In the summer of 2015 I visited the city of Ofunato, the city is located on the North East coast of Japan. I took part in a 5 week residential project to choreograph on the community, which was part of the program for Sanriku International Arts Festival (www.safes.com). It became an unforgettable period of time in my life.
Some part of Ofunato was swept away by the tsunami in 2011, and Ofunato was not the only city that lost so much beautiful scenery and human life. When I was facing the peaceful Goishi Beach, it is unimaginable that the water became so violent.
Ōfunato hit the headlines yet again when it was heavily damaged in the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. The wave was estimated to have reached 23.6 meters in height. Funneled in by the narrow bay, the tsunami continued inland for 3 kilometres. The town’s theatre was one of very few buildings left standing (and remarkably, was undamaged) and gave shelter to about 250 survivors.Provisional counts listed 3,498 houses out of 15,138 houses in the town destroyed by the tsunami and 305 lives were confirmed lost. At least six of the ton’s 58 designated evacuation sites were inundated by the tsunami.
We still saw some buildings left broken by the tsunami even though 4 years has gone by. The coastal area was filled with roadworks, many men were working to reconstruct the roads and bridges. When you drive in the night, it looked like christmas decorations with endless flicks of roadwork lights.
In mid September, the sound of cicada was turning into the crickets, I love being able to feel seasons by every senses in Japan. Ofunato produces the best bonito fish (katsuo) and saury fish (samna) in early Autumn, we were fortunate to try the this seasonal fish. Ofunato has such a rich and dedicated food culture alongside of the great fishing industry. In arts also, North East Japan has very rich traditional performing arts culture. The festival is to embrace and support the folklore cultures and bring the community together. The festival invited some performing groups from neighbour countries such as Indonesia and Cambodia where experienced the earthquake/tsunami in the past.
Sanfes, the folklore base arts festival programmed ‘community dance’. It is where contemporary dance is completely alien, what we are inviting the people to join is such an unknown territory for them. We made the title of the project ‘Daredemono Dance’ = danceforeveryone, and our work started from recruiting the cast, which continued through to the very end of the process! There wasn’t much of luxury of choreographing on a group of ‘confirmed cast’, it was a journey of ‘snowball making’ started from very a few people who were interested and those joined last year. We went everywhere to deliver the taster sessions for the potential casts! This is why 5 weeks long residency and the time flown by. We had to start finding some ideas when we meet new people while we still introducing who we were, what we do. Multi-tasking!!
When we came to visit Ofunato in May 2015 to find the site for the performance and meet with 2 other dance artists Miki Goto and Tamami Yamada, and some key local people for recruiting participants. When we were having a meal at the seafront restaurant Misaki we were drawn into the plain wooden Namahage mask that hang facing the sea. It was there as if protecting the restaurant and the people. Namahage was originally made as scary iconic messenger to exorcise the calamities. I also thought it might be a good idea to use the effects of mask work as often people find their extraordinary physical expressions by hiding their faces. So we decided to create the piece with masks. I think the idea drew the significant central line for the piece. As part of the festival, we met Indonesian artists/artisan who came to teach the mask making workshops. We couldn’t miss this perfect opportunity working with such authentic real artists. We sat in the quiet tatami room for 4 days with them. What a beautiful time it was.
In indonesia, maskmakers learn how to sing and dance, dancers learn how to make masks and sing. All the skills and techniques integrate deeply to realise the performing arts. Also there were some sense of exchanging the empathy and imagination among the maskmakers, performers and musicians. Because they can imagine and respond what their work would do to other artists very well, help them embody their artistry.
The visual of these masks added the authentic feeling to the piece and fit well in the festival.
