Tea Politics

Issue #11: The Japan Issue

My interest is not only in history but in how humans wanted to use tea as a part of political power and maintained its preciousness and then people were even killed because of keeping the valuable tea tools. I am interested in drawing attention to our human ego and desire for power which is never changing. That sense of…tea politics

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Philipa Rothfield in conversation with Yumi Umiumare


Philipa: Yumi, I thought we might begin our discussion by hearing about your background in dance and performance before you came to Australia from Japan.

Yumi: I started classical ballet training when I was nine, for about seven years. Then, I went to university to get an education, which included creative dance. It was at that time that I encountered Butoh. I didn’t really comprehend it at the time but after a while I began to see it as an interesting, white makeup, strange dance. I was drawn into it. That was at the end of the 1980s. While I was working in the corporate field for two years, I saw a few Butoh performances and started going to workshops. That was the trigger for my encounter with the Butoh company, DaiRakudakan, a company I ultimately joined. DaiRakudakan came to the Melbourne Festival in 1991. I had by then quit my ‘normal’ job, having joined the company in 1990, full of enthusiasm.

Philipa: So, you performed with DaiRakudakan?

Yumi: Yes. I performed with them and toured around Japan for three and a half years, and then, one of their repertoire works from 80’s was selected for the Melbourne Festival.

Philipa: What sort of work did you do with them? What was it like?

Yumi: Having done a bit of classical ballet, initially my ideas about dance were quite strict. No smiling, nothing. But then, with Butoh, face expression is integral to the performance. People worked with the distorted body. I was partly shocked, but also very excited to see this other mode of expression. They were doing almost the exact opposite to what the Classical ballet teacher told us to do. So, this was a kind of liberation, although scary at the same time. That’s when I began to attend different Butoh companies’ workshops in Tokyo.

Philipa: In those three years then, you had a lot of exposure to Butoh, you were performing with DaiRakudakan. Was it at that point you came to Australia?

Yumi: Yes.

Philipa: Did you decide to move?

Yumi: No, I wasn’t thinking about Australia but when the company came, I saw Melbourne’s streets populated with free people and many artists. So many artists working in St Kilda. In my very limited free time, I met lots of people who saw our show and everybody was giving us detailed feedback. I just loved the energy of it. Tokyo at that time for me was a very, very closed world – I would work in bars or something, do workshops and return to the bar again to work and make money. So art there involved a life of running around. I found Melbourne to be much more spacious, both mentally and physically. People are slower, more considered. I was totally shocked and inspired.

Philipa: So, you stayed on?

Yumi: No, I couldn’t because of my visa. But I did meet a few people and then through them, I got connected with others and ultimately was invited to come. I formed a relationship….. always the old story, of everybody in love with local people who then move to their country. So I was in a relationship with this person. We just decided to get together – that was in 1993. This was a time where St Kilda was full of artists and cafes, lots of practising artists. It was a good time. I started offering classes. I didn’t know many people initially, but I started from scratch, did the Fringe Festival, and brought Japanese friends over. Every single thing that I could do, I just did it.

Philipa: To what extent did you bring your background in Butoh with you?

Yumi: The company I was with was very choreographed: everything was counted and all the movements had to follow the counts. Every image had a purpose. That wasn’t improvisation. People have a sense that Butoh is full of improvisation but I was coming from a very choreographed context. And of course, my background in classical ballet also underlined the centrality of choreography. Coming to Australia, I found people very free with improvisation, which was very liberating. I met a few people who did open performance not according to a defined style of dance. So, I was very intrigued by that. And comedy, a strong sense of comedy. People say Melbourne is the capital of comedy in Australia. I was really excited to see a sort of essence of humour. Initially, I adopted a quite simple, solid choreographic style of Butoh, involving hard training, but I’m loosening up a little bit in the Australian way, its sense of space and nature. I am really, really inspired by the Australian, natural landscape. So all that made me open up and become a little bit less narrow. There are strengths that work in Japanese culture but here I needed to be open and fluid, drawing on improvisation and a strong experience of ‘organicity’ in nature.

Philipa: How did you find audiences respond to your work?

Yumi: I think that’s again how the humour works. We could do something serious. Sometimes it’s good and people respect that. But it also seems like people really love open comedy and want to know what it means. I started to learn by watching people’s responses. At the same time, people also responded to quiet, dark, surreal and abstract elements.

