Tarahumara is a mysterious area deep in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains. Dancer Hiroshi Koike chose the enigmatic name for the dance-drama company he founded in 1982 because he aimed to create beautiful performances that transcend genre.
Now aged 51 and the company’s director and choreographer, Koike must have been thinking about the people of Tarahumara as well — said to be able to chase a deer until it drops, they are known as “the ones who run.” Over the last 25 years, the Pappa Tarahumara Company itself has become renowned for its aesthetic, physical and musical productions.
The company has been around Japan and the world — Koike, who still occasionally performs with the 12 current members, says they receive 100 offers from abroad for every one from Japan. This year, they have performed in Seattle, Singapore, Manila, Kuala Lumpur and in eastern Europe, and will make their debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in November.
But when The Japan Times recently visited their Yokohama rehearsal studio to ask about the state of Japanese drama, it wasn’t New York that Koike had on his mind, it was upcoming Tokyo productions of his work, “Tokyo-Buenos Aires Shokan (Tokyo-Buenos Aires Letters).”
What inspired your new work?
I always have several new production ideas in my head, but this time I particularly wanted to make something using tango music, and something that drew on one of my favorite things — the labyrinthine works of Argentine novelists such as Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar. For example, part of it is set in a huge magnificent cemetery, such as ones I have seen in Buenos Aires, and I wanted to convey the magical atmosphere of that city, too. It’s the complete opposite of a huge urban city like Tokyo.
To make that contrast, I connected the two cities in the play through letters and telecommunication, as communicating with others is a major feature of our times. But discommunication can happen easily even despite modern technology, so I used “letters” as a metaphor for falsehoods, the creation of mystery, deception and uncertainty.
It is Pappa Tarahumara’s 25th anniversary this year. Has your aim changed during that time?
Our purpose has not, and that has been to change Japan’s so-called culture and way of thinking. Since I founded my company, everything about Japan has become more and more conservative and there is no critical analysis of the arts anymore. It’s so boring.
The Japanese drama world got stuck in a vicious circle in the economic bubble of the 1980s, when most theater companies just aimed to earn more money and thus became commercialized. To attract bigger audiences and make bigger profits, they started to cast famous celebrities from TV — but those people don’t have enough time to commit to theater rehearsals, so the quality of live stages has been falling gradually, to the point where there are almost no serious theater critics nowadays. It’s a negative cycle.
But the dance scene is blossoming.
But there seems to be a lighthearted attitude, and I wonder if these young artists have any long-term vision and real commitment to what they are doing. If they just want to enjoy themselves and have fun with their close friends, they might be able to do that for 7 or 8 years, but as the outside arts world — such as the media and producers — are only concerned with quick results, they will find themselves easily praised and easily discarded. I wish such young artists would think more about the worldwide market and the future of the Japanese art scene.
What is the biggest difference between the theater in Japan and abroad?
Japanese theater people only see inside the country. The Agency for Cultural Affairs just thinks about one-off cultural exchanges with foreign countries and has no strategy to really export Japanese culture and make inroads into foreign markets. For example, in South Korea official bodies look after groups in the performing arts very closely for at least three years, helping them to develop and get bookings. In Japan they are satisfied with an event and don’t care afterward; they have no idea how to foster the arts. Unfortunately, many people here, including politicians, only think about immediate profit.
After performing in more than 30 countries, where do you want to go next?
We are looking forward to performing in New York, but we have come to expect praise and good reactions in Western countries. In Asian and South American countries, we never know what reaction to expect from audiences — which is a big plus for us as artists and gives extra meaning to our performances.
In January we are going to perform “The Three Sisters” in Delhi and Mumbai, and it will be our first time in India, so I am excited.
What is the reason for what you describe as “a dead-end feeling” in Japan?
There are many second-generation lawmakers in Japan who keep getting elected because people want stability in society. That means that Japanese people don’t want to change the current structure. But sadly, if we don’t change anything, situations inevitably slide into a decline. If politicians don’t have any vision of how to more forward, we’ll just stay stuck in the same position.
The situation in the arts world is exactly same. Nobody wants to take responsibility and offer leadership to change its current state.
This is a result of the way modern Japanese parents are educating their children. The baby boomers became parents, and yet they were so busy working that they said stability is important to let them get on with their jobs. As a result, their children don’t have any vitality at all.
If you think it’s such a hopeless society, why do you still work in Japan?
I would like to change the Japanese performing-arts scene. It’s my duty as a Japanese artist. That is my policy — to change the idea of the conventional arts world in Japan. For example, I want to break the barriers between genres — straight plays, dance and musicals and others — and integrate them as “performing arts.”
What’s next for Pappa Tarahumara?
I want to create a production based on the life and works of the English author Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) with Indonesian drama people. I also want to make another stage based on a fairy tale (in February, the company will be restaging its first fairy-tale production, “Cinderella,” in Tokyo). Besides theater, I would like to make a film one day, and I also want to create an arts complex . . . I just wish I had more bodies!
“Tokyo-Buenos Aires Shokan,” with a live-music band, runs Oct. 2-7 at Asahi Art Square, a 5-min. walk from Asakusa Station on the Ginza Line. For details, call (03) 3385-2919 or visit www.pappa-tara.com
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