Although producing 50 masks wasn’t easy at all. We met local craft master Mr Muneo Oikawa, (who was throughoutly kind and supportive to us and I think we couldn’t do the project without him) and asked for his help to invent easier version for us to make up the 50 masks. The real ones Spono and Miroto taught were needed 17 layers of paper-mache.. and it took me at least 2 days to make one without painting. Muneo and us discussed over and over and searched the method that is doable and affordable without losing too much of the quality of original masks. Because we started choreographing on a few groups already with the real masks and when we use real masks, regardless of who we are working with, instantly everyone moved so much better and became more creative. We have understood the power of ‘real thing’ and needed the magic support from it. We reached to the idea of using decent szed foil dishes that we could get in the pound shop(100yen shop-thank for excellent job!!) and hammered the dishes onto the original wooden figure that usually layer the paper-meche on. So we could make so many copies of foundations fairly quickly where we put only one layer of paper-mache and prepared them as basic mask for people to make arrangements on them. Each mask was carefully decorated over many people’s hands and care, and developed the unique character to marge the performer who wear.
So we eventually got 50 performers who are aged between 10 and 89 (!), some primary students, families, people from workstation, kids and teachers from the after school school club, employees of the city council, over 80 years old women in the senior club and luckily we got 3 musicians from local men’s brass band ”Ofunato Sand Pipers”. One night we visited their rehearsal and I took my hat off to the fabulous tunes that were jazzed up arrangements of the local folk music. Their rehearsal studio was swept away by the tsunami so they got the tiny room for over 20 men with instruments, by the beach they brass the music to the sea.
I can see that we are at the very beginning of the seeding process of community dance in which we cannot inform so much by words. Until they experience it or watch the performances, perhaps the dance is too scary for the shy nations. Although here in Sanriku, as I explained there are so many of traditional dance cultures that rooted into their lives apparently there are over 800 different styles of folklore dance in small villages and hamlets that passed on from their ancestors which are oriented throughout the seasons and events. We saw their wonderful dancing spirits in people. Although interestingly, these numerous number of folklore culture are unfortunately create the sense of separation for each village and hamlet while they develops their identities and prides. So we found that community dance has a huge potential to facilitate the larger plates to accommodate wide range of real community.
In a way these folklore dances were their community dance from the first place, we are introducing contemporary dance form to suite for the contemporary society?
In these days birthrate are much lower in countrysides, especially after the earthquake, population decreased largely. Elderlies care to lore the culture and protect their original dance and songs, which is important. But because of the issue, there is need to loose up the access for community in order to open up the rich culture to people who are interested beyond the nationality, area and family.
@Katatsumuri is a workstation, which employs people with learning difficulties. 16 people from the organisation decided to join the project and I choreographed a section with them. Katatsumuri was established about 15 years ago by the parents who have children with handicaps and developed their unique work but unfortunately their entire building was swept away by the tsunami. They now have this small provisional lodge in the same place with before and continue their work; leather work, labelling, rice cracker making,
field work etc.. I was so amazed by this company.
Something is really beautifully working. They never loose respect to each other while being so friendly. I sensed it immediately I stepped into the place, from the way the staff talk to workers and vice versa. This place has such a respectful and healthy community. I know that this type of work could be very stressful and I have heard some unfair outcomes and work condition get caused. But whenever I was working with them I was filled with generosity and supportive attitudes. They know each others well and are so good at dealing with each disability so that disabilities are understood as part of personality. I completely took my hat off to everyone at Katatsumuri. We have so many episodes with them that brought up our smiles.
In 2020, Olympic will be held in Tokyo. Many people think that money should be spent for North East on their recovery instead. But we can’t cancel the Olympic and started thinking positively by holding opening ceremony of Cultural Olympiad in here Sanriku. So this annual festival ‘Sanfes’ will take a lead to build up toward the 2020. We attended the symposium at the closing of the festival and heard some interesting debates. One of the comments that I was really interested was about the word ‘International’. What we need to focus is in fact more about ‘Inter-local’ and that is how activate, inform and develop the awareness of the actual rooted cultures that belongs to people. For me also, as I don’t believe in nationalism, I feel like I like to say I work inter-locally.
Huge thank you to invite me for the project…