Philipa: Are there any works or collaborations that stand out for you in that early period of your being in Australia?

Yumi: Tony Yap, definitely. Tony didn’t get a formal dance training when he was young, but he had an upbringing in Malaysian trance. It was amazing to meet him through that. There were so many multicultural layers and interesting things about trance which I may have heard about when I was in Japan, but never really experienced. So Tony, and perhaps also two actors, Matt Crosby and then Ben Rogan, people I used to work with a lot. I really liked the dramatic content working with actors. Obviously, later on I worked a lot with Moira Finucane in cabaret. I used to do a lot of at least 20 or 30 minute pieces, and Moira said “Too long. Come and do three minutes!” That’s very interesting, squeezing everything you need to do into three minutes. That was a good challenge and took me out of the box – not like the slow build you find in Butoh!

Philipa: Have you performed back in Japan since coming to Australia?

Yumi: I’ve been working a lot in Japan, actually. I’m about to go Japan next May for a performance. Not the Tokyo Olympics but a theatre Olympic event in which they’re bringing Butoh artists from different countries. In the past, I’ve done performances three times and also created some choreography for a national contemporary dance festival. That was four years ago, and almost 20 years since I created a work in Japan with Japanese performers.

Philipa: How did you feel about that?

Yumi: It was very odd, fantastic but I had culture shock in my own culture. At this point in time, I understand more theatre and artmaking words in English than in Japanese. I find I can’t translate specific words, like counterbalance or metaphor or technical terminology. It was a great experience for me to create and communicate through my unique inter-cultural Butoh ways, working in a Japanese context.

Philipa: Did these performers have a background in Butoh?

Yumi: Mostly not, I had to audition them. We called a Butoh cabaret audition in a local regional place. I auditioned seven people and two visual artists. We worked to create a 30 minute performance piece in theatre. They heard a little bit about Butoh but not much.

Philipa: Do you see all your work as Butoh?

Yumi: No, not in the classical sense. I don’t do classical Butoh every time. What is Butoh is a very interesting question… Recently, I came back from Europe where I saw European Butoh performers in very white makeup and very slow movements, in a serious embrace of the earlier part of Butoh’s classical side. I would say of myself that I do work that is more combined with theatre, somewhere between Butoh, the dramatic and cabaret… I started doing Butoh and cabaret mixes, a bit of satire or messages from the characters plus colours of humour, which I always love. So, I would say there is a Butoh influence in my work or that the spirit of Butoh is always there, but not necessarily resulting in a classical looking, Butoh piece.

Philipa: I want to raise the recent work you’ve been doing with Japanese Tea Ceremony. You were saying earlier that you’ve been learning for five years now. So could you speak a little bit about that and about what you’re doing with it and how you see it?

Yumi: When I got the fellowship from the Australian Council, I had the opportunity to learn classical Japanese Tea Ceremony, not from a Japanese person, but from an Australian teacher. He has practised chanoyu (tea ceremony) for 20 years, lived in Japan for many years to study directly under the Grandmaster of the School, knows more than I do about Japanese tea. I learnt the spirit of the tea from him. His name is Adam Wojciński. He also has a tea name given by a Japanese tea master and lives in France now. We now can only do Skype lessons now. But yeah, it just blew my mind. Initially I thought, oh, just do a little bit of the traditional art form but then, when I start doing it more and more, it’s actually almost similar to Butoh. How the Tea Ceremony started wasn’t as subversive as Butoh but then it became much more experimental, a kind of avant-garde art making.

Philipa: Are you saying that Tea Ceremony was experimental?

Yumi: Yes. While I’m learning from someone who incorporates an element of Butoh, historically, tea was mostly popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. Tea had a strong political component during the Edo period. Many Samurai had to learn Tea Ceremony as a way of finding spiritual support to deal with the chaos in the outside world. So for me there is a similarity to today: where there is the threat of war, or tension in the world, or complex political circumstance, I feel like creating a personal tearoom or Tea Ceremony in a kind of quiet silence and reflection, but also to bring back the spirit of its quiet yet slightly avant-garde ways. This is all part of a long story, in which the form can be adopted, where the Tea Ceremony combines irregularity and asymmetry, not necessarily being only composed or scripted, so that there is an imbalance that encompasses imperfection. Like Wabi-Tea, basically it’s not merely about superficial beauty. It’s a deteriorated form of beauty. It’s cracked and decayed and sometimes odd: that’s why it’s beautiful.

