Running with the bulls during the annual San Fermin fiesta in the Spanish city of Pamplona, or joining a traditional Ainu festival on Lake Akan in Hokkaido, may seem unusual ways for a choreographer to research — but not if the artist in question is Motoko Hirayama.
Often cited as Japan’s foremost contemporary dancer, Hirayama spoke frankly about her methodology when conducting research.
“I’m most comfortable with the uncomfortable,” she said. “I need things that keep me on edge, wondering if I’ll live up to the challenge.”
Yet even for this multi-award-winning Nagoya native, her newest work, “Hybrid-Rhythm & Dance” — which premieres March 25 at the New National Theatre Tokyo — is a stiff test.
As the third in a series of Hirayama’s contemporary dance productions at the theater, “Hybrid” takes its inspiration from world-music roots.
“Until now,” she explained, “I have always been attracted to new things, the most modern and innovative type of dance, but I realized that dance also has a primitive aspect and I didn’t want to leave that part out.
“So I came up with the idea of working together with music from other countries to produce a dance that would simply meld sound and basic physical movement — but at the same time feel ultra modern.”
After extensive research, Hirayama went to the northern Spanish city of San Sebastian in the Basque Autonomous Community to collaborate with musicians living there who play the traditional percussion instrument, the txalaparta — taking time out during her visit to join the Running of the Bulls in July in nearby Pamplona
As a result of that visit, for this production Hirayama is joined by Oreka Tx, a troupe of Basque musicians who she says inspired her both artistically and culturally.
“Their energy was so contagious that I felt like my own dance at the rehearsals was a bit lacking,” she said. “The way they went about practicing was so different from rehearsals in Tokyo, where everything is set — from what time to what time, start with a warm-up, have a goal for rehearsal, and so on.
“To them, that way of thinking was nonsense. They would start practicing and go on for as long as they liked.”
Oreka Tx suggested adding native Japanese musicians to the collaboration, so Hirayama later visited Ainu performers in Hokkaido, donning a traditional Ainu attush (kimono) and learning the Upopo dance for the annual Marimo Matsuri festival in early October.
“I simply fell in love with Ainu music. It’s very simple and the short phrases — less than 10 seconds long — are repeated again and again, but you can clearly imagine the story and drama as it emerges,” she said. “I loved the simplicity and the fact that it’s not artificially crafted.”
Consequently, in the upcoming production of “Hybrid,” Emi Toko, a celebrated Ainu singer of traditional chants, will perform with Oreka Tx.
The result? A true amalgam of artistry and roots music from opposite ends of Eurasia, focused on physical movement created by a Japanese choreographer greatly influenced by her travels.
“The two types of music are very different, as Basque music is made in a warm place and Ainu music is created in a very cold place. So at first it might seem difficult to put the two together,” she said. “But combining them was like a discovery resulting in something completely new and different.”
Also joining Hirayama on stage will be five dancers, three men and two women. “I don’t really look for dancers who diligently follow everything I say,” she explained. “I look for ones who react more spontaneously. I’m also not concerned about finding dancers who are the same height or build. I look for ones who are more rugged or angular.
“These types of dancers can often be challenging for me as well, since they generally aren’t ‘yes men.’ They can react in ways to make me rethink or feel a bit on edge, but this is something I thrive on.
“So even though I may start out with a particular way of dancing in mind, somehow I often end up doing something completely different. It’s hard to put into words.
“I tell the dancers not to set specific goals in their dancing, but to go with the flow instead — so it may not be the same every time. Sometimes they get a bit upset because it keeps changing, but this process of testing compatibility is important.”
In her view, Hirayama — who also teaches movement to nondancers at the prestigious Tsukuba University in Ibaraki Prefecture — believes now is an exciting time in contemporary dance, one ripe for new ideas and challenges.
“Contemporary dance as we call it, has been around for about 60 or 70 years now, so I think a change is brewing,” she said. “There’s just so much out there. I really don’t know what will come next, but I believe it’s important to keep looking for it and always be open to new challenges.”
As for her current challenge, she said: “The word ‘hybrid’ means to combine things to make something new and different. Here, the things combined are not set, which makes the combinations so interesting.
“Perhaps people in the audience will begin to wonder what they could become if they were combined with the right element. I’m happy if this work provides a time for the people watching to think about these infinite possibilities.”
“Hybrid-Rhythm & Dance” runs March 25-27 at the New National Theatre in Hatsudai, Tokyo. Prices range from ¥6,480 to ¥3,240. For more details in English or Japanese, visit www.nntt.jac.go. jp.