Speaking in Tokyo a year ago, Josef Nadj, one of the most respected choreographers in the contemporary dance world, said that for his next project in Japan he wanted to create something playful for the audiences in collaboration with Japanese dancers and Japanese culture. The 49-year-old Yugoslav-born resident of France had already come to Japan with his productions of “Woyzeck” in 2000 and “Habacuc’s Commentaries” in 2001. Now, as promised, he has returned with a work titled “Asobu (Play)” that he’s created with four male Butoh artists, two female Japanese contemporary dancers and nine European dancers.

It is not the first time “Asobu” has been performed, having been presented at the prestigious Festival d’Avignon in France last summer, where Nadj was appointed an “associate artist.” The Japan Times spoke with with the cast’s four butoh dancers — Ikko Tamura (29), Yusuke Okuyama (29), Pijin Neji (26) and Tomoshi Shioya (27), who dance with the Tokyo-based Dairakudakan company under butoh master Akaji Maro, after they recently returned from a two-month European tour.

How did this project start?

Ikko Tamura: In 2004, Nadj came to Japan to do a workshop that we participated in after a member of our company suggested we do so. At first they said it was a general dance workshop, but actually Nadj was looking for dancers for his new “Asobu” project.

Why do you think you four were chosen from among many Japanese candidates?

I.T.: Nadj’s team are very unique and fun-loving people, so I think he was looking for weird but fun-loving people he would enjoy creating a new program with, rather than expecting just a high level of dance technique. And that was us.

Pijin Neji: We moved differently from the other contemporary dancers, and we looked different because all of us are skinheads (bozu atama). I guess our dancing was also quite unusual for Nadj, full of unexpected movements. He was laughing all the time while watching us.

Tomoshi Shioya: Nadj liked our peculiarity. I heard also that he particularly likes skinheads. He maybe has a bozu fetish [laughs].

I.T.: When Nadj asked dancers in the workshop to express a falling leaf, we straightaway danced that and expressed it without any serious thinking or hesitation. I think it looked like we were dancing full of joy, so perhaps he thought collaborating with us would be lots of fun.

I could see lots of Asian — especially Japanese — influences in the program.

I.T.: The program is based on the works of the French author Henri Michaux, who traveled extensively in Asia. Nadj himself has traveled a lot, and this is an homage to Michaux’s view of Asia.

How was the world premier of “Asobu” at the Festival d’Avignon in July 2006?

Yusuke Okuyama: I was moved when the audience of 2,000 gave us a standing ovation, though it was a quite wild and windy day for open-air theater.

T.S.: I got quite tense. I normally paint my face white with the Dairakudakan company. But I didn’t use makeup in Avignon, so I felt uncomfortable and a bit exposed.

What do you think of Nadj?

P.N.: I had an image of him as a sensitive and serious artist. But that was completely wrong. He is a quite simple and young-minded person.

Y.O: He looks mature, but his mind is young and powerful. He works so vigorously and I was amazed about his curiosity. He is also quite a caring person.

In practical terms, what is the difference between the Japanese and European way of approaching dance?

P.N.: In Japan, if a rehearsal starts at 2, everybody comes before 2, starts promptly and continues without a break. But in Europe, maybe someone comes on time, then, others come later, and they have coffee breaks so often. They are not so strict about time at all. I gradually got used to their way.

T.S.: For example, in a restaurant in Japan, we quickly order our meal, then eat and then we start chatting. But when we went to a restaurant with the French dancers, after they got a table they chatted for ages before they ordered. Even though it was sometimes 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning when we went to a restaurant after a performance, they still didn’t care about the time and just enjoyed their conversation.

I.T.: That sort of cultural background reflected on their work. Time passed leisurely, allowing for playful, artistic imagination.

Was it difficult working with foreigners?

I.T.: In the process of choreographing our performance, I had no problems as I basically show my opinions with my movements. However, for example, when we had discussions in English about choreography, I got a bit frustrated when trying to express my opinions. Sometimes, I realized that I was just nodding along with another member’s opinion. But, basically, I did not have any problems.

Why did you become a butoh dancer?

I.T.: Akaji Maro [the founder of Dairakudakan] was so huge for me, so I wanted to do something with him. I have learned not only butoh from him but also acting and a whole attitude toward life.

Y.O.: When I saw Dairakudakan perform for the first time, I was completely at one with their energy on the stage. They apparently showed ugly faces and bodily expressions, but I was moved by their power. I knocked on their door immediately.

P.N.: I was not interested in performing arts when I was young — I didn’t know about contemporary dance at all. Then one day I saw Maro’s photo in a magazine, and I went to see a performance. I thought it was cool, so I applied to join.

Is there anyone in particular that you would like to collaborate with?

T.S. Any ordinary person, for example, a construction worker. I would like to create a stage with ordinary people who have never seen performing arts before.

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