If you took a handful of aspiring Japanese contemporary dancers and blended them with a few members of Tanztheater Wuppertal — the world-famous German troupe formed in 1973 by the modern dance icon Pina Bausch (1940-2009) — what kinds of artistic chemistry would you get?
To find out, French choreographer and dancer Fabien Prioville, who formed his own company in 2006 after seven years with Tanztheater, is now staging his “Soma” project at the Owl Spot public theater in Toshima Ward, Tokyo.
Since his first visit to Japan in 1995 with Montreal’s avant-garde La la la Human Steps troupe — when, he said, “I felt I was on another planet, as I didn’t understand anything” — Prioville, 42, has worked with icons including Josef Nadj and the radical U.S. performance artist Davis Freeman. Sometimes with his Japanese wife, Azusa Seyama — a Tanztheater dancer since 2000 — he has also led dance workshops here.
Now, through his “Soma” project, he aims to conjure a unique cultural fusion between three French dancers from Tanztheater, two Japanese musicians — and five Japanese with no dance experience who he chose from auditions this January that were open to all and attracted more than 200 hopefuls aged from their teens to 70s.
“The French government gave me money to study dance, and school fees were paid for,” Prioville explained over coffee in a Tokyo cafe. “But I’ve always felt Japanese artists, especially contemporary dancers, have few chances to work and are denied appropriate dance education.
“Perhaps as a result, many Japanese people have fixed ideas what dancers should be, so I chose nondancers who didn’t have such biases — but who knew how to move in the purest sense.”
Then referring to his wife, who is the project’s interpreter and his assistant, he said, “I spent times with her family when I came here, so I got to compare the realities of Europe and Japan.
“In Japanese society, people are used to living closely together and sharing spaces and ideas with others. In Europe, we make out we live together, but individuality is the overriding factor.”
So, to help his diverse “Soma” cast to express themselves imaginatively together, Prioville organized homestays for the Japanese members when they all went to his base in Dusseldorf, 35 km west of Wuppertal, for three weeks of workshops and rehearsals in June.
“At first they were confused by the freedom I gave them to improvise,” he said, “because they were used to being told what to do. So they’d talk together a lot to try and do everything correctly, as they were afraid of misunderstanding me.
“Then they eventually realized there were no definite answers, and after their experience working and living in Germany they changed a lot and were able to concentrate on their own creativity.”
One of the Japanese dancers, 47-year-old stage actress Kiyomi Tanigawa, later described some of her turmoils in Germany. “One day, Fabien asked us to create our own movements on a common theme, but we Japanese all hesitated,” Tanigawa recalled. “Then when he asked me what was wrong with me, I thought he was angry and I was so upset — but he just meant I should change my attitude and be more creative. That wasn’t easy — but now I’m surprised how much I can dance!”
Meanwhile, Marseille-born Clementine Deluy told me how she had homestayed in Tokyo with another one of the dancers, and he’d told her how, as a boy, he was always waiting for his mother, who worked till late in an office. Then when he created a dance scene about a boy waiting for his mother, who had actually been washed away in a tsunami, she said she was “so deeply moved.”
“This ‘Soma’ project isn’t just about dancing,” she said, “it’s a very special thing.”
Finally, Prioville said with obvious delight: “A wonderful chemistry has happened among the group. Now I hope that audiences will recognize and appreciate their achievements.”