SPAC’s teen ‘Dream’ comes true

by Natsume Date

Special To The Japan Times

Mount Fuji towers nearby, and the hills around are covered with beautiful tea fields, while occupying a huge, 21-hectare plot of greenery dotted with theaters and rehearsal spaces is the home base of Shizuoka Performing Arts Center.

In the words of the French-based, Cameroon-born dancer and choreographer Merlin Nyakam, though, SPAC is, quite simply, “A place for creating that great artists of the world dream of.”

And the multitalented dancer and choreographer ought to know, because he’s spent four years there on and off creating, with a group of Shizuoka Prefecture teens, the dance work “Takase’s Dream” from its prototype titled “Yume Miru Chikara” (“Power to Dream”) that debuted at SPAC in 2010.

Though it may initially seem likely that Japanese children would be too passive compared with their European or African contemporaries to perform well in a work by Nyakam, who is renowned for super-high-energy stagings with his own company, La Calebasse, this has been no obstacle to the artist widely known as “Merlin the Enchanter.”

“Japanese children follow the rules, and I think this is related to Japanese culture,” he said recently in conversation with this writer, “but thanks to that, our rehearsals progress very quickly. European children don’t follow the rules so easily. Not only that, but they tend to be somewhat withdrawn, so it takes time for them to open their hearts. African children have high motivation, but they bound on ahead without listening to what I’m saying, so in the end I have to spend time saying, ‘Just wait, wait a moment and watch this first.’” (laughs)

In contrast, Nyakam — who has said he’s learned African traditional, ballet, hiphop, jazz dance and contemporary styles, among others— observed, “Japanese children are the calmest, and they can quickly perceive that I am placing trust in them and trying to have an experience together with them. I think that’s why they are able to immediately remove their masks and move forward with an open attitude.”

This work, which stemmed from a single question at a workshop — “What is your dream?” — starts with the very boyish dream of the character named Takase being chased around by squealing girls.

Then, however, it moves on to scenes of confrontation with a bloody reality and of exuding harmony with the natural environment before the young cast come to imagining themselves grown old. Hence, through an amazing range of movements, the dreams and confusions of children are depicted — while the harsh world built by adults is mocked.

“Turn on the television and scenes of children in distress around the world will leap into view,” Nyakam pointed out, adding, “I think that most children have difficulty getting enthusiastic about throwing themselves into their futures. They ask questions of us adults — questions like: ‘Exactly what kind of world are you planning to leave for us?’”

Comprising Japanese children’s games, powerful movements that bring Africa to mind and more, the highly varied choreography of “Takase’s Dream” could be termed “Afro-Japanese contemporary dance.”

Yet despite the content of the work seeming to be light and humorous, it is loaded with import and implications, too, and every time it has been staged to date — in Shizuoka, Tokyo, Osaka and Seoul — it has made waves not only among audiences and critics, but also in the general media.

Now Cameroon has been added to that list, and what a wonderful experience it must have been for the cast of Japanese children to have performed on stage on Aug. 11 and 12 in the West African country of Nyakam’s birth. So let’s welcome them back heartily from the audience seats when they return to perform again at the foot of Mount Fuji.

“Takase’s Dream” will be staged Aug. 20 (6:45 p.m. start) and Aug. 21 (2:30 p.m.) at the Ellipse Theatre DAENDO in Shizuoka Performing Arts Park. For details, call 054-203-5730 or visit www.spac.or.jp/takase14_summer.html or (in English) www.spac.or.jp/f14takases-dream.html?lang=en. This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.