In 2003, prominent arts writer Allen Robertson wrote in The Times: “If there was a Turner Prize for dance, Darren Johnston would undoubtedly be on the shortlist.”
Robertson was referring to the creator of “Silicon Sensorium,” which played to packed audiences at the Purcell Room of London’s Southbank Centre. A futuristic multimedia piece, it featured “cyborg” dancers, a clinical LED-lit set and an original electronic score created by Squarepusher. It also thoroughly confused the contemporary dance world.
“The industry response was a little tetchy,” says Johnston as he reminisces at a recent interview. “That was quite a contrast to how it was received by the audience — the show sold out for its two-night run.”
In the critics’ eyes, Johnston — the winner of several major accolades, including first prize at International Choreographen Concours in Groningen, Holland — was suddenly “pushing boundaries” and veering away from what was considered as Contemporary Dance.
“I can’t say it was ever intentional. I never set out to be controversial,” the Essex-born, English artist says with a smile. “It was quite a shock to have the industry react in such a way. But I knew what I was into, and I needed more emotion, legitimacy and sincerity in my work. There was no turning back.”
Johnston is currently in Japan for an artist’s residency program at The Museum of Art, Kochi, on the southern island of Shikoku. As part of his research, he has visited a number of shrines listed on the Ohenro (Eighty-eight Temple) Pilgrimage, embraced the nature and countryside of the locale, observed various Buddhist rituals and auditioned dancers. It’s his first international residency and the first one outside the confines of a specific art form.
“In Japan, I’m not really ‘anything’ (in terms of art discipline). I could make video installations or theater, I could even write poetry if I wanted,” he jokes. “That was the appeal, to some degree, of this project.”
That desire to create without being pigeon-holed as a “dancer” or “choreographer” stems from Johnston’s unorthodox route into dance. Coming from a background of electronic music and art — influences that culminated with “Silicon Sensorium” — his work continued to experiment with disciplines.
“Ren-sa,” 2004 — a haunting piece that involved hijacking the audience and disorienting them in a blacked-out bus before opening the doors inside a warehouse for an eerie performance — won rave reviews as an innovative work of immersive theater. “Outre,” 2006 — a Lynchian theatrical freak show of bizarre happenings set to an unusual electronic score — however, divided critics again, despite selling out at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. In contrast, “Ousia,” 2009, which required the audience wander through misty corridors to arrive at a white room and “observe” a mysterious woman through an ethereal gauze barrier, impressed everyone with its fine-tuned simplicity and deliberate ambiguity.
By the time he completed his residency for the Roundhouse in London with “Underdrome” (2009), the audiences were offering standing ovations, even if the critics were up in arms. The work itself aimed to extract the symbolic from modern-day social gatherings, such as raves and clubbing, and reinterpret them as parallels to broader notions of ceremony, ritual and psychology.
“The conventional commentators of dance were baffled by it. I’d gone from a ‘darling of contemporary dance,’ through experimental theater, then visual arts, electronic music — even film,” he says. “And then I (put it together and) made ‘Underdrome.'”
“I’ve got a strong choreographic background and career, so for some who didn’t know me well, my work would have come with certain expectations,” he explains. “For others, it confused by opening up a world of references that they weren’t familiar with.”
Such “references,” include cultural ones that Johnston laments are too often dismissed as low-brow: alternative music, techno clubs, street art, computer graphics, films, anime. And the connection he makes between those and spirituality and meditation, he says, grew partially from the influence of Japanese culture.
“I recall the first time I watched ‘Akira,’ and it blew my mind. It was so much more than an animated film. It connected with me on a sensory, emotive and spiritual level,” he explains. “That contrast of traditional Japanese music with futuristic images of a metropolis.”
The “cyborgs” of “Silicon Sensorium” acknowledge technology and anime, the awkward broken movements of “Ren-sa’s” deranged female ghost are a direct reference to J-horror and Asian folklore, while the futuristic aesthetic of “Underdrome” is undoubtably Japan-inspired.
When he made “Ren-sa,” the butoh artist Tadeshi Endo approached him to tell him that his piece was butoh. “And he said that it was ‘true butoh’ because I had found it through my own way,” Johnston recalls.
“Butoh, in my understanding had essentially developed from the sense of loss and tragedy of World War II,” he says. ” And I had just gone through a sustained period of personal trauma and tragedy — I had lost my father and then my sister in two consecutive years.”
Embracing and channeling personal suffering, and distilling it into movement, helped cement his relationship with Japanese culture. But it is now the more subtle “Ousia,” which pares down his influences to an even more abstract presentation, that he says is closer to the direction he is currently pursuing.
Stripped of direct references and linear narrative, “Ousia” blurs the line between theater and visual art and purposely requires the audience to derive their own interpretations.
“I want to evoke things, rather than spoon-feed meaning,” he says. “For me, this feels much more connected to Eastern ideas.”
The Kochi residency, his longest stay in Japan yet, expands on some initial research on the concept of rebirth, though, unlike most of his previous works, the references steer away from popular culture.
“It’s been a time and space to explore ideas in a hermetic way, drawing direct evocative influence from the local landscape and culture,” he says. “For example, I became really aware of sounds. There are such strong references in the Japanese countryside, like the buzz of cicadas. I’m actually thinking of sampling it and distorting it.”
He promises his presentation will include elements of video installation, scenographic design, music, “soundscapes” as well as, of course, choreography.
But will it be “controversial”?
“The work is multi-faceted and multi dimensional in its interpretation, so it’s down to how people read it,” he says. “One thing this approach does is expose the imagination — or lack of it — of those criticizing or debating it.”
Being “controversial,” then, could now be the role of the audience (and the critics). Rather than attempt to impose rules of convention on his work, why not accept it for what it is? Don’t think of it as “contemporary dance.” Be brave — it’s multidisciplinary and up to you how to interpret it.