La Yoko, as she is known by those in the flamenco world, is the woman responsible for not only bringing this ethnic gypsy-rooted form of dance into Japan but also establishing the first flamenco dance company on this far eastern island 36 years ago. In 1959, Yoko Komatsubara, after having seen the spectacular Pilar Lopez — sister of the also well-known legend La Argentinita — perform in Japan, felt the urge to leave her country and exchange her cozy home for Franco’s Spain in search of a flamenco teacher.

The harsh day-to-day reality of living under the dictatorial rightwing regime did not discourage the zealous Yoko, who didn’t speak a word of Spanish when she set off in pursuit of her dream. “The woman who managed the residential quarters where I used to live in Sevilla often asked me why had I come from so far just to study gypsy dance,” says Yoko. And, 42 years later, even after all the success achieved in and outside of Japan, Yoko’s face lights up with amusement when she is asked if she is the pioneer of flamenco in Japan.

Content and grateful for having been received with such open arms by both Japanese and Spanish audiences, Yoko admits that, although she is Japanese and proud of her roots, her heart belongs to flamenco.

With great affection and respect, she speaks of the master of flamenco, Enrique el Cojo, from Seville, whom she credits with having taught her the true essence of flamenco, and her late brother, the movie star Kenji Sugawara, whose support she couldn’t have done without.

In advance of the restaging of her piece “Goya: Light and Shadow,” The Japan Times caught up with Yoko in her rehearsal studio in Koenji. Performed by 14 of her dance company’s Japanese female dancers and 5 male Spanish dancers, the piece features renowned performers such as Currillo de Bormujos (who is also credited with choreographic collaboration), Tomoko Ishii and Tomoko Nakajima, as well as the live music of guitarists and singers from Spain. The first part portrays the life of Goya himself while the second re-creates the liveliness of the people of Seville. In perfect Spanish with a strong Andalusian accent, the ebullient Yoko tells us about herself and her piece “Goya: Light and Shadow.”

What made you pursue flamenco at a time when it was unknown in Japan?

The passion I felt when I first saw flamenco crawled deep inside me. I love its dramatic character, the pain, the exhilarating joy, the passion, the suffering. For me, flamenco is life itself. Having been brought up in a family of artists where rehearsals were more important than school, I was encouraged to pursue artistic activities. Because of my family background in Japanese traditional arts — many are shamisen musicians for kabuki — I spent my earlier years doing buyo [traditional Japanese dance], and my teenage years studying ballet and theater. All these disciplines later contributed to my development as a flamenco bailaora [dancer].

Was it difficult for you to embrace flamenco considering that Japanese and Spanish cultures are quite different?

I feel there isn’t such a big difference between Japanese dance and flamenco; they are both grounded and earthy, they both use a handkerchief to dance, the way they use lively colors onstage is similar and they are both dramatic. Flamenco, as well as buyo, is an art through which I can express myself, it simply came as second nature to me. And the life of a flamenco family is similar to the life of an artistic family in Japan. It reminded me of my roots.

What inspired you to create this work based on Francisco de Goya’s life?

My endless walks in the Spanish capital, Madrid, often led me to visit museums like El Prado and the Thyssen-Bornemisza where I had the chance to see Goya’s masterpieces. His passion always got to me. Years later I read a four-volume biography written by Yoshie Hotta, and it was then that I decided that I definitely wanted to stage his life — from his golden years to his later, darker years. That is why the name of this piece is “Goya: Light and Shadow.” He was a man who criticized the corrupt monarchy and defended the struggle of the common man. As he gradually lost his hearing, he became an observer and painted social satires. Although Goya lived during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, I feel that his critiques of society are pertinent to today’s world. We are still at war, we don’t care what happens to the people next to us as long as we have what we need. In this sense, this contrast still exists and I sympathize with Goya’s position. I believe artists need to give expression to their critical thinking, Goya used to say, “an aprendo” “(I still learn)” because he was constantly thinking and creating with the intention of opening others’ eyes. I want to do the same.

How does the second part of this piece called “Patios de Sevilla (Patios of Seville)” differ from the first part about Goya?

Back in 1983, I was unsure of how to end this piece. However, because life is not all about suffering and I am a very joyful person, I wanted to create an ending full of alegria [joy]. “Patios of Seville” incorporates not only alegrias but also other genres such as guajira, solea and bulerias. I meant to re-create the joyous atmosphere of the land and people of Andalucia.

Considering this is the second time you have staged this piece, how is today’s version different from the one of 1983?

The basic structure is the same as the one presented back then. The first part is still composed by a group of sketches, each with the name of a painting of Goya. The characters in each painting come to life and dramatize what I interpret as the story behind each painting. However, technically, this version is very different from the previous one because the style of dancing has changed through the years and so have the dancers’ abilities. Today female dancers do more zapateado [stomping of the feet] for example, and this is reflected in this version. The choreography is new; I worked on it with Currillo de Bormujos, a flamenco choreographer and dancer from Spain. Although a few of the Japanese female dancers participated in the one back in 1983, all of the male dancers came from Spain.

How do you feel about the fusion of different dance styles?

Years ago, I was more into classical flamenco. However, recently there are wonderful pieces coming out of the fusion of different styles of music and dances. I find that fusion can be interesting. For the performance we are due to give at Expo Aichi this year we are working on the fusion of Japanese dance and flamenco. Because I can count on the support of shamisen artists in my family, I think we will create something innovative from the collaboration of Japanese and Spanish musicians and dancers.

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