Kentaro makes hip-hop personal

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

Almost the whole of Kentaro’s life has been devoted to dance — in particular to hip-hop dance — ever since he first saw it on television as an elementary school boy.

Even today, as a well-known professional dancer who prefers not to reveal his surname and calls himself simply KENTARO!!, he recalls the TV show that changed his life — Dance Koshien, a nationwide street-dance contest for high school students that ran from 1988-1996. In 1996, Kentaro won the second prize, and his career began to take off.

That first success came after Kentaro, who was born in Sendai but grew up in Tokyo, went to one of the capital’s very few modern dance studios, when he was small. In a recent interview, the 31-year-old said of that period, “I really hated school because, basically, I didn’t like studying. So, really, I was rescued by dance, and every day I practiced dance steps under my desk during the lessons.”

After his TV success, Kentaro survived in show business by occasionally acting in movies and TV shows, while also singing in a band. Meanwhile, though, he was becoming so prominent on the dance scene that his schedule eventually filled with teaching dance classes, solo performances and performances as the leader of the dance troupe Tokyo Electrock Stairs (TES), which he founded in 2008.

This year, since returning in March from a tour in India, Kentaro has been busy with regular dance shows and preparing for this month’s hectic schedule, which included the Dance Triennale Tokyo and a rerun of his solo work “Ame ga Furuto Hareru 2” (“Clear after Rain 2”) in Tokyo. After Tokyo, he’ll take the show to Kyoto. On top of all that, he’s set to raise a ruckus with a flash-mob dance event he’s planning for Festival Tokyo next month, after which, to kick off 2013, he will take off for a dance showcase being presented by the Japan Society in New York.

As we chatted at a Tokyo burger restaurant, Kentaro talked about his love of hip-hop, while making a frantic appeal about the current situation of contemporary dance in Japan.

It’s remarkable that in your teens you were already choreographing original works. What was your inspiration back then and now?

I wasn’t interested in jobs like dancing in Disneyland parades or in the background of TV variety shows. Primarily, I love to create, so I’d always choreograph and create performances with friends, even when I was the youngest in a group.

What inspires me is my technical quest in dance, so I normally create works to make the most of some great new movement I’ve come up with. I know many performers, especially in Europe, incorporate a social or political dimension in their works, but I think there’s already lots of that kind of conceptual stuff around, so I don’t need to do it, too. Having said that, I may not think the same way when I turn 40 — who knows?

I do think, however, that my social view — my antagonistic nature — is inevitably reflected in what I do. When I started to create solo performances around 2007, I was aiming to make anti-contemporary dance shows, as I thought that genre was too fussy and finicky. Some critics said my work was too easygoing, but I welcomed that because I had purposely created works that did not promote a message. They were meant to be straightforwardly physical, a contrast to all the posturing of other contemporary dance programs.

In an interview last year, you said you aimed to create performances with “elements of Japanese taste.” What did you mean?

Well, fundamentally, the origins of hip-hop in the African-American community and its origins in Japan are quite different. In the United States, it was born out of poverty, but it didn’t happen that way here. Japanese hip-hop dancers’ techniques, for example, may be some of the best in the world today, but they are really copies of U.S. style — the dancers here lack the motive and passion that American dancers have in their soul. So, I’ve been creating my own personal hip-hop dance using original music and unique styles of movement — it’s not a “made in the U.S.” copy.

It’s normal for me to be moved by brilliant music, books or movies on a daily basis, so I also want to give day-to-day stimulation to audiences through my dance performance.

This year, hip-hop dance was included as an option in the national junior high school curriculum. Do you expect the genre to become more profitable now?

I’ve always thought of dance as the leading edge of performance arts, but it actually has a very low position in the entertainment world in Japan. Normally, producers and directors use (hip-hop) dance in a supporting role, never as the main act — hence there is a huge difference in the fees for musicians and dancers.

Though dance has been on the national curriculum since April, I doubt that will raise the status of street dance. I think the main beneficiaries of the curriculum change will be music and entertainment companies like Avex, who have developed business models around this dance boom by sending their dance instructors to schools to attract more kids to their dance schools.

If the authorities were really interested in promoting dance culture, I’d like to see them giving subsidies to theaters to support dance creators.

How do you think the performing arts scene in Japan can be improved?

I think the public sector, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and local or regional governments, should take a stronger lead regarding arts policy. If, for example, a city or town office organized a dance event in a small park in front of a station, many citizens would go to see it. It’s also important to attract people to their local theaters. In Tokyo, audiences of such theaters are usually made up of regulars and other people hardly ever go there.

As regards to the dance scene, I’d like to create a situation where people can see dance programs every weekend. To help that happen, I think young dancers need to be pushed, so they do more public performances on a regular basis. The reason why the audiences for dance have been static or falling the past few years is because there have been no sensational newcomers.

What are your personal goals?

I would like to raise the status of dance in Japan. There are hundreds of plays staged every day in Tokyo, but very few dance programs.

Ultimately, to achieve my dream, dance-related artists and others should get together and strive to work as a single a body — but sadly, most leading figures are busy doing their own things and they hardly ever bother with young talented dancers.

Also, producers should get out more to research the latest dance innovations, and then spend some of their time and money bringing rising talents into the commercial world.

One of my personal ambitions is to be the artistic director of a public theater, like (the contemporary dancer) Jo Kanamori is for Ryutopia, the public theater of Niigata City. In such a position, I could concentrate on my own dance creations but still have the time to set about the task of spreading dance culture. That way, I could be a positive role model for younger dance creators.

“Ame ga Furuto Hareru 2” (“Clear after Rain 2”) runs till Oct. 28 at the Komaba Agora Theater in Tokyo, a 3-min. walk from Komaba Todaimae Station on the Keio Inogashira Line. It then tours to Kyoto from Nov. 29 till Dec. 2. For more details, call (090) 3585-7507 or visit