In 2006, when the world-renowned director Yukio Ninagawa announced open auditions for Saitama Gold Theatre — a project he launched with the slogan, “If you are over 55, let’s create theater together and go on a foreign tour” — there were cynics eager to brand the applicants as dreamy wannabe Cinderellas or deluded Don Quixote types.
Yet ever since Ninagawa assessed almost 1,200 people and selected 48 to start late-blossoming careers as actors, the troupe has regularly been performing before paying, sellout audiences. And in May 2013, that “foreign tour” slogan became reality when SGT debuted in Paris with sprightly 77-year-old Ninagawa directing “Raven, we shall load Bullets,” a work specially created by veteran playwright Kunio Shimizu.
Meanwhile, some of SGT’s 39 remaining actors — 14 men and 25 women, average age 75 — are now also taking roles in professional works directed by Ninagawa and others. In the coming months, too, SGT will fly back to Paris to stage “Raven” again — then make its Asian debut with the same work in Hong Kong.
Remarkably, though, SGT’s members are now pushing the envelope even further following a four-day workshop in 2012 given them by the world-famous Japanese dancer Azusa Seyama.
A member since 2000 of Tanztheater Wuppertal in Germany — the company founded in 1973 by the towering modern-dance icon, and pioneer of dance-theater (tanztheater), Pina Bausch (1940-2009) — Seyama happily agreed to a request by Ninagawa to return after that first workshop.
As a result, last summer she and SGT’s aging athletes began work on an original piece they’ve returned to this year in six weeks of daily four-hour sessions leading up to a four-day run of performances from Aug. 28.
Last week when I visited the rehearsal studio at the troupe’s Saitama Arts Theater home (where Saitama-born Ninagawa is artistic director), I bumped into spirited Yoko Teramura greeting me with a smile and at once volunteering, “This dance workshop’s so much fun and it’s drawing out new possibilities from me.”
With her firm muscles and healthy tan, Teramura looks much younger than her 65 years. As she routinely swims four times a week, she said she joined the dance lessons without a second thought.
“With Seyama it’s not like other more regimented dance classes,” she said. “With her, there’s no fixed arrangements; everything depends on our own expression and she asks us to display our inner thoughts and souls without hiding anything — then she creates programs from what she sees.
“At first it was quite embarrassing to expose my real feelings in front of others — I mean, grown-ups don’t do that — but since I’ve been able to overcome those inhibitions, I’ve felt so free and so much pleasure.”
For her part, though, Seyama was quick to hand the credit to her own mentor, saying how Bausch was not just a great dancer and choreographer, but a great leader and director whose methods she is trying to pass on. In doing so, she said, “I always observe each dancer carefully and am moved by each one’s character and gifts. Even their trivial actions, such as getting moving wearily, or staggering a bit, are so charming. I love to see such real humans dancing here.
“Each person’s body rhythm is different, so everyone blooms at different times and it’s great to see that. I suppose Pina observed us with similar feelings.”
Then, as I looked around the room I soon spotted SGT’s oldest member, Kiyoshi Takahashi, dance-theatrically moving around with walking stick in hand, stepping this way and that with elan.
“It’s really fun to come here,” 86-year-old Takahashi said. “Normally, there’s no chance for oldies to perform for audiences however hard they practice, but luckily thanks to Ninagawa, we got this opportunity. So now, even though people probably say these are my declining years, I feel in the top form of my life.”
For Seyama, too, all this is clearly a very special experience full of surprises. “Sometimes they forget what I’ve taught 10 minutes before, and sometimes their talent suddenly shines out without any warning,” she said. “And after a year’s interval, I’ve found they’ve became more curious and energetic.
“Also, when I do a regular dance workshop in Japan with Japanese students, they hesitate to ask the teacher anything and they’re always worried about making a mistake. With the SGT people, though, there’s no hesitation and they try first and think afterward. That’s a really special ability of theirs.”
Then, reflecting on her whole experience in Saitama and beyond, Seyama said, “I want to put Pina’s gift, which I received, into young artists’ hands so she will dance forever through them. But I also want to work more with non-dancers or actors, such as here at SGT, to create dance programs for nondancers’ bodies.
“And yes, I dream of acting with SGT members — that’s an ambition of mine.”
Saitama Gold Theatre’s “A Journey of Tanztheater, Chapter 3” runs Aug. 28-31, at Saitama Arts Theater near Yonohonmachi Station on the Saikyo Line from Shinjuku or Ikebukuro stations in Tokyo. For details, call 0570-064-939 or visit www.saf.or.jp.
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