Deep and meaningful dance

by Yumi Wijers-Hasegawa

Dutch artists Monique van Kerkhof and Rob Oudendijk have performed in many unusual places — a synagogue and a company office in New York, and in a huge dried-up reservoir and an art gallery in Japan. But until Nov. 18, they and fellow dancers they brought together had never before entertained an audience in a fantastic concrete palace 25 meters underground.

The couple, who studied modern dance at New York’s Merce Cunningham Studio, and whose day jobs find them at the cutting edge of video and computer graphics, have been staging performances and putting on video art shows for the last 15 years in Japan. Always, though — just as with their last major event, “Seeing the World Through Different Eyes” at Tokyo’s United Nations University in 2003 — they are keen on encouraging people to see things from a different perspective.

Titled “Tunnel Vision,” their recent multimedia show with dance, music, video projection and even a noh performance, made effective use of the spectacular setting of the Gaikakuhousuiro, a massive underground flood-control basin north of Tokyo in Kasukabe City, Saitama Prefecture.

First brought into action in 2002, the flood-control system can hold up to 670,000 cu. meters of water, and discharge it safely into the broad Edogawa River nearby at a rate of 200 cu. meters every second. As a result, whereas 236 homes were flooded during a major typhoon in July 2000, in 2002 only one home was flooded by a similar typhoon.

Enlisted in the service of art, however, the basin’s 59 pillars, each weighing 500 tons, gave both a Parthenonesque feel and a segmented perception to the audience, whose members could peer down apparent tunnels going off in all directions.

“We have designed a restricted field of vision where the audience do not face an open space, but see diagonal paths created by each row of columns, letting them see just one particular movement of the performers at a time,” said Kerkhof, 45, who is both the show’s general producer and a performer.

This was done on purpose, she said, as the objective was to convey a message to the audience that they may be closed-minded and may be seeing things from a limited viewpoint — and so to prompt them to open their minds.

Construction work for the flood-control facility began 14 years ago. While it is still to be completed, major sections, such as its 6.3-km-long tunnel and its 177×78-meter basin where the performance took place, are already in operation.

According to Minoru Sando, manager of the facility at the Edogawa River Office, since the facility’s existence was first publicized a few years ago, there has been a steady stream of inquiries seeking to use it for television programs and advertising.

So far, some superhero shows such as “Ultraman Cosmos” and “Kamen Rider 555″ have been shot there, as well as a Range Rover commercial that is currently being screened on BBC World TV. And for his part, 48-year-old Oudendijk, the show’s technical producer and also one of the performers, was extremely glad to get permission to use such a spectacular setting.

“Carrying out projects like this is very difficult in Japan, as understanding about art and art projects is not as widespead as in the West. It was only possible due to us having sponsors like Teijin, Nissan, Wall Street Associates and Rabobank, who supported us in many ways,” he said.

New and different perspectives

At the same time as using segmented views to open up new and different perspectives for the audience, the performance also focused on contrasts — contrasts that were sometimes funny, but sometimes plunged those watching into deep thought.

For example, Kerkhof in one scene is a graceful dancer, sliding like a skater or balancing exquisitely on the corner of a large acrylic aquarium. But in the next scene, she is a cleaning woman wearing rubber boots and mopping the floor, while four beautiful ballet dancers swirl around — symbolizing her lost dream, youth and freedom — but in a comical way.

In another scene, a boy dances full of youthful vigor, after which a huge old log is lowered through a hole 25 meters above, dangling on a long, ugly chain.

But after this contrast of youth and death, the log is suddenly turned into a trapeze, on which performers cheerfully swing from side to side.

Kerkhof said this expression of optimism is another aspect about the tunnel she wanted to convey.

“I know there is an expression which says ‘there is no light at the end of the tunnel,’ but I wanted to show the audience that there is always light in the end,” she said.