Sensing the World

Issue #11: The Japan Issue

Technology has developed so much and I'm not really worried about losing our sense of empathy or perception because in a way I feel that we have lost them already. I cannot say. But as an artist living in this century, I can do only what I can feel. This is the only truth that I can see. I don't believe so much in history. I don't believe so much in the media. So then, what I can feel now is speaking with you here, like this, and this is an important sensation now. This is the kind of thing I can believe in. I think the most important thing is living now and living what you feel and the reality that you believe in.

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Born in Tokyo in 1977, Hiroaki Umeda is a choreographer and a multidisciplinary artist recognised as one of the leading figures of the Japanese avant-garde art scene. Since the launch of his company S20, his subtle yet violent dance pieces have toured around the world to audience and critical acclaim. His work is acknowledged for the highly holistic artistic methodology with strong digital background, which considers not only physical elements as dance, but also optical, sensorial and, above all, spatiotemporal components as part of the choreography. Based on his profound interest in choreographing time and space, Umeda has spread his talent not only as a choreographer and dancer, but also as a composer, lighting designer, scenographer and visual artist. In 2009, Umeda commenced his ten-year choreographic project ’Superkinesis’ working with dancers of distinct physical backgrounds. He explores kinetic languages by tuning into the subtle voices of the surrounding environment that only could be perceived by an acute sensorial receptor called dancers. In 2014, he started Somatic Field Project, aiming at nurturing young dancers as well as his own movement method ‘Kinetic Force Method’. In conversation with Angela Conquet.


Angela: Hiroaki, what is fascinating about your background is that you’re not trained in any particular dance form or dance practices. Quite the opposite, you have tried a few and rejected as many. And what have you completely disliked or rejected and why?

Hiroaki Umeda: It’s quite simple – the first reason is that my body was not ready for dance because I was playing soccer at that time. So, my body was not really adapted to dance. It was very hard for me to practice in class. The other reason was that, unconsciously, I was quite clear what I wanted to do with dance, and I couldn’t find this in any dance classes. Every dance class has a particular style, including the workshops I took in choreography, which taught the style of that particular choreographer. I realised that this system was not for me, so I wanted to find something different.

Angela: Have you ever taken a workshop or a class where you would have liked to learn more or to do more, but you felt that your body wasn’t able to follow because you hadn’t had the proper training?

Hiroaki Umeda: No. Actually, no. In taking different dance lessons, I found that the most interesting thing was for me to find the principle of the movement. I didn’t believe so much in the ‘style’ of a dance, but I was really interested in the principle that generated movement. This explains why I didn’t want to follow so much one particular style, but instead wanted to seize what is the mechanism of a particular movement.

Angela: You’ve developed now your own method called Kinetic Force Method. Can you speak a little bit about this method?

Hiroaki Umeda: As mentioned, I was interested increasingly in the principle of a movement. And then, the more I observed these principles, the more the movement became abstract, and any form of style was then gone. The question of a specific style was not interesting to me at all. And also, I did think my body was not cut out for dance. I would say my body is similar to the bodies of people who like to play sports. The first thing that I wanted to develop was the dance vocabulary, or let’s say movement vocabulary for my piece. I said to myself, “I want to develop something that I can do with my body and also can be used for the piece.” This was the starting point of my method. 

Angela: I like how you explain that you see your dancers more like senses of the world and you work with activating those senses in your dances. How do you feel you’re provoking that in them, with this particular method?

Hiroaki Umeda: The most difficult thing for the dancers is to change their mindset when they move. For example, many dancers have this idea that they want to control the body, but in my method, it is impossible, because they have to observe their body and at the same time, they have to move. I always say that body has a system of input and output happening at the same time.

I always ask a dancer “Please don’t think you’re a human being. Act just like an object.” 

It’s a way of taking the perception and representation of the body away from the body. Actually, in the mind, the desire is in the dance. What I want to see is movement but not like that of a human being, more of a natural object, which can hold the possibility of a human body movement. 

