Talking with Shintaro Oue is very much a listening to the energy between bodies and words, in between mind-sets and cultures.Even after some twenty years in Europe there is a definite Japanese feel about the masculinity of Shintaro’s voice and intonation, and also about the way topics are lightly touched upon, left lingering, and picked up again. At times I feel like having forced an entry on forbidden territory – when it comes to personal matters. During our conversation, the choreographer’s courtesy and goodwill remain unfaltering.
In his work, Shintaro Oue, at 41, seems to be spiralling ever further away from the extravert virtuosity he started off from as a ballet student. Oue prefers to delve deep inside bodies now – his own and that of his co-dancers –searching for a more authentic state of being. By the sheer physicality of contact improvisation and voice work, the choreographies of Shintaro Oue exude a joyful, primitive power, one that surfaces as quite Japanese, and also seems to appeal to a need in his fellow countrymen. The latest production – Dan-su, a cooperation with Mirai Moriyama and Hintaro Hirahara – has been exceptionally well received in Japan. We talk while Shintaro Oue is working at Dansens Hus in Stockholm on a new choreography that will premiere in Japan.
Lieve Dierckx: Could you tell me about what makes a Japanese boy decide to leave his country at the age of seventeen?
Shintaro Oue: It must have been the guest teachers at my ballet school in Japan. Their life seemed to consist mainly of travelling in between ballet schools, to teach or to choreograph for the students and I never saw their pieces shown outside of the school circuit. I felt I needed some higher aim. There were also Japanese dance companies at that time while I mainly had contact with the smaller circuit, if you will.
On the other hand I rebelled against Japanese culture in general, and I felt a strong urge to look beyond its borders. As things turned out, Europe was the best option because of the big ballet competitions, and I was accepted as a student at the Ballet School in Hamburg. So you could say that I left because I could imagine only too well what my life would look like. Looking back at that time, I wonder if my seventeen-year-old me would agree with the choice. I guess so…[laughs].
Lieve: How did you cope with the culture shock back then?
Shintaro: Let’s say I didn’t. When I arrived, my English was so poor that I could not get myself understood. Next to that, I was rather out of my depth with the way in which the people I met were open and extravert about their emotions. I’d never seen that where I grew up, I’d never learned that kind of expressiveness, not through language anyway. My rebellion against Japan helped though: I was so eager to learn, like a sponge wanting to take in as much as possible from whatever that new environment had to offer.
Thus, I was lucky to have dance. That was my life in those first months because, even when I understood little of the words the teachers in the dance studio were saying, we talked the language of ballet, which I understood.
Lieve: Please give me an idea about what your life outside the ballet studio looked like.
Shintaro: As it is, there is never much time besides the dance training at a professional dance school, and in Hamburg we were put in student apartments, one of which I shared with four boys. What helped was that there, of course, people are curious about each other. I remember a Russian boy who didn’t speak a word of English either which in fact made it kind of easier for us to communicate. As if a bond was created because we were in the same situation. Completely new to me was the fact that some of the boys were gay. Of course in ballet homosexuality is quite common, but the funny thing is that I had no idea. Some people came to me with what I felt to be a strange approach as friends, and it took me some time to understand.
Lieve: Do you mean that homosexuality, despite the Internet and global news, is still hidden and taboo for the Japanese society?
Shintaro: Well, I grew up in the countryside, south of Kyoto, and there we just didn’t have much information on the subject. I do believe a lot of people would cover it up, because there is a tradition of not accepting it. Japan is still very closed compared to Europe, while I’ve seen that closeness about being gay within certain family cultures in Europe also. I have the impression that homosexuality in Japan is more acceptable and more visible these days, also on television – while still kind of strange. I think that unless you get to know a gay person in your everyday life, you’ll never know what it actually means. In ballet school I just needed the time to get acquainted with homosexuality. In fact, the entire issue didn’t really matter to me, as long as there were friends to be made and things we could share. What I did have to learn was how to make clear that I couldn’t share all the way, as I’m not gay.
Lieve: You are wonderfully elucidating your experiences within the cross-cultural context. Are there any particular topics that you have learned about yourself and about others?
