Art Talk with choreographer Kota Yamazaki
“I believe a choreographer is very similar to an architect. Like an architect, the choreographer must think of the design of what he creates, and consider how people will interact within this environment.” — Kota Yamazaki
Originally from Niigata, Japan, choreographer Kota Yamazaki founded New York-based dance group Kota Yamazaki/Fluid Hug-Hug in 2002. Fluid Hug-Hug was established on the principles of traveling, exchanging, and exploring to promote an environment of free artistic exchange among dancers from different backgrounds. The company presents Yamazaki’s original works, many of which are influenced by the free-form dance technique of butoh. Initially developed in Japan, butoh is a non-traditional, avant-garde dance with no specific form or restrictions. This open-ended, constantly changing technique compliments Yamazaki’s passion for multi-cultural exchange, giving him the freedom to create works that highlight each dancer’s unique physicality and cultural background.
One such work is Yamazaki’s Glowing, which premiered in April of 2012. (glowing) features Japanese, African, and American performers, exploring the natural communication and community that forms among dancers during performances. “It is magical to me to see how different cultures can organically establish a community by working on the piece,” said Yamazaki.
Last week, I spoke with Yamazaki and Fluid Hug-Hug dancer Mina Nishimura, who served as a translator for the conversation. Below Yamazaki provides insight into Fluid Hug-Hug, Glowing, and his personal philosophies on how art works in our diverse world.
NEA: Could you talk about the meaning behind the name of your company, Fluid Hug-Hug?
Kota Yamazaki: The name Fluid Hug-Hug reflects how I strive to work with people. I believe a person needs to be fluid in order to exchange with different people. Like water, this fluidity makes it easier to be around individuals from different backgrounds. When I established the group in New York, I was traveling a lot, which provided inspiration in naming the group. The Hug-Hug part comes from this idea of meeting a lot of different people.
NEA: Fluid Hug-Hug was founded on the policy of traveling, exchanging, and exploring. Thus far, to what extent do you feel the group has done this?
Yamazaki: As an individual choreographer, I frequently work with different companies outside of the United States. I often travel to different countries, spend several months there, and create a work for them. So as an individual artist, I feel I have traveled, exchanged, and explored quite a bit. As a group, because Fluid Hug-Hug is New York-based, it is sometimes difficult to achieve this same level of exchange. When I have the chance I try to invite artists from outside of the United States. One of the reasons I founded Fluid Hug-Hug in New York was because of all the different cultures and backgrounds present here. I really try to work with dancers from different countries, backgrounds, and cultures, even though they might live in New York.
NEA: Can you discuss how butoh has influenced your work, both in (glowing) and in the company’s other repertory?
Yamazaki: (glowing) is a bit different from other works because the initial idea was to explore the common elements between African dance forms and butoh. As I worked with the dancers, who are from Africa, Japan, and the United States, I became more interested in juxtaposing different forms rather than connecting them. I also became interested in how organic communication could be established among the dancers, which was a new topic for me. My background is in butoh, so I am naturally influenced by it. Butoh is an avant-garde dance without a specific form. The form keeps changing, so it’s difficult to define or decide what it really is. What butoh is has been changing for me. I have been exploring and searching for what it really means to me, so it’s difficult to answer exactly how butoh has influenced my work as a whole.
NEA: (glowing) was inspired in part by Junichiro Tanizaki’s famous essay “In Praise of Shadows” What was it about this writing that inspired you to produce a piece from it?
Yamazaki: Before I was inspired by “In Praise of Shadows,” I spent a lot of time in Senegal working on another production. I worked with a Senegal-based company, and I lived in a small village there. The village had no electricity, so at nighttime it became very dark. The culture and way of life in Senegal reminded me of how Japanese people lived in old times. I felt a strong connection between the old Japanese lifestyle and African lifestyle. I thought that maybe “In Praise of Shadows” could be a bridge between two different cultures. In the book, the writer also talks about Japanese aesthetics and compares it to Western culture. Japanese culture values silence, darkness, and ambiguity, while Western culture is more focused on brightness and clarity. This inspired me to explore this juxtaposition.
NEA: What would you say is the overall theme of (glowing)?
Yamazaki: If I had to define a theme in (glowing), I would say it is communication, and creating a community among people. Rather than solely teaching choreography to dancers, I wanted dancers to exchange their craft with each other, and wanted to observe what emerged from this communication. I did teach butoh and some of my techniques, but I was more attracted to the organic communication between dancers. Each dancer spent a lot of the time exchanging and sharing their backgrounds and dance techniques with each other. As a result, each dancer provided inspiration to another.
NEA: Could you talk about the different dance forms present in the piece?
Yamazaki: There were two dancers from Africa; one dancer was from Senegal, and another was from Ethiopia. Each dancer had a background in their traditional dance. Although they’re both from Africa, their styles were completely different. The Senegalese dancer had a very aggressive style with a lot of jumping, while the Ethiopian dancer had a more elegant, gentle, and fluid style. There were also two American dancers who had a background in post-modern dance. I was inspired by what they brought to the piece, and ended up using a lot of pedestrian movements, like walking, that can be found in post-modern dance.
NEA: What impact do you hope (glowing) has on your audience? What message do you hope to send across?
Yamazaki: First of all, I am happy if the piece conveys Japanese aesthetics, which was inspired by “In Praise of Shadows.” As I said before, Japanese people find beauty in darkness and ambiguity, as opposed to Western culture, which values clarity and brightness and precision—so this is totally the opposite. I also hope the audience can get a sense for the organic communication that is happening between different people.
NEA: What do you believe is the responsibility of the artist to the community?
Yamazaki: I believe that the artist can propose new perspective and expand existing perspectives. The artist should act as a kind of mediator of a different culture and field to the public. I believe art can really do that, and at times can transcend past politics or cultural barriers. I believe a choreographer is very similar to an architect. Like an architect, the choreographer must think of the design of what he creates, and consider how people will interact within this environment.
NEA: Conversely, what do you believe society’s responsibility is to the artist?
Yamazaki: An artist must be very active, but society should be flexible enough to be inspired by the art. They need to have enough courage to change things. If the artist is trying to change perspective or an established value, society needs to be responsive and receptive. It’s really hard to create change without this, even if the artist keeps trying to inspire change. I’ve spent a lot of time in Tokyo, and I feel that lately society has started opening up and listening to artists. I’m not so sure about New York City. There are so many different artistic communities existing in New York, so it’s hard to see the movement of one single community. In Tokyo the artistic community is very small, so it’s very easy to get an overview of what’s going on.
NEA: At the NEA, we say “Art Works,” which means three things: the work of art itself, the transformative way art works on individuals, and that artists are actually employees in our workforce. What does “Art Works” mean to you?
Yamazaki: I can only talk from the choreographer’s standpoint, but I believe choreography can be a lot of things. It’s not only creating work. For example, I am director of an arts organization in Tokyo that organizes a very small, community-based festival called Whenever, Wherever Festival. I try to create a place where a lot of artists can meet and exchange. I act as a curator, so the communication with the public is also my artwork. So yes, I believe art works in many, many different ways.