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One of Japan’s most innovative dance companies will tackle the challenging task of giving form to an almost forgotten music and dance concept, developed by a composer some 90 years ago.

In an upcoming performance in July, choreographer Sakiko Oshima and dancer Naoko Shirakawa of H. Art Chaos will use the physical vocabulary of contemporary dance to realize buyoshi (dance poems) composed by Kosaku Yamada (1886-1965), a Japanese pioneer in Western-style composition.

Oshima and Shirakawa are the driving forces of the internationally acclaimed company that was chosen as Dance Comany of the Year by The New York Times in 2000.

For Oshima, Yamada was ahead of his time. “Yamada did not think that dance was something that accompanies music as a subordinate element; rather he thought that the two had equal creativity and impact,” the choreographer said.

“I found it interesting that he came up with the idea almost a century ago that if dance and music were made to collide with each other, something new would be created. I think the idea is very contemporary.”

Yamada is best known as a composer who tried to adapt the melody of Western-style music to the intonation of the Japanese language, as heard in his songs “Karatachi no hana (Blossom of a Trifoliate Orange)” and “Aka tonbo (Red Dragonfly),” composed in 1925 and 1926.

He was also a composer of symphonic works and operas, many of which he conducted abroad before World War II. He was the first Japanese to compose a symphony (“Kachidoki to Heiwa [Victory Shout and Peace]” [1912]) and to conduct works by Wagner and Debussy.

Yamada studied composition under Max Bruch and K.L. Wolf in Berlin from 1910 to 1913. It was there where he was exposed to a mingling of tradition and the avant-garde, including the then cutting-edge dance of Isadora Duncan.

“If he had not studied in Berlin, he would not have developed the idea of dance poems. At that time, various cultures from various parts of the world were converging in Berlin,” said Hiroko Yamada, an adopted daughter of Yamada. It was Hiroko — head of the Japan Music-Drama Society, which was founded in 1920 by her father — who approached Oshima and Shirakawa with the idea of reviving Yamada’s dance poems.

“He thought that music and dance were like twins, with music expressing rhythm through sound and dance expressing rhythm through body movement. He thought that music and dance must be made simultaneously, the two forming one whole to express the beauty of the body.”

Yamada studied choreography under his own auspices. During his 1 1/2 year stay in the United States from 1918, he presented his dance-poem piece “At the Hawk’s Well” in New York in collaboration with dancer Michio Ito. Yamada annotated all of his dance-poem pieces with abstract storylines and instructions for the dancers.

“His dance-poem pieces are composed in such a way that if you listen to the music, the intended dance emerges in front of your eyes, even if it is not accompanied by a dancer,” said Hiroko Yamada.

Oshima said that in choreographing pieces for the coming performance, she took a cue from Yamada’s idea that when the rhythm of music stops, the rhythm of dance comes in, which then in turn evokes music. It’s been quite a challenge, though. “I have never choreographed to such music,” she said.

Half of the six pieces to be presented July 3 will be solely music. The remaining three feature dance choreographed by Oshima: “At the Hawk’s Well” (in which Shirakawa will dance solo, with tenor Tetsuya Mochizuki and piano by Seizo Azuma); “Choreographic-Poem” (Shirakawa solo, with the Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra; Japanese title, “Yajin Sozo” [Creation of a Wild Man]) and “Maria Magdalena” (Shirakawa and five other dancers with the orchestra).

For “At the Hawk’s Well,” Oshima initially used noh steps but eventually got rid of them. “But some people may still feel the traces of such steps in the performance,” she said.

In “Choreographic-Poem,” Shirakawa will dance half naked, her staccato movements animating an enclosed space.

Oshima denied that Shirakawa’s firm, sinewy body is supposed to express something about androgyny.

“A naked body is something that is very familiar, but at the same it is something out of the ordinary, something abstract that can transcend time and space,” Oshima said. “A woman’s body is likely to carry meaning imposed on it by the age in which the woman lives. I would like to get rid of such baggage. While a naked body is sensual, it can transcend gender and express the sublimity of the body, which is almost spiritual.”

“Maria Magdalena” is a large orchestral piece. It received its premiere, without dance, at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1918 with Yamada at the podium.

Having seen Shirakawa dance three years ago, Hiroko Yamada knew she was the right sort of dancer. “My intuition told me that Shirakawa can play the role of Maria Magdalene, who has a pure heart that is connected with the essence of Christ,” Yamada said.

Oshima founded H. Art Chaos with Shirakawa in 1989 and began specializing in choreography around 1993. While the troup has about 10 members, Oshima and Shirakawa have a very close working relationship.

“Shirakawa has the ability to amplify my ideas. She stimulates me artistically,” Oshima said. “She also gives me criticism. So I am in a sense on the taking, rather than the giving, side.”

For the choreographer, dance is about jettisoning narrative and focusing on more basic elements.

“When I was a junior high school student, I wrote a drama without words. I asked myself: Aren’t there things that the body and its movement can express without any other help?” Oshima said.

“I was seeking something that could overcome the limitations of language. I was interested in what dance can convey after the meaning is removed. If you exclude meaning, many feelings and sensations remain, that in turn produce something rich.”

Oshima said that in her actual works, she retains a sequence of signifiers although she eschews one big message or story. “By assembling fragments of meaning, the viewers can make their own stories. But there is not one correct interpretation or narrative. It is extremely difficult to create dance this way,” Oshima said.

She also said that when she choreographs, she gives thought to props, lighting and costumes (even the material they’re made from) and the feel of the space.

“In Japan, a choreographer often concentrates just on physical movement. But a choreographer must be an art director with his or her own aesthetic sense and philosophy because choreographed body movements reflect the age in which he or she lives,” she said.

Explaining the name of the company, Oshima said that the H of H. Art Chaos refers to heaven. “I would like to have ecstasy emerge from chaos and share the ecstasy with the audience — ecstasy that is connected with heaven,” she explained.

“There is a tendency to choose peace of mind by classifying things into categories. But my hope is that our company will, amid chaos, continue to produce a dynamic force.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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