Angela: The role of technology is paramount in your work. How you rehearse your works? Your body and the technical installation seem always to co-exist as a whole. Very often, you’re in your work and all that you do is generated by and through your body. 

Hiroaki Umeda: Most of the movement in my work is improvised. I don’t really need to see myself or I don’t need to see how well I execute a good posture or figure. What is important is the stream of the movement. What is important is conveying to the audience a real holistic sensation, a feeling. This is what drives my video work or visual imagery. It’s all part of the choreography, what kind of sensation I can create with the visual material. The body then also becomes a visual material as much as it is a vehicle in the piece. Body and virtual image can’t be dissociated.

Angela: From having seen some of your works, I do think it’s about senses and activating sensations, which can be quite mind-blowing for us, the audience. It is as if you were offering us the possibility of not only a new potential of movement coming from your body, but also a parallel reality that you’re inviting us into. You work with optical illusion. In order to create this kind of feeling for us, it’s an illusion because it’s a non-existing world.

Hiroaki Umeda: Yes. Actually, I did do some scientific research about how we see and perceive things with our eyes. For me, dance is a visual art or a visual performance. As an audience, you use your eyes to see. The most important thing is actually how people see things, so what the audience’s eyes do. Even if I dance a lot, if you don’t have light, you don’t see the dance. Here it all comes through the eyes first, yes. Then optical illusion is an important technique to access the audience’s body. People are always prejudiced when it comes to reality, which greatly limits the senses, actually. When you don’t want to see something, you limit something. You don’t take it in. With my work, I stimulate the audiences’ bodies by inviting them to use their eyes so as to perceive things differently.  Optical illusion is important to catch the eye. And sometimes it feels weird or quite scary. But it’s all part of the reality for me.

Angela: Do you feel that your work appeals more to the mind or more to the senses? 

Hiroaki Umeda: I would say it’s for the body.  And I would say it’s about sensations, not emotions.

Angela: But do you think then that what you do is stimulation or is it manipulation?

Hiroaki Umeda: Not manipulation. Stimulation, I’d say. Because stimulation is a kind of seed you plant, but how you grow it, it’s up to you.

Angela: Your works are so poignant because you make your own videos and you know exactly what you want to achieve with the video work and the body work. I wonder if you’ve ever wondered how you would have been able to transmit your vision if you didn’t have those skills?

Hiroaki Umeda: At the beginning I didn’t have a computer and I wonder if I didn’t start to dance because explaining what I wanted to other people was very complicated. Actually, in the beginning, for example, I couldn’t make the music and I didn’t have anyone to help me. Then, I decided, okay, first I’ll learn to do everything by myself. Now I have people working for me because it has all become so complicated!…(smiles)

Angela: Do you feel that this is saying something about the world? The fact that now everything needs to be louder to be heard or seen, that we always need more? 

Hiroaki Umeda: I think I have always been doing more or less the same things with my works. But actually, now after 15 years, I think people need more stimulation. This is my feeling. The piece I did 15 years ago, for that time was okay. Now it would be considered maybe too slow and underwhelming for some.

I think that today, feeling one’s body, feeling with one’s body is maybe more and more difficult, but I don’t think it’s so bad. People still have the capacity to do that but what I think has changed is that the stimulation needs to be stronger and stronger. For example, in my works, I use more and more very loud sound, strong visual effects…Otherwise, if you use a normal volume, it’s not really appealing. And as I said, breaking the edges of the senses, you have to be on an edge. 

Angela: When you set out to make a work, how do you imagine the reaction of your audience or what you want to actually obtain from the audience and does that inform the next work you do? As you say: you start from the effect you want your work to solicit and then you make the work according to this, whereas in general, it’s the work that creates an effect and the audience may like it or not. For me, it’s a reverse process of inviting your audiences in. 

