Taihen actors put bodies on the line

by Andrew Eglinton

Special To The Japan Times

Observing rehearsals by the physical-theater company Taihen for their upcoming “Over the Rainbow” show at ABC Hall in Osaka was in many ways a free-jazz experience.

On a compositional level, the Taihen stage is an intimate meeting-ground between cast, crew, musicians and audience. The performers, who in the company’s own words, “have polio, cerebral palsy or other conditions,” move in their skin-tight leotards between free-form and set choreographies in a montage of vignettes that explores the human condition in a post-catastrophe environment.

The dancers operate within a tightly controlled time structure that’s partly maintained (and disrupted) by a sonorous onstage jazz trio led by the renowned saxophonist and composer Kosei Yamamoto — and partly by the highly disciplined black-clad kuroko (stage hands) who assist some of the performers with entrances, exits and cues. And there’s also the company managers and volunteer staff helping to keep everything moving along as intended.

This tension between syncrasy and idio-syncrasy, time and counter-time, absent “able” bodies and present “disabled” bodies, invites the audience to question what a body can do, what a dance vocabulary might be — and what elements of identity and experience can be shared in this inter-subjective space.

Taihen — which in Japanese means “hard,” “harsh,” “severe” or “terrible” — was founded in 1983 by then 30-year-old Osaka-born director, writer and performer Kim Manri.

The youngest daughter of celebrated Korean traditional performing artist Kim Honju, Manri contracted polio at the age of 3, leaving her severely disabled. However, in the mid 1970s she began living independently (with on-call assistance) and working at the grass-roots level to campaign against the eugenicist ideology rife at that time in Japan.

Much of Taihen’s early work has involved critiques of the social and political conditions surrounding the group. In their 1983 piece “Iro ha Nioi he do” (“Fragrance of a Hue”), the performers voiced statements such as “We want to be independent” and “We want to live independently as human beings” — while in contrast, their live speech was countered by the angry recorded voices of non-disabled people shouting: “What the hell are you talking about?”; “What do you expect to do with bodies like that?”; “You’re a disgrace!”; “You’re better off dead!”

The early pieces often involved direct interaction with the audience, sometimes inviting people on stage to establish a dialogue, sometimes venturing into the audience for personal contact — but always with the aim of affirming and validating the identities and existences of the performers.

Then, from the late 1980s into the ’90s, the company began to explore the body as a means of expression, moving from overt anti-eugenics agitprop to a form of physical theater in which the personal voices of the performers and the audience’s open interpretations were key.

Meanwhile, Taihen’s hallmark leotards were introduced to emphasize and transform the cast’s twisted and distorted bodies, which in Manri’s view are “normally considered ungainly” into bodies of “peculiar beauty.”

This trope is contained within the name Taihen itself, since besides its other English translations it is also an anagram of “hentai,” whose most common meaning is “perverse.” Manri, however, uses the word’s secondary meaning, “metamorphosis,” to define the company’s spirit.

This year, Taihen is celebrating its 30th anniversary — and “Over the Rainbow” is its 60th different production. The piece is set in a dystopian world stricken by environmental catastrophe in which a group of “outcasts” are struggling for survival in among the detritus.

Through their individual encounters, these “misfits,” who share nothing but the impetus for survival, become more aware of their bodies. They begin to work together in search of a way forward; of a place at the proverbial end of the rainbow.

In her program note, Manri cites the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster as a breach in the tightly controlled, materialistic society of modern Japan; a space for reflection on the state of our existence.

“When we become aware of the fear and anxiety about losing possessions, we discover how bound we are by this materialistic culture,” she observes. “It is not acceptable for modern humans to try to manage and control nature. There must be coexistence for survival.”

“Over the Rainbow” prompts us to think about that supposed gold at the end of the seven-hued arch. What sort of Japan do we want future generations to inherit? And what sort of society is being formed in this post-Fukushima period? Such questions are woven into this free-jazz dance piece.

The legendary American saxophonist John Coltrane (1926-67) once said, “When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hangups.” In the case of Taihen, along with music I would want to add the body to those “possibilities” — and nature, too.

Taihen will perform “Over the Rainbow” at the ABC Hall in central Osaka on March 21, 22 and 23. For reservations and details in English, visit www.asahi-net.or.jp/~TJ2M-SNJY/eng/etop.htm.