Yokohama’s annual feast of TPAM

by Andrew Eglinton and Mika Eglinton

Special To The Japan Times

As befits its designation as a “Cultural City of East Asia 2014,” Yokohama is about to host Japan’s foremost annual platform for contemporary performing arts.

Launched in 1995 as the Tokyo Performing Arts Market, the weeklong event moved to its present home in 2011, when its name was changed to the Tokyo Performing Arts Meeting. Since 2005, TPAM has been under the directorship of Hiromi Maruoka.

In fact that name change was indicative of a major shift in emphasis, from TPAM being a showcase to attract producers to stage homegrown and international works, to it becoming an event at which producers, artists — and audiences — can experience a wealth of cutting-edge work and exchange ideas and know-how.

As Maruoka explains, that revised mission for this publicly funded event stemmed from a decision to leave traditional and commercial Japanese theaters to their own networks, and to focus on contemporary performance. After all, a performing-arts “market” seemed at odds with contemporary performance, which tends to exist at the mainstream’s margins.

In practice, TPAM’s organizational structure is split between a Showing Program and a Network Program, and this year the former has three separate curatorial segments.

The first, TPAM Direction, comprises works selected by four young Japanese theater professionals: Masashi Nomura, a producer at the Komaba Agora Theatre in Tokyo; Fumi Yokobori, program director at up-and-coming Kobe nonprofit Dance Box; Katsuhiro Ohira, director of the experimental performance space ST Spot in Yokohama; and Takuo Miyanaga, a producer involved in Oriza Hirata’s celebrated Tokyo-based (but globally minded) Seinendan Theater Company.

Among this segment’s chosen works is “Girl X” by the Tokyo-based Hanchu-Yuei collective, a play that fictionalizes differing viewpoints on the value and purpose of life that have emerged in Japan since the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

Another is “Aomori, Aomori,” a work-in-progress initiated in 2008 by Welsh dancer and choreographer Sioned Huws, who has since held annual workshops with dancers and musicians from Aomori Prefecture in the Tohoku region of northern Honshu, and is drawing on them to create new works.

In a similar mode, a third selection, “About Dances in Shin-Nagata,” is an ongoing project in which Jun Tsutsui encounters people who dance in the multi-ethnic Shin-Nagata suburb of Kobe. These include members of an Amami Island dance class; a group whose Japanese-born Korean members practice North and South Korean styles; and Masanwin Kitano, a restaurant owner and amateur dancer from Myanmar.

Meanwhile, the second segment of the Showing Program, titled International Showcase, features works by foreign Asian artists and others from France and Finland.

Among these, Seoul-based Siren Eun Young Jung has spent five years researching and recording a style of Korean opera known as yeosung gukgeuk, which was popular in the 1950s and ’60s but then lost its wider appeal. The resulting “(Off) Stage / Masterclass” is presented with two of the genre’s leading performers.

From France, the choral “Encyclopedia of Speech” by Joris Lacoste investigates — in a reworking with some Seinendan actors — the diversity of oral language structures by means of multiple voices; while “Ash is Falling,” a Japan-Finland dance collaboration choreographed by Kosei Sakamoto, is based on “Haigafuru,” a poem written by Tatsuji Miyoshiin in the wake of the 1945 atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The third and main segment in the Showing Program is TPAM Showcase, which focuses on homegrown artists. Among those is Yutaka Kuramochi and his “About Hanako,” one of a series of contemporary noh plays being developed by the renowned kyōgen (traditional comic theater) actor Mansai Nomura, who is the artistic director of Setagaya Public Theatre in Tokyo.

Director Junnosuke Tada of the Tokyo Deathlock theater group also presents a revival of his 2011 play “Re/Play,” which explores the potential to derive meaning from repeated physical movement. Here, the original’s eight actors are replaced by eight dancers who respond to the piece’s central idea in their own individual ways.

Then to round off the Showing Program, Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker, a young 23-strong company led by Toco Nikaido, will treat intrepid audiences to one of their high-octane hybrids of performance, pop concert and theater titled “Noise and Darkness” — a chaotic yet controlled banquet that critiques disposable culture in modern society.

In parallel with its Showing Program, TPAM’s Network Program features a keynote session, which this year will question the notion of the “public sphere” in an Asian context. Speakers include Seonghee Kim, artistic director of Gwangju, South Korea-based Asian Arts Theatre, Ong Ken Sen, artistic director of TheatreWorks in Singapore and Yusuke Hashimoto, program director of the Kyoto Experiment performing-arts festival.

Altogether, the event is a challenging, eclectic and intense platform that tries to open up spaces for critical thinking — and with many among the nation’s political elite now pushing the idea of a newly forceful Japan, TPAM offers an important (en)counter space to rethink questions of economy, identity and performance.

TPAM 2014 runs Feb. 8-16 at multiple venues in central Yokohama. For further details and/or tickets, visit tpam.or.jp.