There is a particular essence of beauty that I like, which I didn’t understand 20 years ago, but now that I’ve entered my 50s, it’s different.

Philipa: Can I ask about the experimental avant-garde in Tea Ceremony? Are you suggesting that its emergence involved experimentation and a break with tradition?

Yumi: Well, tradition is very there. But I think there was a playfulness and experimentation within this.

Philipa: There’s a performative elasticity beyond compliance to a form, so that there’s a space within the performance of Tea Ceremony for a certain kind of play?

Yumi: Yes. There are elements of total arts (or you can say holistic art?) within tea, for example, the choreography of serving tea, the literature hanging in the tearoom, poetic works, which you combine with the creativity of curving teaspoons as well as making tea bowls and tea tools. Also within the architectural exploration of the tearoom.

Philipa: Objects and poetry?

Yumi: Objects and paragraphing, prose, yes the literature.

Philipa: So there’s a sort of staging in all this.

Yumi: Staging, yes. And also within that structure, the play and then the artist or tea master might produce an opposite version of this or twist guests’ expectations to alter it in a way which might be very subtle. Not necessarily highly dramatic and yet I like that kind of subtlety, and with the knowledge that within this play there is a deeper sense of joy.

Philipa: Would you say there’s more play in Tea Ceremony than in say Japanese Noh theatre?

Yumi: Well, Noh theatre can be much more dramatic. I can’t easily compare the two because my knowledge about Noh theatre is quite minimal. But I’d say it has many dramatic characters including supernatural entities and death elements, sometimes involving praying for the best to provoke death. All this involves a very particular and ritualistic ceremony. Tea Ceremony has that too. But the main thing there is also to partake in the tea itself, to have a conversation between the tea master and the head guest/guests, involving an exchange, even a conversation by way of a war strategy. Sometimes very important conversations occur in 10 minutes. But also, in order to enter the tearoom, sometimes the Samurai had to take their sword off, then enter from ‘Nijiriguchi’ – a much lower door. They had to learn humility not just arriving as a Samurai warrior representing the more important body. Lots of consideration goes into the very small space of the Tea Ceremony. The tearoom had become a field of power. The two major two tea masters were ordered to be killed because I think they gained a too strong spiritual power.

I am creating Tea Ceremony along with my Butoh Cabaret mashed together, which is called DasSHOKU TeaParTEA! I am also bringing along that early Edo period. This would require a long, long conversation, but Kabuki was actually started by a woman, Okuni. She began as an outlaw half making up things but eventually became very popular in very colourful costume, with Portuguese influences to create dances. Some of her movement was very radical and provocative so a Yujo, prostitute troupe started to copy her with erotic styles. And the government started banning these performances because there was so much attention from the people. They loved it so much. But the government needed to exert control. As you know Kabuki is now played only by men. Kabuki literally means Kabuku which means bent. There was this Kabuki world which was also coming from the bent and non-straight. Tea Ceremony was also working with an aesthetic which was irregular and slightly off-center, even if it looks very straight, there’s a lot of subtle bentness to it, so that I find a strong connection between the Tea and Kabuki or Kabuku dance and Butoh –  a perfect medium for kicking into that sort of sense of contemporariness.

I like to add the physicality and dynamic history of tea into the tea ritual. Combining dance, tea and ritual is a part of my big ambition, my personal ambition, to put these elements together. So choreography, plus ritual exploration, unfolding around the tea, which itself has so many interesting and strange histories. Some people believe the Japanese were the first to take tea to Europe by Dutch merchant ships, others say the Chinese dealers introduced it in 1610 to the Dutch who were exposed via Macau in taking tea to the West.

Philipa: Are you saying there are competing or simultaneous histories of who took tea to the West?

Yumi: Simultaneous histories. My interest is not only in history but in how humans wanted to use tea as a part of political power and maintained its preciousness and then people were even killed because of keeping the valuable tea tools. I am interested in drawing attention to our human ego and desire for power which is never changing. That sense of…

Philipa: Tea politics?

Yumi: Tea politics. And tea was made from that in connection with this age of civil war in Japan. It’s quite chaotic but also very vibrant. So Kabuki, Okuni and Tea Ceremonies suggest an energy of openness and experimentation which is very attractive to me. It’s like an onion pill, Oh my God. Oh my God, it’s a never-ending kind of interest.


Melbourne, February 2020.