In the arena of artistic production, a publicly run performing arts facility on the Sea of Japan coast is issuing a challenge to Tokyo, the nation’s center of cultural activity. The Niigata City Performing Arts Center (Ryutopia) has tapped Jo Kanamori, a 29-year-old star dancer and choreographer, to launch a contemporary dance company to be based at the center.

Kanamori, who went to study in Europe at the age of 17 and whose talent is recognized by such big names as Maurice Bejart, Jiri Kylian and Yorgos Lukos, has signed up for a three-year artist-in-residence program in which he will serve as art director for Noism04, a new 10-member dance company.

The ambitious goal of Ryutopia, says General Manager Shigehiko Maruta, is to effect a dramatic cultural shift. “We would like to change the general cultural situation in Japan, in which Tokyo creates things and local cities buy them and show them to their citizens,” he said. “We would like to see a situation in which a city such as Niigata creates artistic productions and sells them to Tokyo and other cities at reasonable prices.”

Ryutopia is operated by the Niigata City Art and Culture Promotion Foundation, which is funded by the Niigata Municipal Government. It opened in October 1998 and boasts a 2,000-seat concert hall, a 1,000-seat theater and a 400-seat noh theater.

Kanamori has selected 10 dancers — four men and six women — from among some 200 who auditioned in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. Most are in their 20s.

The dancers will live in Niigata and earn monthly salaries of between 200,000 yen and 250,000 yen under the one-year contracts, immersing themselves in dance production under Kanamori’s tutelage.

Noism04 will launch around mid-April 2004.

“This is Japan’s first professional dance company in that the members can earn money just by concentrating on dance,” Kanamori said. “Because the conditions for these dancers are ideal [compared with other dancers who have to get part-time jobs to survive], they have a moral obligation to produce good results.”

Maruta, the general manager, first met Kanamori last year, when the dancer choreographed a musical at Ryutopia. He said he expects about 60 million yen to 70 million yen of Ryutopia’s 550 million yen annual budget to be spent on the dance project. He wouldn’t disclose Kanamori’s salary.

“I have implored Kanamori to accept an absurdly low salary and do the job,” he said. “To compensate, I have promised to provide an environment appropriate for dance production.”

Calling Ryutopia’s program the first “residency program” involving a Japanese dancer and choreographer, dance critic Takao Norikoshi said, “I have great expectations for this project.”

He cited similar residency programs in various parts of France that contributed to creating the “nouvelle danse” boom of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Norikoshi said Kanamori has several strong points as a dancer and choreographer.

“He is young and has a limber body,” he says. “Kanamori studied ballet under his father but has the ability to freely express his talent in contemporary dance, liberating himself from the shackles of ballet techniques.

“He has a wide range of experience, too, including not only with Bejart and Kylian, but also choreography work for the Netherlands Dans Theater II and Gothenburg Ballet in Sweden,” he said.

Noism04 is expected to turn out two or three new dance pieces by Kanamori a year, with the first public performance expected in June. It will then perform from October to December in Niigata and Tokyo. Maruta also aims to have the company perform in New York in January 2005.

According to Norikoshi, the first task for Kanamori and Noism04 will be to build up a sizable repertoire in a short time. “If he can quite quickly create a fairly large number of pieces for the company, it will bring attention to the dance company and Kanamori’s creativity,” he said.

As for the dancers, their contracts will be renewable. But Kanamori warned that renewal won’t be automatic.

“I will be strict with each dancer,” Kanamori said. “Some may have to quit after one year. Because it’s the taxpayers’ money, I will be keeping them on their toes.”

Kanamori and Norikoshi agree that being away from Tokyo will not pose any problems for the dancer/choreographer’s creative activities.

“First-class dance companies all over the world operate in the countryside. There is nothing to worry about,” Norikoshi said.

“To be exposed to various artistic activities is not necessarily a good thing,” Kanamori added. “In Tokyo, it is difficult to create artistic expressions after having absorbed and looked at so many other artists.”

Ultimately, Norikoshi’s biggest concern is exposure.

“I hope that Ryutopia can develop a cheap tour package that would allow us to travel to Niigata to see Kanamori’s dance pieces,” he said in jest.

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