Condors fly in the face of contemporary dance scene

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

The Japanese are often described as being inward-looking and stoic, with a sense of humor that often fails to connect with people from overseas. However, there are still rare birds among that bunch.

Condors are an all-male, 12-member dance troupe that was formed and is led by Ryohei Kondo. They pride themselves on defying the Japanese stereotype by having fun and maintaining an international outlook.

At an Ikebukuro coffee shop before setting off for rehearsals for his new piece, “Juninen-no Ikareru Otoko (2012 Angry Men),” 43-year-old Kondo talked enthusiastically to The Japan Times about the nation’s current dance scene and his latest project.

“In Japanese, ikareru primarily means ‘angry,’ but different words with similar pronunciation can be interpreted as ‘crazy,’ ‘abnormal’ — or even ‘cool,’ ” Kondo says. “I don’t intend for this to be a performance that directly protests against society, but through ‘Ikareru Otoko’ I want to show that there are several possible ways forward from here.”

The way forward that Kondo refers to is the path Japan was forced to confront after the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11 in the country’s northern Tohoku region. The production’s title, “2012 Angry Men,” refers to the 1957 Hollywood courtroom film “Twelve Angry Men,” which centers on a 12-man jury and contains an underlying message of the frailty of human nature and people’s willingness to fall in line with the majority opinion even if it seems wrong.

What form Condors’ anger will take, however, is something that isn’t being revealed just yet. The group will continue to work out exactly what their performance of “2012 Angry Men” will entail in rehearsals right until the curtain rises at the Saitama Arts Theater this weekend. Whatever the specifics, though, audience members will no doubt be treated to their trademark style, a combination of dance sequences, comic skits, short films and live music.

“I think that mixture is one of our strengths,” Kondo says. “And it’s our aim to continue to provide it.”

In addition to this mix of different forms of entertainment, Condors make an extra effort to engage their audience. That’s because the group knows they don’t just appeal to typical dance or drama fans, but also to atypical theater-goers such as mothers and their children. With the barrier between audience and performer less rigid than your typical production, the group often tries to engage the audience directly by calling out to them — with the crowd responding in kind.

Kondo began Condors in 1996, and they’ve toured Japan almost every year for the past decade. They’ve also played in more than 20 foreign countries, including Britain and the United States.

Born into affluence as the son of a trading-company executive, Kondo spent his childhood in South America and can still recall how miserable he was when he boarded a plane to leave. Returning to Japan, he faced the same obstacles any teenage returnee does.

“I used to be a social outsider who didn’t care what anyone thought about me. I was always swimming against the tide of societal expectations,” Kondo says. “But since the birth of my daughter, I’ve been unable to just turn a blind eye to my societal responsibilities.”

He pauses for a minute and continues, “Basically, I believe I have never changed my natural character throughout my life. Since long before the Tohoku earthquake, which caused a lot of people to publicly protest for the first time, I’ve been standing up to the status quo. I’ve always supported artists like Kiyoshiro Imawano (who, as part of RC Succession in 1988, released an album titled “Covers” that included antinuclear power messages). That’s who I am.”

However, the societal responsibilities Kondo refers to seem less rebellious and more charitable. They include his work with children. From 2005-2009, national broadcaster NHK asked him to create exercises for “Karada de Asobo” (“Let’s Play with our Bodies”). He is also regularly asked to conduct dance workshops for children.

In addition to his work with young people, Kondo is creating productions that feature wheelchair-users and people with Down syndrome in the cast.

His attempts to broaden the appeal of dance as performance seem to stem from an outlook that goes against the traditional form of the art.

“Basically, I prefer the silly side of people instead of a structured and carefully cultivated image,” he says. “Everyone naturally has a silly, funny side, but many choreographers focus solely on bringing out a dancer’s stylish way of expression. So in my last dance program with young performers, ‘Lifetime of a Goat’ at Session House early this month, I tried to draw out my dancers’ humorous sides. That included, for example, (famed ballet dancer) Sayuri Ikami, who is very charismatic and I’m sure she has never let her hair down very much on stage before. But doing that — finding a performer’s hidden way of expression — is great fun, and they seem to enjoy working with me.”

Kondo also admits that sometimes even he is surprised with the results of this approach, “Last summer, at my dance program with wheelchair-users at Saitama Arts Theater, the performers impressed me when they performed a brilliant motorbike-gang routine using their wheelchairs live on stage. It showed they really understood the true essence of entertaining an audience. That’s something I find that many current professionals don’t understand. So many of them just create self-consciously ‘artistic’ programs. (Laughs).”

Whether with kids, the disabled or even seniors, Kondo’s enthusiasm for the possibilities and positive effects of dance education are obvious.

He points out how the education ministry’s curriculum guidelines that were changed to make martial arts and dance — comprising original dance creation, folk, and contemporary forms of dance such as hip-hop — a compulsory subject at elementary schools from last April, at junior high schools from this April, and at high schools from April 2013.

“Because of this policy, and all the popular singing and dance groups young people are into nowadays, dance will inevitably become the most popular subject at school,” Kondo says. “While there are still problems, like the lack of teachers who can teach children to dance properly — and to be honest, it’s in chaos at the moment — I think it is a great decision for children and the future of Japan’s dance scene.”

Of course, what child wouldn’t enjoy taking part in a dance class at school? Kondo stresses the universality of teaching dance, though, by mentioning that since October he has done six workshops for middle-aged managers in Tokyo’s central Marunouchi business district.

“Their characters have already changed so much, it has amazed me,” he says, referring to the salarymen. “They were shy and nervous at the beginning, but now they make efforts to learn the arrangement of a dance. And surprisingly, students will now voluntarily help each other if they’ve missed a class.”

Kondo refers to this spirit of cooperation as kizuna (human bond), which was the kanji character officially chosen to represent 2011 in Japan. Of course, this leads Kondo to remark on the role of dance in the wake of last year’s disasters.

“First,” he says, “there’s no doubt that many actions have taken on a different meaning from what they had before March 11. For example, if a dancer reaches out their hand to another dancer, it used to be interpreted as a ‘follow me’ message. But I think now most audience members would regard it like kizuna.”

Kondo says that this recognition is positive, but also unfortunate in the sense that it took the disasters to bring about such a way of thinking, or at least bring it out in people.

“It’s sad in one way, but it’s the reality. On the other hand, both myself and Condors have always tried to reach out and communicate with our audiences all the time, so I feel like our goals haven’t really changed.”

“2012 Angry Men” runs Jan. 28-29 at Saitama Arts Theater in Saitama City. For more details, call Saitama Arts Foundation at (0570) 064-939 or visit www.saf.or.jp. Condors’ “Hungry Like the Wolf” tour runs through March 9-27 in Shizuoka; Matsumoto; Shiga; Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture; and Tokyo. For more information, visit www.condors.jp.