New York-based choreographer Kota Yamazaki has formed an unlikely bond between African dance and Japanese butoh. As an aftereffect of World War II, butoh typically foregrounds the taboo, and its slow, exaggerated expression send dancers and audiences into surreal and sometimes frightening spaces of darkness.
Born the northern part of Japan, Yamazaki was raised on Japanese butoh from the age of 18. He later found his own artistic voice, forming Tokyo-based dance company Rosy Co. As the company gained momentum in Japan, he had begun to question the country’s artistic culture and was fortuitously invited to set choreography on Senegalese dance company Jant-Bi. Thus began his affinity for African dance and culture.
In 2002, he left Japan for New York with the intention to immerse himself in African culture while still developing his butoh foundation. He has since gained new acclaim as a choreographer, and his work continues to explore the connections between two worlds that may appear to be total opposites.
His latest project, (glowing), lands in Miami on Jan. 25. We recently spoke with Yamazaki about (glowing), and the multicultural influences behind it.
What ignited your interest in butoh?
Back then, I was interested in a butoh style that was very violent, improvisational, and expressive. And I was frustrated about Japanese politics and social systems. As a young man, I needed some kind of body-based art form to express myself.
What is the essence of butoh, for you?
In butoh, there are no straight lines. Always some parts are bending, or twisting. And in butoh, the direction of energy goes down, down, down, as opposed to the up, up, up of ballet or other western dance. Also the body always has image of sickness, decay, or shadow.
Where does butoh intersect with African dance?
In 2003, I spent time in Senegal working with traditional African dancers. The village where I stayed was very similar to the old lifestyle of Japan. They lived on the floor with no chairs, no tables, and they didn’t have much light. They lived in complete darkness when it got to nighttime. And their philosophy or religion, the way they think about nature, was very similar.
The basic position of African dance is almost the same as in butoh. Of course there are a lot of different elements, but the basic position is the same. That was a key discovery for me. It’s basically very grounded. Your knees are deeply bending. And your torso is leaning a bit forward. That kind of position was exactly the same in both African dance and butoh. It reminded me of farmers working in the field. I have wondered if that basic position was inspired by the farmers, in African dance. Because I believe in butoh it came from the rice farmers.
How did the Senegalese dancers receive your choreography?
The dancers I worked with were all strong, big, muscular male dancers. And the first time I taught butoh to them, half of them cried so hard, like a baby. They became so emotional. And I was very shocked and surprised because I had never seen such strong men crying like that. One of the dancers told me that they were so scared because they felt like their bodies were left alone. It took a while for me to realize what that meant. In African culture, the sense of community and communication is very strong. They are always connected, and they are always communicating. Even when they are dancing. In butoh you are very alone, in a way. So maybe they felt that. They were so scared to learn butoh. That was a very unexpected reaction.
Did they eventually feel comfortable with the butoh movement?
I stopped seeing that extreme reaction. I also changed the way I taught them. Instead of forcing my style onto them, I realized that exchange is more important. So I started learning African dance from them, every day. And we started exchanging little by little. They started finding their own way to approach butoh. It was a very interesting collaboration for me to witness. It took almost three months.
How does your interest in African culture manifest in your new project (glowing)?
This project is unique because the cast is very international. Two are from Africa — Ethiopia and Senegal — two are from Japan, and two are from New York. So each of them has a totally different dance background. I spent time with them to teach my style of Butoh, and I took time to learn each of their African styles. The woman from Senegal and the man from Ethiopia also have different dance styles from each other. So we all exchanged what we knew. As we spent more time together, we gradually built a sense of community. We started communicating really well, although we didn’t have a common language. That kind of organic progress was very inspiring for me. It became a core message of the piece.
There’s an emphasis on darkness and light in (glowing). You mentioned earlier that people spend a great deal of time in the dark, in both Japan and Senegal. What happens in darkness that is not possible in light?
I remember that when I was little, I played with a lot of other kids in a small Japanese house until it got really dark. Or people got together in dim light. It was normal for Japanese people in older times. In Senegal, it’s still normal. In darkness, the relationship between people becomes more organic because when the light is bright, identity becomes clear. But in darkness, the figures of other people become blurry. In darkness, you see things, or space, differently. You even see illusions in darkness.
Miami Light Project Presents Kota Yamazaki (glowing) on Jan. 25-26, at 8:00 p.m., at the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, 404 NW 26 St., Miami; tickets cost $20 members, $25 non members; www.miamilightproject.com.
Special thanks to Mina Nishimura for her assistance with this interview.
A version appeared on the Huffington Post.