Dance pioneer puts homeless back on their feet

Brush with 9/11 spurred innovator to give back

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

While walking on the streets of Tokyo 10 years ago, dancer and choreographer Yuki Aoki encountered a scene that remains indelibly etched into his memory.

A crowd in Shinjuku cheered at a band of young street musicians amid a performance full of swagger and conviction. But just beside the buzz lay a homeless man, ignored and sound asleep, his bare buttocks exposed — oblivious to the excitement nearby.

The strange juxtaposition shocked Aoki, and left him wondering what would have happened if the man, and not the band, had been the focus of the attention.

“When I saw the man sleeping with his buttocks bared, I couldn’t help but imagine what extraordinary artistic expression he might be capable of,” Aoki says.

He wondered also if the unique hardships associated with homelessness might give people in that situation an artistic edge that others lack.

Three years later, in 2007, he launched a dance troupe called “Sokerissa,” a word he coined himself that sounds similar to the expression “Soreike” (meaning “Go for it!”). He then began recruiting members — all of them homeless.

Today, the troupe has five dancers, four of whom have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. Although they are no longer homeless, they still survive on welfare. The other member continues to live on the streets.

Aoki insists that the troupe exists primarily to pursue artistic expression, but members say their experience at the troupe — presumably the only one of its kind in Japan — has helped restore their health and self-esteem. In the seven years since its establishment, the group has given numerous stage and street performances, as well as appearing in symposiums and art events across the country.

Aoki had rocketed to stardom while still in his early 20s as a freelance choreographer and backup dancer, and experienced little difficulty making a living. But a decision to study hip hop in New York at the age of 32 brought him into direct contact with the 9/11 terrorist attacks — an event that he says radically altered his outlook on life.

“I saw people panic and the city dissolve into a total chaos,” he says. “I wanted to do something for them, but there I was, absolutely powerless, left with no skills to help them. It was then that I realized that in my career as a dancer, I had never thought about helping others, always content with my own success.”

The experience contributed heavily to his decision to launch the troupe, out of a desire “to do something that will make a change in our society,” he says.

To recruit members for his troupe, Aoki hit the streets of Shinjuku and Ueno, approaching around a dozen homeless people with the aim of selling them on his idea. But he was met with icy indifference and downright hostility.

Aoki then sought advice from Shoji Sano, founder and CEO of the Big Issue Japan, a street magazine produced by journalists and distributed by the homeless.

Sano remembers how he at first thought Aoki’s project was too challenging.

“I mean, these homeless people, especially the elderly ones, are so determined to shun the public eyes, because they’re afraid if they come out people might throw a rock at them or worse — attack. So I thought, how can they possibly agree to be brought up on stage and perform a contemporary dance?”

After countless failures, Aoki eventually persuaded six of the people he had approached to show up at a park to see his performance. After watching him dance, all six agreed to join the troupe.

The members are paid a small fee after each performance, and Aoki also teaches them on a voluntary basis.

In the initial days of practice, Aoki recalls trying to teach dance moves to his recruits step by step. But the homeless people were so new to dancing that it was extremely difficult for them to acquire even the most basic moves.

He found also that they were discouraged by his attempts to “coach” them, and that as a result, their dancing became stiff and devoid of their own personality.

This led to a shift in his thinking. Rather than teaching set dance moves, Aoki began encouraging members to improvise their own dance using their imagination.

In this way, and many others, the troupe became strikingly unique from its inception, he says.

It is typical for members to skip lessons or even back out of scheduled performances at the last minute. In the scorching heat of summer, the dancing studio used by the troupe sometimes stinks long after practice — owing to the fact that many of the members rarely bathe.

But Aoki laughs off such irregularities, opting to celebrate them as a sign of his members “being simply human.”

With their next performance slated for October in Shizuoka Prefecture, four Sokerissa members gathered on a recent evening for one of their weekly practice sessions in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.

The three-hour lesson began with a warm-up exercise spanning over an hour — something Aoki says is necessary to relax members’ stiffened muscles. This was followed by bouts of “improvisation matches,” where dancers paired with each other, moving to the music as they like. Some would wrestle playfully, while others embraced each other with an affectionate hug, actions entirely motivated by their impromptu ideas.

“I think I got into a rhythm very well today ,” member Matsuyoshi Koiso says during a break, perspiring, his face radiant with satisfaction.

Koiso, 65, sleeps near the west exit of Shinjuku Station, which he calls the “mecca” of Tokyo’s homeless population. He says he has gone through a hodgepodge of part-time jobs, and has been homeless on and off for about five years. On weekdays, he sells the Big Issue magazine and scrapes by on the income it brings in.

With a tinge of embarrassment, Koiso acknowledged he used to fritter away all his hard-earned money gambling on horse races. But since joining the troupe two years ago, he says he has almost overcome his addiction, adding happily: “dancing became my new hobby. I’m not as obsessed with gambling as I used to be.”

Akio Takagi, 25, joined the troupe six months ago and appeared similarly thrilled after the practice session.

At age 17, Takagi says he was disowned by his parents, who he has since learned were not his biological relations.

The expulsion forced him to take temporary shelter at a welfare facility, while turning to loan sharks for money. He wound up being homeless for about two weeks, and now lives on welfare.

As a former aspiring DJ and rapper, Takagi, who was struck by sudden deafness in his right ear at age 16, says dancing with Sokerissa has renewed his hopes about life.

“The good thing about (Sokerissa) is that you’re allowed to do whatever you want with your dancing. It makes me feel like I’m being accepted and this is the place for me to be.”

Big Issue founder Sano says many of the homeless are plagued by low self-esteem, seeing themselves as failures, but dancing onstage could help restore self-confidence in an “emerging” young cohort — many of whom defy the traditional profile of the homeless.

“The young people might find it embarrassing to be seen sleeping on the streets, but they might enjoy the attention they get from dancing on stage.”