“It may be wrong to mix different wines, but old and new wisdom make an excellent mixture.” So claims The Singer in Bertolt Brecht’s 1944 play, “The Caucasian Chalk Circle.”
If so, there are few places where tradition and the avant-garde collide with more potent creative force than Kyoto. Home to a fifth of Japan’s designated Important Cultural Properties, the city is also at the forefront of radical performing-arts culture thanks to its annual Kyoto Experiment festival.
Now in its sixth year, this increasingly successful international event is entering a new phase marked by three key changes — most obviously the inclusion this year of a March 5-27 spring program along with the usual autumn one.
This year, too, sees the addition of a major new venue in the shape of the recently reopened ROHM Theatre Kyoto, formerly known as Kyoto Kaikan, which will host four of the main performances.
Thirdly, besides its 11 main acts, the festival will introduce a showcase program in which playwright and director Satoshi Ago and curator Katsura Kunieda will seek to promote alternative perspectives as they present works by up-and-coming Japanese artists.
As for the effect of these changes on the overall direction of Kyoto Experiment, in his program note its director, Yusuke Hashimoto, explains it gives the organizers “time to think anew about the structure and meaning of the programming.”
Part of that thinking involves experimentation and what it means to create “new” work. For Hashimoto, “newness” has always involved a dialogue with history, as exemplified by the rise of the shogekijyo undo (little theater movement) in the 1960s and ’70s in Japan. That movement — which was intent on creating alternative spaces and means of expression in response to the domination of commercial shingeki (modern Western-based theater) companies — saw the rise of now famed directors such as Shuji Terayama, Tadashi Suzuki, Yukio Ninagawa, Juro Kara and Makoto Sato, and playwrights such as Minoru Betsuyaku and Kunio Shimizu.
Hashimoto is similarly keen to open a dialogue with past performance practices by bringing together artists directly connected with the early development of contemporary performance and ones now working under its influences, in order to create “a sense of time with some bandwidth, one that traverses between the eternal and the momentary.”
As such, the New York-based Trisha Brown Dance Company will present “Trisha Brown: In Plain Site,” comprising excerpts from the renowned avant-garde dancer’s early repertory. Brown was a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater collective in Greenwich Village in 1962 alongside Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton and David Gordon, and her works continue to have a resounding influence on approaches to choreography and the body in dance.
In similar vein, this year’s festival is also graced by the return of dancer Akaji Maro who, during the 1960s, trained with the founder of butoh, Hijikata Tatsumi, and was a member of Juro Kara’s iconic angura (underground) theater troupe Jokyo Gekiyo (Situation Theater).
In 1972, Maro founded the butoh troupe Dairakudakan (Great Camel Company), whose current 22-strong cast will perform his 2014 work “Mushi no Hoshi” (“Planet of Insects”). The piece is a physical spectacle exploring human and insect worlds, set to the music of techno pioneer Jeff Mills and shakuhachi player Keisuke Doi.
Meanwhile, making his debut at Kyoto Experiment will be Yukichi Matsumoto, who founded the site-specific, Osaka-based theater company Ishinha (literally “reformers”) in 1970.
Presenting “Portal” by Shinichiro Hayashi, Matsumoto will direct Japanese hip-hop star Sibitt in this work inspired by the online smartphone game “Ingress,” which involves players visiting real-world sites on screen and capturing them as “portals” in order to gain geographic control over landscapes. Here, however, “Portal” brings into question the relationship between cities and their satellite towns, incorporating elements of the “Ingress” game and its mapping on stage through sound and bodies.
Among other festival performers working with new paradigms in negotiation with the past are French dancer Boris Charmatz, who will present his 2014 work “Manger” (“Eat”), which focuses on the mouth and its link with primordial human life. The Kyoto-based Chiten Theater Company will also return with “Sports Play,” a new work described as “a provocative critique of sport, politics, and the media” that will be staged in collaboration with Austrian playwright and Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek, and composer Masahiro Miwa.
In addition, leading playwright Toshiki Okada, the founder of Chelfitsch, Japan’s top contemporary theater company, will present a new play titled “Heya ni Nagareru Jikan no Tabi” (“Time’s Journey Through a Room”). Created in collaboration with Kyoto-based visual artist Tsuyoshi Hisakado, this features an onstage sound installation that invites the audience to explore the relationship between the living and the dead.
Then, in “Teslan Run,” Osaka-based performance group Contact Gonzo teams up with composer Tomomi Adachi and members of the festival’s youth workshop — while the cornucopia of this year’s Kyoto Experiment will also include performances by the Berlin-based Singaporean artist and designer Choy Ka Fai, French dancer David Wampach and director and playwright Manuela Infante, a rising star from Chile making her debut in Japan.
Finally, alongside the main acts and showcase productions, the festival’s vibrant fringe program will feature 46 works by artists from the region. From dance and theater to installation and performance art, this is the largest fringe offering to date — surely a measure of Kyoto Experiment’s ambition and its impact on the regional performing-arts scene thanks to its exciting blend of artistic vintages.
Kyoto Experiment runs from March 5 to 27. For tickets and further details, visit kyoto-ex.jp/2016-eng.