Shintaro: What I certainly experienced was that any of your views and convictions could falter quite easily when you come into contact with a different culture. In dance for instance, I had never encountered anything but classical ballet. In Europe my view broadened enormously. Even within ballet itself we had teachers from different ballet traditions, Russian, American. My own Japanese frame of reference collapsed and was extended by so many options that I felt kind of lost. This state of being lost actually helped me find my way, either my own or one of the options offered. It enabled me to learn that it’s fine to be lost and to discover new kinds of flexibility next to my physical virtuosity as a ballet dancer. Back in Japan, I was like someone believing that there is but one god to worship, only to find out that there are many other people who have other gods. It was kind of an epiphany – and made it easier for me to accept others; not to resist difficult situations and to trust that somehow I would find my way in the end, and it was not even very important whether I chose the right or the wrong way, because there were so many other options left.
Lieve: An Indian dancer living in London, and touring a lot, once told me that he considers his body to be his home. Is this the same for you?
Shintaro: Well, in my case it is rather as if physically and mentally, half of my feet are in Stockholm – where my son lives – and the other half in Japan – where I often work nowadays.
So inside there’s always two cultures at work. Let’s say it works like the weight of your feet: continuously shifting while you are walking, with the two feet always in a different place and a continuous need to balance.
…playfulness suits me well at the moment…
Lieve: In fact, how different is making a dance piece in Tokyo from, for example, in Stockholm?
Shintaro: That has got less to do with what I feel about it than with the allowed space and the time, and how time is perceived. I often work in Tokyo, and the sense of time there is very strict, which easily affects one’s way of working. You need to come to the point immediately and get to the right spot, to generate the right thoughts and achieve a production.
And while you might have produced a piece that looks all right, there hasn’t been a path of which you can say that things somehow just came into being. The way everything is very sorted out, very organized in Japan, leaves little space for joy. I’ve got the impression that there is plenty of time in Stockholm. During my residency the studio is available twenty-four hours, so I have all the time and space for my way of working. Typically, even when I am working with Japanese artists in Stockholm they insist on a result straightaway while I have learned not to focus on results too early in the process. Of course, I like to bring my ideas into a certain form while playfulness suits me well at the moment, as life can be much more joyful this way.
Lieve: Does the focus on contact improvisation in your work in any way feel determined by your immersion as a young boy in a culture you had little grip on?
Shintaro: I have been using contact technique for quite a long time indeed, but actually the way it developed was my wish to experience something other than what was on offer in the companies. It progressed from there. Zooming out, the idea of contact also fits my way of being in the world. I always seem to need someone else during the process of creating and for some reason the need to make solo work never occurred. That other person doesn’t even have to do much, just standing there is sufficient [laughs]. Looking back at the time of my arrival in Europe, I recognize that I always started by comparing, marking differences and analysing them, which triggered a process of trying to understand the other.
Without the other it is quite difficult to say who you are. The people you meet are mirrors; they show you who you are.
Each one has their own spectrum, with reflections from a different character and with different focal points. You can never see others or yourself as a whole, there is only a small part of the general picture. That’s what makes contact so inspiring to me.
Lieve: The relationship between the close physical contact on stage and sexuality elucidates interesting issues; how does this connection play a certain role in your work?
Shintaro: Sexuality is not so much an issue in my work, unless you’d consider me usually working with male dancers to be a statement in this.
Even in the work-process that I am in right now with the female choreographer Maki Morishita, we somehow seem to deny the topic. Sexuality is so present as part of our lifestyle, in Japan even more than here, that I rather prefer to skip the subject as artistic subject. My interest lies much more with what it means to be human in society as it is now. Despite feminism always being a hot issue in Sweden, I’d personally prefer not to make the distinction between men and women.
One might call me somehow senseless or thick on the subject, or try to make me engage a bit more, but I just don’t pick it up in my work. Probably that is because the issue is rather theatrically present in my (personal) life already.
Within my work I research and experience the kind of physicality that gets away from the everyday lifestyle, such as the aspect of sensuality.
As a consequence, I am avoiding using the hands as a symbol or a source of information as their narrative is too recognizable. This is why I tend not to rely on them. In a way, I seem to cut them off in order to feel the weight, to feel the other person and the idea, without the hands explaining it. I guess, this is just my mechanics if you like: tending to impede myself to the max, thus denying my abilities or learned techniques to the point that I feel lost, as when I was seventeen.
