is not necessarily more radical or underground unless we think ‘mysterious radical’. That’s exactly how I would categorise the little I know about him and his work – always conceptual, always funny, always in/about unexpected places. Speech is heavily present and often political. He is preparing the set for his new piece about to premiere in TPAM the following week. He followed for several months his Malaysian artist friend Fahmil Fadzil’s election campaign documenting this ‘bloodless revolution’ that halted an oppressive regime. Fahmil Fadzil is currently an MP. We speak about how political the work of Kyoto-based Dumb Type was in the 70s. Teiji Furuhashi, one of Dumb Type’s founding members, described their work as a direct response to Japan’s notable political apathy. “Something Japanese theatre never does. Japanese audiences don’t want to see that. They want to avoid it. They just want entertainment. Yet, I think we should always have a political view.”

I ask him what kind of revolution would be good for Japan. He smiles.


Ritzuko Mizuno is indefatigable and unstoppable. Together with her then partner, Nori Sato, she started the first dance touring network in Japan in 1996 – JCDN. She realised that dance was not touring, neither within Japan nor between Asian countries. The initial touring and collaboration projects of the network, which ran over several years, were done with initial investment from the Saison Foundation and soon generated a network of regional partners who committed to presenting dance. She made them understand that investing in touring local artists was more cost-effective than the big international companies and brought communities of audiences to their theatres. JCDN was invited to curate the programs and they included shows and workshops. Contemporary dance was not big then in Japan and this network has certainly played its part in nurturing interest. Now many of those initial partners still present dance.

I ask Ritusko what she thinks about the dance that is made today in Japan. She thinks no one is trained to be a choreographer. She deplores, like Kazuko Kuniyoshi, the puerility and self-centeredness of many works made by the younger generations. It’s like watching their personal blog channel. It’s self-performativity.


Yasuke Yokoshi is arguably the most extra-ordinary of all the artists I have met so far. Japanese, trained in traditional folk dances, ballet and martial arts; at 20 she moves to US to become a bilingual secretary but ends up studying Graham and Cunningham. Later she works with Trisha Brown. At 40, she starts commuting to Japan to study kabuki with a 6th generation headmaster of the Fujima school, Fujima Kanjiro. And after 35 years of New York life, she decides to move back to Japan for good (for the time being).

I ask her why kabuki. As an outsider in New York, she felt pressured to justify her Japanese-ness. But she was truly fascinated with the utter strict formalism of the genre. It is a ‘pure discipline’ after all. She tells me that she would have not been able to learn kabuki if she hadn’t been trained in all these Western techniques.

I ask her what she has learnt by studying so many techniques? She says she is obsessed with controlling and not controlling. “Always regretting what I lack, or what I have in excess. I am always aware of my relationship to other people, to society, to history, and to my own knowledge. I inspire myself in order to fulfil the gap between knowing and not knowing. I often find myself being wrong and failing and I don’t mind being wrong and failing as they help me to focus on what I am making. Creating frees me from being one place, one person, and one time.”

I make the mistake of thinking her pieces are about the obvious questions of authenticity and ownership of culture. But they are about gender power dynamics. She is telling me she is working on a new contemporary kabuki piece, which will feature a sex worker and a burlesque dancer and a punk activist and will be performed on the stage of a regional temple, for centuries reserved to male actors and destined for local audiences. I can’t think of anything more radical to do in the context of Japan. She knows it will be a scandal. She is not worried.

I ask her if she thinks this work will tour to a more mainstream theatre. Of course not. Because she is not young, she is a woman and because she is too un-Japanese.  I ask her if she sees herself as an outsider?  “Yeah, I’m a contemporary artist. I would never call myself a traditional artist. I think the reason why I’m able to do it is, it’s because I’m a contemporary artist. Therefore, I have freedom.” She is not worried.

_ Orientalismes

I pull some very strong (French) strings to get myself into a geisha fan dance class with a real geiko in a real geisha house. This comes with 7 layers of kimono and about 3 of make-up. And 3 kg of wig. I catch a glimpse of myself on the way out as I take unwieldy minuscule steps and I abandon breathing (due to innumerable layers of obi blocking my thoracic cage). I like myself. Because it is not me. If traditional arts is about abandoning one’s self to become other, this is an easy start. Little do I know. What follows is 2 hrs during which we work on one single gesture – holding the fan like a geisha and bringing the arm with the fan to the chest. I observe and I try to imitate by copying. Geishas are not pedagogues. Unsurprisingly I feel clumsy. And ridiculous. Precision is a sedimentation of countless layers. I think of Takao and his ‘imitations’ of Kazuo Ohno. I think of the many years I tried to learn various forms of classical Indian dance. Because the pure formalism of the structure and the exoticism of the form fascinated me. I was never very good. Perhaps only certain bodies can dance certain dances. Exoticising is a pernicious thing to do.


Today is a big day. I have the immense privilege of interviewing the immense Akira Kasai. We are invited to his home in a quaint suburb of Tokyo. This man is a revolution to himself: avant-garde, facetious, irreverent and boundary-pushing. Overwhelmingly masterly. Godly, at times.

Dance is allowed to have gods.

After he came back to Japan from Germany (where he studied Eurythmy), his body of work took a radically different aesthetical turn. Butoh but not quite. Ever since, he has defied any preconception of what Butoh could be. Or has become. I venture to say he may actually not be a Butoh master after all.

