Stage

Dancer Kaiji Moriyama celebrates ninja in his latest work

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

A creative yet shy child fascinated with origami and crafts, Kaiji Moriyama discovered dance late, at the age of 21 while a university student. He has certainly made up for the lost time, though. Just seven years since first studying the art form, he performed to rave reviews at the 2001 Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland and was named “one of the year’s most talented dancers.” Moriyama followed his debut success with “Katana,” a breakthrough original production, in New York in 2005.

Since then Moriyama, 46, has participated in more than 100 performances in Japan and abroad, both solo and in collaboration with other artists. He debuts his newest work, “Ninja,” at the New National Theatre, Tokyo on May 31.

Because Moriyama draws from a diverse selection of dance styles and genres, his work appeals to a wide range of audiences, from children to adults and classical fans to contemporary. Due to popular demand, an extra performance has already been added to the run. Following the Tokyo performances, Moriyama will tour the nation into July, traveling to Fukushima, Iwate, Ibaraki, Shiga, Tottori, Fukuoka, and Nagano prefectures.

Moriyama believes “Ninja” has something for everyone.

“The idea of the ninja encompasses a varied set of expectations or images,” he says. “I’ve heard that many people overseas love ninja. Most Japanese have a set image of ninja from what they’ve read in manga or what’s been passed down, even though no Japanese today has had any direct experience with them. Probably those overseas have diverse ideas about ninja.

“I thought it would be fun to create different kinds of ninja and explore various ways of acting them out on stage, imaginatively using my body and spirit to reach the hearts of children. I also wanted to create something that would embody the Japanese spirit.”

Moriyama’s career has long been focused on these two themes: creating for children and exploring Japanese cultural identities. As a young choreographer, fresh from his success with “Katana,” Moriyama was given the opportunity to work for NHK’s acclaimed children’s program “Karada de Asobo” (“Let’s Move Our Bodies”), and the experience shaped his artistic vision.

“When I started out, I was really just thinking about my own self-expression as an artist,” he says. “When I was first presented with this chance, I was worried if I could really appeal to children. But once I got into it, it was so much fun. I didn’t try to make the children copy me or teach them step by step, I just used my entire body to communicate. For example I would physically mimic a butterfly and ask the children, ‘What do you think this is?'”

Moriyama says that he wanted to continue working with children, as he enjoyed it so much. He says he has been given a number of opportunities to do so since then. Moriyama’s “Circus,” an earlier production aimed at children, premiered at the New National Theatre, Tokyo in 2015 with a reprisal last year due to popular demand.

Exploring Japanese culture through movement is also important to Moriyama.

“In Japan, Western forms of dance like classic ballet, jazz dance and tap dance have become more and more popular and I started out doing Western style dance,” he says. “Gradually I wanted to do something that resonated more with my identity as a Japanese person. I wanted to find a form of physical expression that would help me to do this. So that’s where ‘Katana’ came from. I didn’t actually perform with a sword, but I wanted to explore how people long ago thought of swords, not just as weapons, and to express physically the entire spirit surrounding the sword.”

He says that the Japanese concept of ma (space, room) has inspired him, in terms of tying various Japanese traditions together.

“In music, for example, there are quiet parts, louder parts and places of silence, intentionally not filled with sound,” Moriyama says. “We learn to appreciate these silences, the spaces in between or the ma. I really like the idea that space has a purpose; it’s not just empty space, although that sounds like a contradiction. There is nothing there, but actually, in the deliberate absence, there is something there.”

Moriyama strives to bring this same sense of ma onto the stage in the in-between spaces of stillness that are as important as the actual movement.

He also brings his creative talents to a wide range of artistic endeavors away from the world of dance. He has worked in film, exhibited photographs and dabbles in fashion. Yet everything unites in movement, he believes.

“All forms of creative expression involve moving the body,” he says. “Artists, singers, and stage actors must communicate by using their bodies, so I don’t think that dance is the only kind of physical expression. Most art forms extend through the body and are all enjoyable in their way. The methods of creative expression are different, though, and this has probably influenced my choreography.

For example, when making a film, there’s the person behind the camera, and there are the actors, and each person sees it from a different angle. I find those differences appealing.”

Despite his varied interests, dance fans need not worry that he will soon give up the stage.

“Each form of creative expression has provided inspiration and influenced my dance,” he says. “Dance is made up of many components. You have one body and you can dance by yourself, but it also involves the music, the costumes, the audience and all the people who make it happen. That’s part of the appeal of dance. Dance has everything.”

Moriyama was honored with a New Artist Award by Japan’s culture minister for his work, “The Universe of Mandala,” which was first performed in 2012. He was also a performer at the opening ceremony of the 2013 Sports Festival in Tokyo and was named a Japan Cultural Envoy for the Agency for Cultural Affairs the same year. For Moriyama, it’s an exciting time to be a creator in Japan. He sees the upcoming Tokyo Olympics as a time to both share culture and to welcome exciting, new international influences.

“Japanese culture is changing and becoming more Westernized,” Moriyama concludes. “Yet, we, as Japanese, need to think about what Japanese culture means. I’m not saying everyone should start carrying swords, but we should treasure parts of our culture that are unique to Japan — things like origami or historical things like ninja — so that people visiting Japan will sense that we take pride in our culture.

“Many strange and mysterious things inhabit this world we live in and ninja are one of them. Ninja are known to remain hidden, not to come out in the open, and there are many other things in the world that remain hidden, that we don’t know. I want to try to uncover as many of these hidden things that I can and I hope I can express these through dance. I believe this is one way to make life rich.”

“Ninja” will be performed at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, between May 31 and June 9 and will go on to tour the country through June and July. For more information and to book tickets, visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp/english/productions/dance/moriyama-kaiji-2019.html and www.kaijimoriyama.com.