That kind of attitude wakes up my bodily senses and, at the same time, brings on fresh ideas and a new being.
This third element endangers the beautiful balance or harmony between two entities…
Lieve: In one of your programme notes there is the intriguing quote from a work-process discussion with Masahiro Yanagimoto and Shintaro Hirahira on ‘the relationship between faeces, and things contemporary and abstract’. Can you fill us in?
Shintaro: Well, here’s a try: the quote was used in the programme for a piece, Dan-su. Now ‘’ in Japanese is a loanword from English meaning dance, while there is also the Japanese kanji danzu (sign based on the Chinese ideograms, LD), meaning ‘discussion or talk between people’. In the work-process of Dan-su, at one point I was trying to create a perfectly balanced situation between two of the performers, like in binary computer language. The interesting thing is: what happens when a third person comes in? The third as the unknown factor is what we were working on. It may be something we can’t describe or predict, something that doesn’t have a name, or that we don’t need, which is acceptable for me as the number three. It is about this perfect balance that we love to create between one and two, and our tendency to deny the unknown, unexpected or undesirable that often sneaks in.
This third element endangers the beautiful balance or harmony between two entities, think of a child that changes the dynamics of a love relationship or an affair that may destabilize a duo and enhances tension.
Lieve: In what way does this limitation to the harmonious two and the resistance to doing so pair up for you?
Shintaro: I think resistance is similar to limiting yourself. Both features can function as tools on the road to transformation. If the transformation doesn’t occur I just go back to the beginning – as in the end, you are what you are. I have no sense of failure, if a work-process does not turn out the way it was intended; the process of reaching out is what really counts. In my professional life, this need for resistance tends to create a distance from dance as a medium also. As such, I am not necessarily training all the time, but prefer things like running or just enhancing the chores in a daily routine as a means of enlarging my alphabet of movement. On the other hand, during the process of creating, I am naturally facing the dance. So yes, you might say that this attitude of resisting and denying is quite important to me.
Lieve: Does this somehow relate to Japanese theatre and dance-makers, such as butoh-dancer Tatsumi Hijikata or more recently Orizo Hirata or Toshiki Okada, who resisted the Western theatrical codes and invented their own language of a time/space experience which is much more in line with the experience of Japanese surroundings?
Shintaro: Japan is always inside me. As I’m not a permanent resident in Japan, it feels like two internal persons, one of which is always the observer from the outside. There are many experiences of which I sometimes realize only much later on, that they are connected to my roots, my colleagues, to my culture, or to people like Hijikata-san. Actually, I did not encounter his work in Japan, but acknowledged it while being in Europe. The work of Toshiki Okada really intrigues me; this goes for his plays as well as his publications. Even though his starting point is language and mine lies in movement, voice and body sounds. Sometimes Okada’s work serves me as a stepping stone or rag that I use to get new ideas; he’s a great mirror. He succeeds in making me very much aware where I stand, where I start from, and how dance engenders ideas differently from theatre. He is a great mirror.
Even despite this, I am not much interested in mentorship as my progress and insights merely arise during and out of the work process. Furthermore, anyone can inspire me, even with his or her unpleasant aspects.
You know, beautiful things can grow out of the opposition to a personal encounter or situation by way of arousing opposition to it. And even though I feel repulsion towards Japan [laughs], it is difficult for me to clarify why my work still is closely related to Japanese culture.
You might argue that this is due to me being Japanese while people there confront me with the fact that I am not really there any more. That’s what we call alienation, isn’t it, but I actually don’t mind – at all.
Lieve: Is this resistance theme important when you work with another choreographer or in selecting dancers for your work?
Shintaro: It’s not an enormous topic; however, I am really looking for differences between people I work with. I have a keen eye for how they can lead to resistance or denial issues between the performers in the work-process. Even though my work never directly addresses specific social or political matters, they are emerging during the creative process of working together with the dancers and sharing time.
As such, the Fukushima nuclear disaster never was a concrete theme but as we were working in Japan then, the images each of the dancers carried inside them definitely affected the work in ways of denying or reputing them.
Instead of using a text or specific theme as a starting point, I start from what I feel physically in the company of others, what goes on between us and from the experiences we can’t help but bring in from the outside via our bodies as storage.
