Japan’s contemporary dance

 Looking at Japan’s contemporary dance with the Westerners’ eye, SANKAIJUKU, Saburo TESHIGAWARA+KARAS, Dumb Type may stand out and form a representative image of it, but with a bird’s eye, this is not necessarily be the case.


Dumb Type

It may sound paradoxical, but the feature of Japan’s contemporary dance is the fact that there is no feature clearly definable. Diversity of styles may be the word, i.e. all sorts of styles of dance imaginable at this point of time in the world coexist “here・now”, or a chaotic situation where anything can happen.

Still, one feature can be identifiable, especially in Tokyo; a trend of dancers who did not train themselves with existing dancing techniques, and those who dare not to show traces of their dancing technique such as ballet.
Here happen experimental trials to question the existing framework of dance; not by applying the avant-garde motions as was observed in the post-modern dance of the 60s United States, but by bringing in pop and kitsch fashionability. Representatives of such a trend are Strange Kinoko (mushroom) Dance Co. (Chie ITOH), Masako YASUMOTO, Idevian Crew (Shigehiro IDE),BOKUDESU(Masahiro KOHAMA).
Strange Kinoko (mushroom) Dance Co. (Chie ITOH)


Idevian Crew


Another trend of Japanese contemporary dance is noticeable in the works of multi-media performance groups who collaborate with artists of other genres than dance such as image, art and music. The spearhead of this trend is Nibroll (Mikuni YANAIHARA), who draws attention not only to its performing arts but also to its genre-straddling activities such as image installations at large-scale art exhibitions. Other remarkable groups are Leni-Basso (Akiko KITAMURA) which has presented its works mainly through their overseas performance tours and produces “a current Japan” from its solid and aggressive dances and its highly skilled work of staff in image, music, lighting and etc.; BABY-Q (Yoko HIGASHINO) which presents us with specifically unique visual works, mechanical like Mamoru OSHIO’s and still familiar. Obviously these groups owe their origin to the trend created by Dumb Type. Still, their works place more importance on the dance performance per se, while Dumb Type is more inclined to art performance created in collaboration with art-oriented producers.



Compared with contemporary dance of other Asian countries, that of Japan is in a unique position. This may have something to do with the fact that Japan’s contemporary dance finds the cradle completely detached from Japan’s traditional dance and theater (Kabuki, Noh, Nihon Buyoh) in terms of dancing techniques. This is not the case with other Asian countries such as China, Taiwan, Korea and India, which seem to aim at integrating the traditional folk dance and the western dance.

Does it mean that Japan’s contemporary dance is an import and mere mimicry of the dance of the west? This is not true. Here, I have to cite one of the characteristics of Japanese culture as a whole. That is to accept the original concept and technology abroad, adapt them to the Japan’s specificity and transform them into something unique to Japan. (For example, only a few decades after the first matchlock was imported from Portugal, Japan was producing all the matchlocks necessary for its domestic use. It is said that at one point of time in history, a half of the matchlocks of the world existed in Japan.)

BUTOH, Japanese contemporary dance most renown in the west, may seem something oriental and traditional to the Westerners’ eye. However, BUTOH is a dance created by one genius dancer and choreographer Tatsumi HIJIKATA. The features of BUTOH, i.e. the low center of gravity, distorted posture of the body, etc., have no direct bearing with the Japanese traditional dances. BUTOH is a modern dance original to HIJIKATA who trained himself in GENDAI BUYOU, which pursued its own path of development in Japan, being influenced by the American modern dance and the German expressionism dance. BUTOH is HIJIKATA’s own original modern dance invented as an antithesis against the western dances represented by ballet. Saburo TESHIGAWARA is another famous figure, but not in the genre of BUTOH. He first learned techniques of ballet and mime which originate in the West, and he adapted them in such a way to create a dance of unique movements unparalleled anywhere in the world.

