Jo Kanamori talks dance in Japan

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

A15-minute drive from Niigata Station, just across the mighty Shinano River pouring into the sea from the Northern Alps, a massive oval-shaped hall sits amid rich green parkland. This is Niigata City Performing Arts Center, aka Ryutopia — the nation’s only public theater with a resident dance company.

Named Noism — meaning “no isms,” or boundaries — the company was founded in 2004 by Jo Kanamori, who is still the center’s artistic director for dance. At age 17, after taking ballet lessons from a young age, the Yokohama native left to study with the renowned Maurice Béjart in Lausanne, Switz- erland. From there, having blossomed in both dance and choreography, he went on to forge a sparkling 10-year career largely at the Netherlands Dance Theatre under its iconic master of contemporary dance, Jiri Kylian.

When we met as snowflakes drifted down last month, the company was deep into rehearsals for a rerun of their acclaimed 2007 “Play2Play — interfering dimension,” whose Niigata season preceded upcoming shows at Kanagawa Arts Theatre in Yokohama — where Kanamori, 39, in his first stage role for 2½ years, is set to deliver a great new-year present for his fans.

Despite that pressure, though, the easy-going high-flyer was happy to sit down for a chat in Ryutopia’s meeting room.

Since 2004, when Noism became the only resident dance company at a public theater in Japan, what has changed?

Well, Noism is now actually Noism1 and Noism2, a youth academy we started in 2009. Noism1 is active at home and abroad, and the Niigata City government has now realized what a cultural asset we are locally, nationally and internationally. Also, with it being our 10th anniversary the media has been projecting us as a cultural symbol of Niigata. So, it’s taken 10 years, but now we can set our sights even higher.

On the other hand, I really regret that our successful model hasn’t had any influence on Japan’s dance world. I expected many public theaters would follow with their own resident dance companies, which is normal in Europe, but they just don’t seem to get it.

It also irks me that, though many dancers now go abroad, when they return most of them just create a setting for their own pieces and don’t foster upcoming talent — whereas with their experience I’d like to see them actively trying to improve the system.

What is the secret of Noism’s success?

At first, the bureaucrats here could only think of using their dance budget to buy programs from Tokyo or abroad. Then I came along and talked about how public theaters need to be creative places whose budgets are used to foster original dance works, and how we should aim for a Niigata brand to make money locally, nationally and overseas.

After we negotiated, they decided to take a gamble and provide Noism with time, space and expenses on a three-year contract. Then we showed them we could generate revenue, so they gave us another three-year contract and now we’ve just agreed the third one. But what we need is to make a permanent agreement with the bureaucrats.

The government recently included dance in the national school curriculum in order to improve children’s “communication skills.” What do you think about that?

I take a skeptical view because dance has always been regarded as an athletic exercise in schools, and nothing has changed except hip-hop steps have been added to physical education.

But if schools adopted dance for artistic education, they could use it to cultivate children’s aesthetic sense. It’s also a perfect way to encourage free expression of their feelings, because it has no definite limits. So we will be sending Noism2 dancers to local schools to foster children’s ability to interpret the true essence of dance and express their own imaginations.

What is the merit having Noism as a publicly subsidized company?

It doesn’t need to be Noism in particular, but local public theaters need their own culture, their own performing-arts base.

Many in Japan just buy in programs and rent out space and never create anything themselves. I think they are wasting the public’s money and it would be better to demolish them. Nowadays it’s so easy to get to Tokyo or see performances on computers or dvd, so soon no one will want to spend tax money to keep a local rental theater going.

Moreover, I think it’s an important role of a public theater to dispatch its locality’s culture and art around Japan and to other countries as being representative of Japan. So it’s great if Niigata children can be proud of their area’s artistic stature due to their resident company, Noism.

Similarly, I wish politicians would put more trust in the power of art and ensure that talented dancers, especially ones who’ve studied and worked abroad, get to run local art sectors and liven up this country.

What’s your goal for the future?

I would like Noism2 to reach out more to schools and local events, and I would like to see Noism1 going abroad more frequently.

Also, as the Niigata City government has supported dance so strongly, I would like to run an international dance festival here. And to push Niigata’s dance culture even further forward, I want to establish a school for live performance, so if a child anywhere in Japan wants to be a professional, they can aim to come to Niigata — not just Tokyo, as at present. That way, Niigata will become a mecca of dance culture in Japan.

However, if Niigata won’t let us do that, I’ll try to find another partner — and if I can’t find one I will probably leave Japan.

Finally, what’s new in this revised version of “Play2Play”?

Well, it was originally about people’s sense of loss in general — but then we, the Japanese nation, experienced the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. So that made me particularly conscious to express the huge sense of loss that affects everyone.

Also, since “Play2Play” premiered in 2007, all the cast has changed except the main dancer, Sawako Iseki, and as dance is a living art for the human body, I wanted to tailor it to best suit its current members. So, we have refashioned the same basic structure for today’s audiences and dancers.

“Play2Play — interfering dimension” runs Jan. 24 and 25 at Kanagawa Arts Theatre in Yokohama, a 5-min. walk from Nihon Odori Station on the Minato Mirai Line. For details, call 045-662-8866 or visit noism.jp.