Lieve: So what, would you say, are your strategies of resisting ultimately leading you to?
Shintaro: They help me reach out to a deep and primitive level in the body. The movement language and physicality I am after is a pre-human one, somewhere in between apes and humans. It is in fact anti-theatrical because I want everything on stage to be experienced as if it were for the very first time. Performers naturally command a wide array of techniques to ‘act as if’ for the first time, while I want to go beyond that: I rather aim to return to a state of being born again. There is the reality of my actual body and mind; by denying and resisting that fact, it helps me to experience things totally new.
Lieve: Are these strategies a factor in your private life, in the game of love?
Shintaro: At the moment, I am not in a stable relationship; however, I suppose the denial here is more mental than physical. At this point in my life I seem to easily shut myself off from other people. When I’m not working I’d rather be alone than meeting others, and I always prefer to solve any problem myself instead of asking for help. In the end it looks more like a tendency that I have to deny myself from others.
Lieve: Does that have to be an issue, or do you register it as such?
Shintaro: I seem to be rather far off from a normal social life nowadays. If I don’t need or meet many people, which I don’t really mind, as a consequence of my situation, the relationship with my son gets to be very close, perhaps too much so. This situation should probably be cracked, but I don’t spend much time on doing so. In fact, it feels very comfortable to be that close to the people around me. Which may sound rather contradictory.
Lieve: How present is the primitive level you look for in your work also in your daily life, in your relationships?
Shintaro: As a man, the idea of sexual primitiveness in a relationship is important to me. In closer relationships this instinct to physically open up to each other allows the energy to flow in between, which to me is what it is all about. It allows action and reaction as an easy way to communicate, much more so than words. The child you have together is then like a materialization of that energy. As to the sexual act I put it – either in longer or shorter relationships – on an equal level as talking, it is a way of communication. Also, I am very interested in what it is like to be that woman I’m with, not only physically, but also to get a feel of the social position she is in. I’d really like to experience in my body her kind of physicality and presence.
Maybe I should not mention this, but for quite a while now, I’ve had this strong urge to have another child, like a call from nature. Even if as a dancer and choreographer I lead a rather precarious life, financially and with a lot of travelling, the wish is still there. This might be somewhat disloyal towards my son, especially because I don’t have a steady partner, but it has also got to do with this secret desire to get a second chance to be a better father. It feels like some kind of deep, natural impulse. I don’t talk about it so much any more though. I used to, with friends, but words do have this tendency to walk away with what is inside of you. The wish itself might disappear while you’re left with only the words – sometimes it is better to keep things to yourself.
As I see it now, it is the surrounding that creates the possibility of love
Lieve: When describing the image of being or becoming a better father, do you also have an ideal love relationship in mind?
Shintaro: It is quite different now from when I was younger. It may sound strange, but nowadays I simply find the situation, or the environment, more important than being able to say: I love you. It has to do with the time you can spend together, the time you can be a mirror to each other – like what happens in my work. No doubt it has to do with many years of touring, or working elsewhere. I have had the experience that love in itself is not sufficient to make a relationship last. As I see it now, it is the surrounding that creates the possibility of love.
Lieve: May I ask also who is the woman you have loved most?
Shintaro: That’s probably the mother of my child, who is Swedish. This has simply to do with the respect I have for her as the mother of my son. We met in Holland when I was dancing in a production where she was working as a costume designer. Despite our son, we’re not living together in one house any more and I can’t be with her either. In fact, I left her twice to be with someone else; over time we have been able to have clear agreements about what kind of parents we want to be for our son, who is now thirteen years old. It is a task we share. I realize that this kind of problem is not exceptional. But yes, she is the person I think about most.
Lieve: To end on an inviting note to Japan perhaps, as I will be on an extended stay there for the first time soon, what would be your advice to any foreigner afraid to offend the Japanese rules of behaviours?
Shintaro: I’d say: enjoy feeling alienated and non-Japanese. Japan may seem very open, but is actually still very closed, even more so than China. Almost every day in Japan may look like a festival day, and one can easily sort of disappear in that. And there is the private side, with people having their own basic ways of being at home – and the home is very closed. The best thing would be to try and experience both sides.