Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

The Challenges and Potential of Performing Arts in COVID-19 Times
MIYATA Tetsuya / Art critic

February 16, 2021
The COVID-19 crisis has placed performing arts in difficult straits. Artists and groups based in small theaters and studios face particular difficulty: to avoid the three Cs—closed spaces, crowds, and close-contact situations—any performance they hold would have to have an audience of less than half the capacity, and the economic challenges this poses threaten their very existence. Nonetheless, some of the performances that I have seen over the past months give me hope for the future.

The appeal of works presented in small theaters consists of more than just the visual elements. It is an experience that engages all five senses: the hint of breathing that arises from the proximity of the artist, the ambience of events transpiring in a small space, the collective sense of excitement among viewers. These are all elements that are hard to convey fully in live broadcasts from large venues or through media reporting, and for this reason video recordings of performances have never been very popular.

The true artist will turn a challenge on its head to create excellent works of art. In her fall 2020 work Meikyu densetsu 2020 (Labyrinth myth 2020), Mitsuyo Uesugi staged a performance that felt as if the audience was viewing some faraway occurrence through a video screen, doing away with all the earmarks of butoh and of small theater. It was not focused on minute movements as butoh often is, nor were there any theatrical or dramatic developments to speak of. It was also not the elegant and erotic performance that those familiar with Uesugi might expect. Despite the unusually long running time for a butoh work, time appeared suspended. I daresay I was not the only one who acutely felt the distance between the stage and audience.

As I see it, Uesugi took on the future of butoh itself. There is no use in whining that butoh does not mesh with online distribution; yet it is an art form that comes to life only through face-to-face encounters. Her performance struck me as a response to this dilemma.

On October 1, 2020, Masako Fukaya performed at the Striped House Gallery in Roppongi, where her husband, Koichi Tamauchi, was holding a photography exhibition. I had the fortune of witnessing her dance performance, which was organized impromptu.

As the deep sound of the cello reverberates, Fukaya, clad in white, begins twisting her body. Countless tomatoes fall from her bosom. Slouched on the floor by a wall, Fukaya proceeds to smash the tomatoes. She slips the tomatoes back into her clothes, but they spill to the floor all over again. The scent of the scattered tomatoes wafts through my nostrils. As Fukaya sinks deeper into the floor, I am hit with the illusion that the walls on which the photographs hang have become the floor and ceiling. Some onlookers are seen snapping photographs from outside the gallery. Part of the fun of small venues is that no two people have the same view.

In November 2020, Miyako Kato presented a performance titled Across the Distance at her humble studio, Annex Sengawa Factory. Featuring not only dancers in the flesh but also live and prerecorded video, including some from overseas, Kato put together an ambitious experimental piece.

The performance begins with a video sequence projected on the back wall, in which a relay of movements, notably of the limbs, progresses from dancer to dancer. The shots are taken in various settings, including homes, dance studios, outdoors, and ultimately a park in Japan with columns reminiscent of a Greek temple. Kato dances, superimposed against the moving images. She appears resolute, as if to embrace the wind against her face, not fighting and yet countervailing it. In the following scene, eight dancers in white costumes perform with minimalistic movements. Music and dance both develop in subtle shifts, and the performance takes diverse turns, including solos and duets, sprinkled with video projections. A dancer appears in each of the television monitors on both sides of the stage, joining in the performance. Finally, Kato reappears, and the hour-long piece comes to a close as she stomps her feet emphatically.

While I felt that the performance may have been rather heavy on video, it allowed me to reaffirm the substantiality of video content in the face of the current preference for remote connections. It included remote appearances on TV monitors, as well as prerecorded performances by dancers in Germany and the United States. An attempt like Kato’s—to engage in small connections at her home ground—is a fine effort too.

No one knows how long this crisis will last, and there are no pointers as to how performing arts should proceed from here. Given the increasingly prominent place that artificial intelligence can be expected to play in the coming years, it may well be that professions and disciplines for which remote work is not an option will become obsolete in Japan. I believe we may be on the brink of an age in which people are astonished to learn that performing arts could once be viewed in person. That is why we must constantly seek out new ways of communication, such as how to present performing arts.

Tetsuya Miyata is an art critic, visiting professor at the Kyoto Saga University of Arts, and part-time instructor at the Department of Fine Arts, Nihon University College of Art
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

宮田 徹也 / 美術評論家

2021年 2月 16日


この困難を逆手にとって素晴らしい作品を生み出すのが芸術家であろう。昨秋の上杉満代舞踏公演《迷宮伝説 2020》は舞踏や小劇場らしい特徴を一切排除し、まるで遠くの出来事を映像で見ているように錯覚させた公演を創出した。





加藤みや子は昨年11月、自らの小規模なスタジオ、アネックス仙川ファクトリーにおいて、『Across the Distance』を発表した。加藤は生身のダンサーだけではなく、録画映像、海外からのリモート映像も駆使して、一つの壮大な実験作品を創出した。





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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > The Challenges and Potential of Performing Arts in COVID-19 Times