Dance in Asia 2018 – A radical retelling of the Tale of Genji

This article was originally published in the Japan Times on February 20 2018.

How do you make a thousand-year-old story resonate with an audience in Osaka today? Tell them that you plan to radically modernize one of the most famous literary works ever to come out of Japan to fit present concerns.

The centerpiece of “Asia.ai” is an interpretation of Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji,” and the feat of producing it has been such that it almost entirely encompasses the Dance in Asia event that takes place from Feb. 23 to 25 in Osaka. However, this third installment of the dance festival makes sure to shine a light on new work by young performers and nurture inter-Asian collaborations among more established artists.

Additionally, Dance in Asia takes place in Kansai for the first time, at a former boatyard that has been transformed into an experimental art space.

Mikuni Yanaihara, a choreographer and Kishida award-winning playwright, is one of the founders of Dance in Asia. She realized “there was a serious lack of information on contemporary performing arts in Asia” after returning from several research trips to the United States and Europe in the 1990s. In an attempt to fill that gap, she began to work with fellow members of Nibroll, a dance collective led by Yanaihara and visual artist Keisuke Takahashi, on building a pan-Asian network of artists. Dance in Asia is backed by other influential artists, including composer and DJ Toru Yamanaka and lighting designer Ryota Fudetani.

The “Asia.ai” project was conceived by Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen. “The Tale of Genji,” about the lives of Imperial court members during the Heian Period (794-1185), first caught Ong’s attention in the late 1980s when he read Arthur Waley’s translation. He was particularly drawn to the gender relationship between the female author, Murasaki, and the leading male character, Prince Genji.

“I’m trying to understand current times through Murasaki,” Ong tells The Japan Times. “I see Genji as her alter-ego. It’s a very strange situation because Murasaki doesn’t write about another woman, she writes about a refined young man who she translates herself into. This is a fascinating psychological double.”

The first chapter of “Asia.ai” was performed in 2010 on the now defunct Toyoko Line platform at Sakuragicho Station in Yokohama. For this second chapter in 2018, against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement and its focus on exposing cases of sexual harassment and assault, Ong and Yanaihara revisited “Genji” with a new group of young performers selected from over 50 applicants.

Through an intensive workshop, which included a field trip to Kyoto to retrace the remains of Murasaki and her novel, with stops at Rozanji and Ishiyama temples, Ong and Yanaihara encouraged the performers to immerse themselves in Murasaki’s world .

The seven selected performers from the workshop took their ideas into rehearsal and began to represent the story in physical terms under Yanaihara’s direction, finding more resonance in the peripheral female characters than the womanizing Genji.

Reflecting on their work, dancer Riku Ikushima thinks “the position of women hasn’t dramatically changed since the 11th century in this patriarchal society, despite the promotion of gender equality.”

On the other hand, both dancers Haruna Yamatsuji and Sayaka Shigemi feel the relationship with gender was more complex, noting that “what it means to perform male or female roles can be subjective and interchangeable.” This view echoes Ong’s reading of Genji as Murasaki’s “psychological double.”

Yanaihara, who interpreted Genji’s sex drive as a mother complex rather than a Lolita one, split the epic story spanning 70 years and 500 characters into four seasons, and renamed the project “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter.”

In this stage adaptation, which starts with the line “Spring, the season of birth,” all the performers don white shirts and black pants as a neutral uniform, over which they wear old kimonos. These evocative robes are markers of time. When treated with reverence, they function as symbols of the beloved and the deceased; when used as accessories, they recall bygone everyday life in Japan.

Among the numerous fragments inspired by the “Genji” text, the “Autumn” sequence ends with a statement from Murasaki’s diary: “If you have your own room, you can think about humans, not through others, but through your immediate reality.”

This line brings to mind Virginia Woolf’s famous essay “A Room of One’s Own” in the sense that both works suggest personal space is a crucial part of intellectual independence.

According to Yanaihara, another key aspect of this production is the gaze. For her, the acts of peeping and staring have become a virtual ritual in the social media age, and playing with the changing nature of the gaze, from the Heian Period until today, is alluded to in the project’s overall title “Asia.ai.” The word “ai” in Japanese means love, but its homonym in English also refers to the “eye” of the gaze and the “I” of the subject.

This plurality of time and place in “Asia.ai” will be further explored in the festival’s showcase productions. The audience will move to the Black Chamber to experience a series of short mixed-media dance pieces that include: “The Boy from the Countryside” by J.S. Wong and Takahashi; “Wandering Dreams” by Melati Suryodarmo and Skank; “The Fifth Dimension” by Mou Tien-Yun and Chang Ya-Yuan of the Century Contemporary Dance Company based in Taiwan; and other pieces by young Japanese performers.

By questioning definitions and expressions of “Asia,” both past and present, the collaborative works at the core of “Asia.ai” make this festival a challenging and provocative event that is not to be missed.

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