Penniless and subsisting on only water for three weeks, Tokyo street-dweller Tokuchika Nishi thought he had come to the end of his life.

“My money ran out and I thought it would be fine to just die a dog’s death,” says Nishi, 38, who had spent two years homeless in the Japanese capital after going into debt.

His life changed, however, with the discovery of Newcomer “H” Sokerissa!, a dance group with members that include homeless people and some who have made it off the streets.

“Many of the limitations I used to put on myself are gone,” says Nishi, who joined the group in July. “I’m more excited about what I’m capable of and how far I can go. I want to express all that swells up inside me through dance.”

Dancer and choreographer Yuuki Aoki, who founded the group 10 years ago, says he was intrigued by the weather-battered bodies of the homeless men, and wondered what kind of artistic expression such hardship might produce. In 2004, he saw a crowd gathered around a street performance in Tokyo, while a man slept nearby. The man’s buttocks were exposed to people, who walked past without a second glance recalled Aoki, who wondered what would happen if the man were to become the performer.

Though he was initially warned that the project would fail if it were known the dancers were homeless, Aoki persisted and the group now performs across Japan in various spaces, from parks to museums. Two members of the troupe have also traveled with Aoki to Rio de Janeiro before the 2016 Summer Olympics to perform with homeless people there.

To avoid restricting the men’s self-expression, Aoki says he stopped trying to teach specific moves and the group’s dances are not choreographed. Instead, he gives the members a list of expressions — such as “swallowing the sun” or “exposing the meat to the wind” — to serve as a guide.

Despite being new to dance, Aoki says the performers use the art form to reveal what lies at the root of human expression and what it means to be human in new ways. The “H” in the name, he explains, stands for human, hope and homeless. “Sokerissa” is derived from “sore ikei,” meaning “to step forward.”

For some, “H” Sokerissa! has become a way of life. Masato Yokouchi, who has been dancing for nine years, says, “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have ‘H’ Sokerissa!,” explaining that the activity helps sustains him.

Masayoshi Koiso, 69, says that he had spent his life running away from family and work before encountering the troupe five years ago.

“I started thinking that maybe the only place left for me to run away to is death,” says Koiso, who has been homeless for nine years. “If that’s the case, I wanted to fully use up the body I have until then — then maybe, I’ll have a good end.”

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