Language, memory and identity politics are at the core of the fourth edition of Kyoto Experiment, the annual feast of progressive and experimental theater now being served up by organizers the Kyoto International Performing Arts Festival.
Along with artists from Japan, the event, running through Oct. 27, features companies from Brazil, France, England, Germany and Argentina — so enhancing its reputation for showcasing challenging, cross-disciplinary works from around the world.
To have made such a mark so fast — and in tradition-loving Kyoto — is a real coup in Japan’s largely Tokyo-centered contemporary performing arts scene lured by safe choices in these times of economic uncertainty.
So, fittingly, it was the globe-trotting, cutting-edge Chelfitsch company — whose founder and leader Toshiki Okada lives in the Kyushu city of Kumamoto — who kicked off Kyoto Experiment on Sept. 28, presenting a packed house with the Japan premiere of their “Ground and Floor.”
Written and directed by Okada, the play follows two brothers in a near-future Japan beset by a looming war. But while the older brother is set on leaving the country with his pregnant wife, the other vows to stay to look after their mother’s grave.
Suspended above a bare, noh-inspired stage is a paper cross — a simple shape that doubles as a screen for projections of Japanese, Chinese and English subtitles (with French added on tour in France). As the story unfolds, with live rock music on stage, the languages seem to vie for position and underscore a central theme of the play: the loss of a national idiom and its effects on cultural identity as language itself is in the process of disintegrating.
In this piece that had its world premiere at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels in May, we are told “the stage is a place where ghosts can be seen” — and indeed, a key character is the mother’s ghost that watches the unfolding fate of her sons. But this dimension also alludes to contemporary Japan, still living with the spectre of Fukushima; and also to the spirit plays of the noh repertoire with which it is infused.
Meanwhile, of the other nine works in the program, seven were co-produced by Kyoto Experiment. According to Program Director Yusuke Hashimoto, collaborations are crucial to driving the festival forward by helping to forge relationships between visiting artists and the audiences, and also by enabling many previously unseen productions to be staged.
So among this year’s offerings are mixed-media works by Ryoji Ikeda and Tadasu Takamine, who have worked with the festival for three years. In “Superposition,” Ikeda, who is one of Japan’s top visual artists and is known for large sets creating immersive environments, aims to explore quantum information theory, creating haunting audio-visual data patterns across a multitude of screens.
For his contribution this time, Takamine adds “Berlin Version” to an ongoing series of works titled “Japan Syndrome” which, last time around, featured a video installation raising social and political aspects of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear crisis. To create that work, Takamine asked random people in Kyoto, Mito (Ibaraki Prefecture) and Yamaguchi for their views on the disaster. The interviews, then re-performed by actors videoed in a black-box studio, reveal — among many surprises — questions about the safety of food being met with a mixture of apathy, bewilderment and genuine concern.
In contrast, “Box in the Big Trunk,” written and directed for the Niwagekidan Penino company by its founder Kuro Tanino (who happens to be a qualified psychiatrist), is a Freud-flavored reworking of “Alice in Wonderland” in which a 43-year-old man, confined to a room in his father’s house, is caught in a nightmare of forever preparing for a university entrance exam. Here, the man’s closet becomes the “rabbit hole” that leads him to an incredible other world full of phantasmagoric characters and dwellings. Literary and filmic references abound, with allusions to the grotesque world of “The Hobbit”; the male sexual violence of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of “A Clockwork Orange”; and the beautiful childlike twists and turns of a Hayao Miyazaki film. Penino’s split-level revolving stage is also a wonder in itself.
Confinement figures, too, in “Suddenly Everywhere is Black with Bodies,” in which Brazilian choreographer Marcelo Evelin sets up a square lit by dim neon lights where six black-painted, naked bodies merge into a mass of flesh that travels out into the auditorium — occasionally exploding so its two women and four men come into contact with an edgy audience.
Here, in the shift between homogeneous groups and vulnerable individuals, the audience’s very identity is brought into question. What is a body of people and what can it do? To what extent is identity built on the act of shared looking?
Also in the festival this year is the women- only performance collective She She Pop from Germany; Argentinean artist Lola Arias with her heart-rending human drama “Melancholy and Demonstrations” set against her country’s 1976 plunge into military dictatorship; Scottish choreographer Billy Cowie; and new pieces by Tokyo-based companies, Kinoshita-Kabuki and Baobab. There is also a vibrant fringe program offering valuable space and support for emerging Japanese artists.
Overall, Kyoto Experiment presents a month of probing, cross-genre work that rethinks the place of theater — its ghosts, memories and languages — in a globalized world. It takes as its slogan a phrase much loved by the late Kyoto performing arts producer, Sumiko Endo: “Do as you like.”
But this is not a call to random creation, rather a plea to work within, across and at times beyond the constraints of our times. Fittingly, Hashimoto pays tribute to Endo in his programme note, vowing to continue in her steps and support artists and audiences on their journeys into the unknown.
Kyoto Experiment runs through Oct. 27 at Kyoto Art Center and four other venues in the city. For details, call 075-213-0820 or visit kyoto-ex.jp/eng. “Ground and Floor” will be staged at Kanagawa Arts Theatre from Dec. 14-23; for details, call 045-633-6500 or visit www.kaat.jp or chelfitsch.net.