The Aging Body in Dance

Issue #11: The Japan Issue

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Angela Conquet in conversation with Nanako Nakajima

Angela: I would like you to speak about the topic of your PhD which focuses on the aging body in dance. This is not a common topic in dance research and I believe it has to do with the particular approach to aging and death in Asian philosophy and Asian society in general, which is so very different to the West. 

Nanako Nakajima: This topic of the aging body in dance comes from my own dance background. I was trained in Japanese traditional dance communities. I started training when I was three. So, it was actually before I started my elementary education. And because I wanted to be a dancer, I practiced very much in this traditional society. I have kept learning and practising those dances for many years. Because I started at three, when I passed the exam to be a certified dancer, I was still 13 or 14 years old, and everyone else was older than me. My teacher told me that I should be humble, because I was ahead of everyone but still a teenager with less life experience. And, for instance I am not able to perform this piece because it’s about a Geisha, and very much about love affairs…Even if you can actually dance the choreography, you have to be 50, 60 when you are allowed to perform this piece. There is a repertoire that we cannot access until we reach a certain age or certain career level. It’s not the case only in this particular traditional Japanese dance, which is called Odori, but also in Kabuki and Noh. Those traditional Japanese arts have a particular kind of repertoire which is regarded as being the most difficult in that genre. And for those pieces, one must have a lot of life experience and years of training, years of practice, until you turn 50, 60 and then you can then perform those pieces, which are about old age ….

I was around 20 and I could dance all sorts of repertoire. And as a certified teacher, I was teaching other students who were older and then I thought: what could I do after this? Because I can dance in any way, but I still cannot get to the point that I want to be. And I thought maybe I should also experience other things outside of this community. However, the traditional dance community is closed, you cannot get out, it’s absolute commitment. All your life has to be a part of this community. You devote yourself to this training so that you can get to the point of excellence. This kind of spirit is too much for certain people.

I wanted to study other things because I knew that there were so many other dance practices going on around me. Like contemporary dance and avant-garde theatre. And then I decided to go and study abroad. So, I went to New York to study performance studies and I was surrounded by many scholars, visual artists, dance makers, theatre directors especially in the Downtown New York dance communities. And I started working as a dramaturge. I didn’t know what to do as a dramaturge but somehow the people in those circles felt that I was helpful in that role.

At the same time, all those dancers told me that they were already 25, 26 and they had to find a second job, because they felt they were getting too old to be a dancer. And here I was thinking that I was too young to dance. Although I was very confused, I realised that there was a big difference between what I experienced in Japan and what I was doing overseas.

This idea of aging in dance came from this experience. In New York, people talk about age but don’t study age or aging. I also put all my effort into practice, while at the same time I felt I needed more to inspire me in order to keep working. 

I wanted to go back to research at some point – I needed both, practice and research. And Berlin and a few other European cities were brought to my attention because André Lepecki, dance dramaturge and dance scholar, was my advisor in New York, and he was also telling me that, if I wanted to be a dramaturge, I should go to Brussels, Berlin or cities in Europe with more artists working in and with dramaturgy and more conceptual ideas. And Berlin became one of the cities where I could do research and also practice.

In a sense, the ideas around the topic of age came to me from New York to Berlin. Age is considered so differently in the European and German context. And these people have history, probably a more complex history in Europe than the U.S. which is different from Asian and Japanese histories. The idea of aging is also connected to memory, or even forgotten memories, especially the Holocaust history which is so deeply rooted in German history. So somehow this research about age became cultural in a way.

I also followed my previous interrogations to find out what it means to be Asian in dance to me. In my work, I started with Yvonne Rainer, whom I was writing about in New York. Later, I was working on a traditional Japanese dancer called Toshinami Hanayagi who passed away in 2018. I had admired her for a long time. She was my favourite dancer in traditional Japanese dance. And then while in Berlin, I realised that the interest of aging in dance was connected to the legacy of Kazuo Ohno, in that he had a debut in Europe, where he was around 74.

These artists were very much connected to the notion of age or a certain perception of age and beauty. These three artists represent each a moment of my trajectory. I decided to write about these artists in my dissertation and to find out what the idea of aging is considered in each cultural context.

Angela: I think it’s very interesting how you picked these three angles of your triangle on three continents in a way. If we look at the US choreographers of post-modern dance, the Judson Church icons, it is incredible to see that most of them are still performing. 

Nanako: Yes. The idea of dance or the idea of choreography can be diverse. It is the reason why the Judson people keep working even though they are now well into their seventies, eighties; they are still exploring the form, or perhaps deconstructing the form…

Angela: “The work is never done”, as Steve Paxton says. 

Nanako: The idea of choreography can be “flexible”, although people tend to think it is fixed. This means that even if the body gets stiffer, older, the choreography can be embodied fully by those dancing bodies.

In traditional Japanese dance, the idea of choreography is more flexible, and it is adjusted to the age of the body. When the idea of dance, or art in general, is diverse and opened, there can also be a space for the aging body. For instance, the choreography is adjusted, some steps are removed or recreated for senior bodies to perform them better. It still looks interesting and complicated.

Such a thing has never been done in ballet, or in set choreography because they don’t have aging dancers.

Angela: So what do you think this means? Is it a complete denial of old age within the performed body or that the representation of the body has to be always young? Except Pina Bausch who had Dominique Mercy dance until he was over 60, it is not very common to see older dancers.  