He is not interested in how his style is categorised:

“I’ve been dancing for over 50 years and I’m not interested in trapping my dance in a certain genre like contemporary, dance, classical ballet or Japanese traditional dance. Some people might want to categorise a certain piece as Butoh but that’s not the point of Butoh, it’s the contrary! Butoh is not a certain style; the people who have been doing Butoh were trying to break the borders separating different genres of dance in order to find out what will come out of that.”

He is telling me how he disagreed with Kazuo Ohno.  “I didn’t agree with his ideas about creating imagination. Ohno is one who wouldn’t move a single step until he had formed a base of imagination. He is one who started with imagination and distilled it down to a few drops of essence, and then he could dance. I told him that, personally, I couldn’t follow that image, and that I wanted to create dance based on imagination that was more universal, something more objective that anyone could relate to.” I wonder how many dared to disagree with Kazuo Ohno.

We talk about the important work he has been doing in training generations and generations of dancers. He makes a distinction between dance-centric choreographers and oeuvre-focused choreographers. He has always situated himself in the first category. Dancers are not resources but individuals and no hierarchy should exist between them. When he created his studio, Tenshikan, he was not interested in teaching dance as such.

“If I started teaching, that would result in the creation of another form of central authority. I didn’t want that. I wanted everyone to do what they wanted to do. For seven years, I provided a place for arts and cultural activity in a state of anarchy completely free of any central authority. After defying Hijikata and Ohno and starting Tenshikan, that’s the one thing I thought I could or should do.”

I ask him whether a new embodied sensibility was able to emerge out of that corporeal anarchism? Did it work then? Would it be possible today?

“Japanese dancers love to imitate. They try to exactly copy or imitate what the Western dancers have been doing. But they can’t be like them. The French dance in a particular way, the Americans dance in a different way. Dance training is so very different. But the Japanese don’t have to stick to legacies like in the West. And so perhaps not being bound by certain necessities is a wonderful thing to allow for a possibility of creating something that is bigger, that is not totalitarian but something that is even bigger that goes beyond individualism. And perhaps the Japanese people are in that respect the most cosmopolitan or international citizens in terms of their physicality.

I ask him what matters today to him, at the peak of his trajectory.

“What I’ve been doing so far when creating new dance pieces is not to find out what dance is, that doesn’t really matter. I’m not really interested in creating a complete or perfect dance piece. My interest is more on the humane, on human beings and human physicality. But the human body is so very difficult to understand, it’s very mysterious as well. But this is what I am interested in.

He says the world is like a Shinkansen heading towards a broken bridge and we know it. He doesn’t think politicians can stop the train. Nor do they want to.  “So, are we going to try to stop the train or are we going to wait for it to fall? And are we human beings thinking about what we should do to make up for the possible destruction of mankind when the train falls off the bridge? Rather than losing what we have right now or letting the train fall from the bridge, I think it is possible to actually integrate the elements back together. In other words, the relation between man, nature and invisible spirits. And we can do this by creating a physical and sensorial human body culture which exceeds what we have created so far.”

Time flows by. We have been talking for over 2 hours. The translator is exhausted.

Later on, Akira-san disappears into the kitchen and returns with gyozas and an excellent bottle of French wine. I have never had a drink with a god. I am in heaven.


Coincidentally, precisely a year later, I am back in Japan. I am writing these lines from a quiet café in a centuries-old machiya in Kyoto. Outside snowflakes meander delicately to the ground before they evaporate, appeased. The plum blossoms peeking their heads from the garden across are unperturbed by their prancing. A young girl in a bright kimono dashes by. This must have looked the same centuries ago.

Time flows differently in Kyoto. Time flows differently in all things Japanese.

My residence project was to see how traditional art forms informed or inspired contemporary dance practice, how they are actualised and made relevant to present times, how they speak to everyday audiences. At first sight, it may seem that there is little resonance between traditional art forms and the style of the younger generations of makers. Or with everyday life. But tradition here is a continuum of contemporaneity, it is in the folds and layers of everything that is now, it is in the hanami as a contemplation practice as it is in the self-performative danced blogs of the young ones. It inhabits the body because the body holds the past, the present and the future as one. Linear time as we know it is, after all, a construct of the West. And yet, we Westerners, we only know binary: the past and the present, the animate and the inanimate, the past and the future. Our imagination is poor, our curiosity lazy, our patience scarce.

It would be a mistake to think Japan makes the invisible visible. Quite the opposite, it points to its immensity, its complexity, its necessity. It is all in the in the fold, the interstitial, the liminal. In the ma. It is a practice of un-being the being to re-instil acuity in the senses. It is hard work.

“We Orientals tend to seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are; and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If light is scarce, then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty. But the progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light—his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.”
― Junichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows




The author would like to warmly thank: the Saison Foundation for this incredible residence opportunity and in particular Atsuko Hisano and Taro Inamura for all their support and guidance;  Shinji Ono (Tokyo) and Ritsuko Mizuno (Kyoto) for all their recommendations and introductions; the artists and critics who have so generously given their time and whom informed this article: Akira Kasai, Takao Kawaguchi, Hiroaki Umeda, Zan Yamashita, Yasuke Yokoshi, Yurika Kuremiya, Nanako Nakajima,Tatsuro Ishii, Kazuko Kuniyoshi, Ruri Mito; Fumi Yokobori and Dance Box for the warm hospitality.

February 2019, February 2020