Though BUTOH is still a large trend in Japan’s contemporary dance, HIJIKATA, the founder, passed away and Kazuo OHNO is no longer so active in performance due to his age. Here, we have to pay attention to Akira KASAI, who also belongs to the first generation of BUTOH together with the three dancers mentioned above, but is still actively performing throughout the world and is outstanding in his energetic activities.
Kazuo OHNO


It may sound contradictory to my previous description about the birth of BUTOH, KASAI is not a follower of HIJIKATA and has approached the dance in a different way from HIJIKATA’s since the beginning. KASAI’s works are full of intense moves, completely different from those moves which BUTOH tends to remind us of; e.g. silent and very slow moves, dancing with the feet touched on the floor and keeping low the center of gravity. Worthy of special mention about KASAI is his exhaustless energy despite his age as well as his own methods such as respiration with some influence of Eurythmy. Expressions of dancers seem to ripen and mature as the dancers age, as is the case of TESHIGAWARA. But KASAI is an exception. We just have to take off our hat to him for his ageless avant-garde elastic and airy movement.

BUTOH descended to the second generation, HIJIKATA’s direct followers: SANKAIJUKU, BYAKKOSHA and DAIRAKUDAKAN. The third and fourth generations are very active as well. One of them is Masami YURABE originally from BYAKKOSHA and currently based in Kyoto, strong in improvised solo dances. His draws a line between his dance and a typical grotesque and bizarre image of BUTOH, and generates a chain of elegantly floating movements in his dance.

Kim ITOH and Kota YAMAZAKI are considered to represent the Japan’s contemporary dance after TESHIGAWARA; these dancers and choreographers keep a distance from the traditional style of BUTOH, choreographing ballet dances and others. The two have a commonality of being choreographer of their own companies respectively and being solo dancers of prominent individual identity.

ITOH is making a contribution to the effort to raise the overall level of Japan’s contemporary dance; Tsuyoshi SHIRAI and Ikuyo KURODA who were originally very active in ITOH’s company established their own company, have been awarded with various prizes of choreograph both in and out Japan, grown as a promising young., but they do not necessarily follow ITOH’s style. KURODA is a ballet dancer of a ballet company and shows her distinct originality by the dance in groups of intense moves, which is a mixture of BUTOH’s elements inherited from ITOH and moves of ballet. SHIRAI’s BANETO is highly accepted for its multi-media-driven works using images and music, which stands outside of the BUTOH’s framework.

Tsuyoshi SHIRAI

Kota YAMAZAKI’s main attractiveness is his extraordinary high level of physical capability as a solo dancer. He is so flexible as to dance BUTOH and ballet and recently introduce moves of African dance into his works through his exchanges with African companies.

Another type of groups is of those following the American and European style of dance through their exchanges with foreign artist and their experiences of studying abroad, e.g. in France, and creating works with their own taste added to it. Participants in this festival Monochrome Circus (Kosei SAKAMOTO), Ludens (Takiko IWABUCHI), J.A.M. Dance Theatre (Mayuko AIHARA) are of this type.
Monochrome Circus

J.A.M. Dance Theatre

Takeshi YAZAKI who lives is Kyoto but has his production basis in France and Joh KANAMORI from NDT, a follower of Jiri Kylian are other choreographers worthy of attention. Their feature is to demonstrating subtlety in expression unique to the Japanese which differrenciate their dances from European and American, while Monochrome Circus uses contact improvisation, and Joh KANAMORI follows contemporary ballet and western techniques.
Takeshi YAZAKI

Monochrome Circus found out a new way of expression “Shukakusai”, a delivery-service- of dance, which is something in the middle of community art and dance. Monochrome Circus is active in expanding its boundary by collaborating with Takayuki FUJIMOTO, a stage lighting designer of Dumb Type, outsourcing some works to Didier Theron, a French choreographer. I keep my eyes on their borderless activities to see what kind of fruit will be borne on their stage.