Nanako: True. Together with the idea of “different bodies,” Pina Bausch invented with Tanztheater a way to adapt the dance to the age and ageing of her dancers. If someone gets older and you still keep dancing, you have to find what can be danced by them. Because this form of dance was so much about their own private life and memories and personal histories, this cannot be extracted out of their own bodies. That is why they kept dancing so comfortably.

Angela: If we are to look at the Japanese performing arts, do you think there is more space here for senior performers and dancers?

Nanako: I think so. Dancers keep dancing for a very long time. And not only in Butoh but also in traditional and contemporary dance. This situation is also related to the politics, hierarchies, and also structures of the industry: how they choreograph/dance the piece and who provides funding for the piece. But you know, in Japan, there isn’t so much funding.

On the other hand, there are more and more younger artists coming into the industry and audiences are also excited about their work. Every year I see new names of artists everywhere. I think that their works are interesting too. So, it’s also difficult to talk about ‘the Japanese performing arts industry’ as one thing because it’s complex and layered. In addition, different communities of practitioners don’t necessarily communicate between each other. I used to belong to the traditional Japanese community which is totally separated from contemporary arts and contemporary dance.

There was a big dance festival in Yokohama last year (2018) and they didn’t present Butoh in their official program, even though Kazuo Ohno’s studio is in Yokohama. The programming was international and inclusive, many collaborations, lots of workshops, but there was no Butoh performance. It seems that some critics still don’t categorise Butoh as contemporary dance.

When Butoh appeared as a genre in the 60s, dance critics didn’t know how to review Butoh and its practitioners. In a way, the reception of Butoh in Japan was more biased. It had more success in France than in Japan, which is both interesting and confusing.

Angela: I was talking recently with a few dance critics and I get the impression that there are many dance critics. What do you think is the role of dance criticism in how the audience engages with dance? In my conversation with  Kazuko Kuniyoshi, she was making a very interesting distinction between dance journalism and dance criticism.

Nanako: In my opinion, dance critique in Japan should be more influential, but it’s difficult to support dance critics and journalists. They need more financial and sector support, and the support should not be from artists and producers who ask them to write previews or final reports. 

It is hard to be critical if you are paid by artists and producers to review the show.

Critics can be in a difficult situation, when they criticise works and artists. When artists and producers tend to take criticism too personally with no critical distance, the productive relationship doesn’t work. I understand that is not easy, maybe because of Japanese language or cultural codes, and now the number of dance critics is getting smaller and smaller. We need constructive criticism and productive relationships between the two.

Angela: I was listening to you talking in a recent video interview about how you were offended about certain performances you saw while you were in New York. I think today we’d probably speak of cultural misappropriation, which takes us to the question of how culture is perceived when it is taken out of its own context. This may be a completely different register, but I’m thinking of the appropriation of archives and how there were some issues regarding Takao Kawaguchi’s  performance, About Kazuo Ohno, in the sense that he was not a Butoh dancer. For me, it is about the copy of the copy that becomes the original. I thought it was very smart to actually embody the archives.

Nanako: It seems that many of the Butoh artists were critical then. Some of them didn’t even go to see Takao’s work. I myself researched Ohno’s dances, and I know that we have to get back to the video documentation at some points. Otherwise, we cannot follow his steps because it is improvisation and his movement are so unique. There is no specific technique to imitate his work. Even his son could not do the same thing.  So, going back to the video is the only way to learn his dance in detail. Actually, Ohno himself practised many pieces and performances which he filmed. Then, he himself was in the habit of looking at those images again and again to remind himself how he has moved, also to deactivate his movement memories through the images. In this piece, Takao followed Ohno’s approach. It may be copying but even Kazuo Ohno did it with himself.  It’s a kind of democratisation of his legacy with the use of archival documentation.

Angela: I’m thinking that all these aging masters of Butoh, but also other choreographers that are important to the Japanese scene of contemporary dance, are getting old. I’m just wondering what the role is of the transmission of all this knowledge to the younger generation.

Nanako: Body to body transmission can happen only if you work together. But how is this transmission really done? How to assess what’s transmitted?  In the case of a master, they work with the students together for 10 years before the student becomes independent. That means that they know how the master lives and thinks. You become part of each other’s everyday lives.  Some people even change their names after their teachers, and this is not only in Kabuki and Noh but also in modern dance in Japan (gendai buyo). But at university, or in a workshop context, you don’t get to spend so much time together. You don’t live together. But since the 90s, in contemporary dance, all these newer companies or artists they don’t have to operate in a traditional way, they teach workshops to make an income, so they become independent financially and artistically.

Angela: Do you think that’s good or bad?

Nanako: I don’t know. Experimentation is needed, reinventing the art form. But I also like to work with traditional performers who are part of an existing history.  They don’t choose to do performance. They are chosen by their families. And sometimes it is a struggle for them.

Angela: Now that you have lived in New York and Berlin and are familiar with different contexts, do you get excited about what you see here in Japan in terms of choreography and shows and the younger generation?

Nanako: I live in Kyoto, where two things are at the center: contemporary and traditional. This combination or cohabitation is very unique. I don’t see it anywhere except here. This is also part of my dance background. I know how these different worlds work, I know its struggles and its problems. But I enjoy seeing this complexity with which we perceive performing arts. I’m also interested in seeing how the cultural diversity transforms along with the Agency for Cultural Affairs moving to Kyoto from Tokyo. Kyoto could be more interesting in terms of culture these days actually and more and more artists are moving here.  

Kyoto, February 2019.