How to conjure worlds from the fewest words

Choreographer Mikuni Yanaihara branches out into theater


One evening in late May, a cozy rehearsal room in Yokohama was more like a drill hall as Mikuni Yanaihara called for another run through a dance scene in her latest play, “Gonin Shimai” (“Five Sisters”).

As a choreographer and dancer, 38-year-old Yanaihara first came to attention internationally with Nibroll, the artistic collective she founded in 1997, at the prestigious Avignon Festival in the South of France. Since then, Nibroll has been just about the hottest Japanese contemporary dance ticket around, while Yanaihara has branched out into theater as a writer and director.

Hopefully Yanaihara has finally managed to get her cast of actors to perform to her satisfaction, as she is now staging “Gonin Shimai” — her fourth original play — at Kichijoji Theater in western Tokyo. The play depicts a few routine days in the lives of five distinctly different sisters, weaving together comical, short dance scenes with everyday conversations about hopes, dreams and complaints about their humdrum daily routines.

Why didn’t you join an existing dance troupe after you graduated?

At first I planned to make a film with some friends and show it at a small theater in Nakano in Tokyo. However, we weren’t able to get enough money together, so we decided to do a live performance there instead. That was the start of Nibroll. Because nobody had any theater experience, my friends asked me to create a dance program.

How do you create your works in Nibroll?

Nibroll is comprised of several directors from different fields: music, choreography and the visual arts. We discuss together the theme of a new program, then each goes back and creates their part separately. After that we meet up again and meld everyone’s work together into a complete program.

Why did you launch yourselves on the international scene from the beginning?

It was a lucky coincidence. One day, my friend sent me a mail saying how fantastic the Avignon Festival in France was. Nibroll had just received a small grant, so we decided to go to Avignon in 2000 on the fringe of the main festival. My friend knew the owner of a small theater, and he offered to let us use it for free, so we were delighted and staged our dance performances there for a month.

It was a funny experience because we misunderstood the schedule and found out that we had to perform on the same day we arrived. On top of that, one of our dancers fell ill in Japan just before we left so Yuko Hirai — a friend of mine from the Dumb Type Company — filled in at the last minute, though on the first night as she danced on stage, she had to watch a video in the wings to know what to do next.

Nonetheless, three local journalists came to see us and they wrote favorable reports, so that was fabulous PR and gave us an excellent reputation. The French loved what they called our “non- Japanese” style of dance, by which they meant we were outside their conventional image of butoh or taiko drumming and kimono costumes and all that. Instead, they were interested in our hysterical and rather violent movements and our colorful miniskirts and Japanese neo-youth culture.

People of our generation who are now curating and organizing fringe or experimental programs seem to be keen on us and encourage us to perform on international stages. But after we had toured America in 2003 and performed extensively in Europe, Asia and India, by around 2005, I started to lose interest in being a guest performer abroad and decided to work mainly in Tokyo. It was a great experience to perform in other countries, and I learned so many things, such as how to communicate with people from different cultural backgrounds. It gave me a sense of statelessness that I would probably never have developed if I had stayed in Japan.

What do you want to achieve in “Gonin Shimai”?

In dance, people can sense and judge a dancer’s technique level through common sense, but it’s a much more sensitive and difficult matter to evaluate an actor’s ability. I have now gotten used to theater directing day in day out, but it is still a process of trial and error.

For me, it’s not so important to construct the meaning of a story exactly, because, after all, such things can come across quite vaguely in the dance world. It’s like the work of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, or that of the world-renowned Japanese author and musician Masaya Nakahara — or haiku, for that matter — people can conjure a complete aesthetic world from a few simple, brief sentences.

But in theater, people expect a certain story construction and meanings to be explained with words. Nakahara, who’s 39, once stated that he wished to write sentences through which people become aware that there is a hand before he shows an actual hand. I was so impressed by that and thought I could try to do it in dance, to suggest a hand without showing an actual hand. But it’s so difficult to realize that kind of expression in theater. For example, plays have words, and these words define meaning, so sometimes they may blinker the audience’s free imagination compared to creative expression that is possible through dance. So I am now searching for a way to create a broadly imaginative theater world within the limitations of words. It’s really hard.

What I am really striving for, is to make dance and theater programs that give people reasons to examine their daily lives.

“Gonin Shimai” runs till June 28 at Kichijoji Theater, a 5-min. walk from Kichijoji Station (Chuo, Sobu and Inokashira lines). For more information, call (03) 3410-1816 or visit