Hiroaki Umeda: The effect is for me the most important aspect, triggering certain sensations. Lately, in the last few years or so, I wondered whether the body was necessary at all in a dance piece. I now think it’s no longer necessary in the kind of work I do. I think that body will not be necessary in my dance in the near future, because as a body, I’m limited. I feel sometimes that this limitation is such that it limits me in the effect I want to produce. The body fails to say what I need it to say. But at the same time, what is difficult is this rapid pace, the limitation of the information that the body can hold and give at certain speed. But I don’t see this as a bad thing. I think in the future we will only need our brains to communicate.  Maybe it’s this kind of generation that is coming soon.

Angela: I’m also fascinated that actually you do not move much in the space when you dance… Is it a decision related to your choreographic score or just about having a different kind of focal point?

Hiroaki Umeda: Many people ask me that. But for me, actually, it’s really not necessary. As you said, focal point is very important because moving on the stage is occupying the space of the stage, But I wanted to make a point, not a surface. Conceptually, the body is a point which can be extended in the space. That’s the reason.

Angela: Can you speak more about the four branches of research you did over four years with several dancers from across continents. You worked on four different directions: temporal pattern, centrifugal, isolation and repulsion. What are the most important findings over the four years?

Hiroaki Umeda: As an artist, the logic of the choreography is the most interesting thing what I found. I’m not criticising other dances, but for example, people composing choreography usually see and explore the same shapes. Because my focus is the effect, I have no interest in creating precise shapes just for the sake of it. What I want to find is what kind of sensation I want to give to the audience. And also, I believe that people have their own body, with their own habits or specific cultural and social ways of life. Not excluding that, how I can develop the choreographic language with different movements or in different bodies, but you can see something together. 

For example, one of the ambitions that I really have now is choreographing natural elements, like water because the human body is nature, which means that I can choreograph nature.
In my work, I would say choreography is also a communication with the elements. How we can find logic to communicate with a natural object, which is the body and which can be also water or perhaps a plant or anything. I want to extend this logic to not only the human body but also to other elements.

Angela: And right now what is the most important thing that you wanted to provoke in audiences and why?

Hiroaki Umeda: What I find  exciting is to remove or to break the border between the human and other things. For example, our bodies consist of atoms, but any object has atoms. If I can choreograph atoms, we can choreograph everything. Because the human body is, as you said, choreographed by nature, I don’t need to really choreograph the human body, but I want to choreograph the communication with everything, which is more exciting for me.


If I can choreograph atoms, we can choreograph everything. Because the human body is choreographed by nature, I don’t need to really choreograph the human body, but I want to choreograph the communication with everything, which is more exciting for me.

Angela: When you talk about atoms and that we’re looking at the more molecular or the more scientific side of our anatomy you mean you are looking at other tools of perception that are not necessarily about a movement that is defined by a movement of the body?

Hiroaki Umeda: Yes indeed more scientific systems. For example, if I can choreograph atoms, which means that I can choreograph different scales of things, which means, for example, maybe I can also choreograph something very big. And I don’t need to think about choreography as the only human scale but we can imagine we can change the scale of the things. This is my ambition. I don’t know how I can do it, but conceptually or as a vision, it’s very important to have this, how we can find this common logic from the choreography.

Angela: You are quite famous in France where you spend a lot of time, similarly to Saburo Teshigawara and a few others. How do you see yourself in the local Japanese landscape?

Hiroaki Umeda: People think that I’m alien. Because I’m not really present in a Japanese context. My works are not seen as a dance pieces.

Angela: Do you care that you’re not recognised necessarily by the dance world?

Hiroaki Umeda: I feel lonely, but it’s fine. It’s normal.

Angela: But would you like to be acknowledged as a dance artist more in Japan by the critics?

Hiroaki Umeda: Yes. But not necessarily in dance. I want to be recognised by more people in any field.
It’s not really important to be recognised as a contemporary dancer here. I wanted people to see me as one of the references or influencers of contemporary dance, but it doesn’t mean that I want to be part of this field.

Angela: And do you feel that the reception of your work in Japan is different to how people engage with your work overseas and particularly in Europe?

Hiroaki Umeda: It’s very different. Because what I’m doing is not really usual here, people don’t know how to see my pieces, but overseas, especially in Europe, they found something new or something different. There seems to be more interest and value attached to my works.

Angela: We think that you, Japanese artists working with digital art are the most amazing and the most avant-garde in the world. It’s interesting to see that you don’t have the acknowledgement that we think you would have here. And why do you think is that? Do you think it’s because traditional art forms are still very present? 

Hiroaki Umeda: Traditional culture is not really present here, or at least in my generation. I didn’t see so many traditional art forms at all. We are quite separate from traditional culture, which is sad but it’s okay. But for example, in other Asian countries, tradition is more important. We, the young generation feels quite separated from traditional culture. Or at least me, I can’t really say I feel connected to Japanese traditional culture.

Angela: So you don’t go to see Kabuki shows and things like that?

Hiroaki Umeda: No. Because it’s not really connected to our daily life anymore of course. Japan is an island and when you make work, it is in a way for a very small and closed world. I think that Japan has the kind of mentality that what is most important is or should be for the local people. For example, when I see the pieces of the younger generation here, sometimes I cannot relate to them, I don’t understand what they talk about. Perhaps this is why my work is not always appreciated here.

Angela: I think you’re one of the very few Japanese artists who has developed a discourse around the principles of how you make work and you have conceptualised your own method. There’s a discursive practice of why you’re doing what you’re doing, which is very common in Europe, but perhaps less so here in Japan.

Hiroaki Umeda: Yes. I think it is one of the important experiences for me being in Europe, maybe in France specifically. In Japan we don’t need so much discourse about the piece, but in France, people explain a lot, sometimes too much. But for example, in Europe Butoh is considered unique and also, we often hear how Japanese people are also very unique. Every contemporary dance is unique in a way. But what was difficult even for me, seeing Japanese contemporary dance or butoh, was that I didn’t know how to relate to it or how to communicate around it. This is what I learned in Europe anyway, to develop and apply discursive thinking. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that contemporary dance in Europe has been developed and theorised over the last 100 years. It is fascinating to see how European culture developed contemporary dance. It is important to be unique but I think that having these, let’s say, methodologies or discourses is very important to communicate with other people in other cultures. I don’t want to be just unique, I want to be understood. It has also helped clarifying things with myself and understanding better what I do.

Angela: So what matters for you as an artist today with the art you make? Do you feel that your work is important in the sensations it stimulates in us? 

Hiroaki Umeda: Yes, I would say that. And I think what I want to do with my art is to create what people can believe. This is the most important. And so maybe in society, I just want to invite people to question what they see, what they believe in what they see. I grew up in Tokyo. I remember very well as a child how quickly and rapidly things changed. For example, shops closed down, fashion trends changed a lot, even science changed a lot. So, I wondered what I could believe in as something solid with all these changes. That’s why I started to make art because I didn’t have something that I could believe in. I started to believe in the importance of sensations. 

Angela: Do you feel your work is provoking this kind of imagination and reminding us that we can still feel things and feel for things?

Hiroaki Umeda: Technology has developed so much and I’m not really worried about losing our sense of empathy or perception because in a way I feel that we have lost them already. I cannot say. But as an artist living in this century, I can do only what I can feel. This is the only truth that I can see. I don’t believe so much in history. I don’t believe so much in the media. So then, what I can feel now is speaking with you here, like this, and this is an important sensation now. This is the kind of thing I can believe in. I think the most important thing is living now and living what you feel and the reality that you believe in. Maybe, we won’t be here in 100,000 years so we have to accept this scenario. So right now, what I want to do is, live now in this century and continue to make art that can remind us we can see and feel.

Tokyo, February 2020