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Min Tanaka: ‘To regain the original way of being as a living thing’ An interview with dancer Min Tanaka on a body
Worldly acclaimed dancer Min Tanaka has kept performing the dance not confined to existing frameworks of expression having been deeply inspired by Tatsumi Hijikata, the founder of Ankoku Butoh—the dance of darkness. Tanaka’s acting has earned him critical accolades including his appearance in Twilight Samurai, directed by Yoji Yamada.
Tanaka has pursued the origin of dance not on stage settings but through performing “Locus Focus,” an improvisational and spontaneous dance in response to the places in daily life. We asked him what a body means to him and what he finds by dancing.
＜To vacate my body for the time and the space＞
–The most impressive and distinctive aspect of your dance, I thought, was the improvisation—in the place not on a stage—called Locus Focus. I felt that the “locus” meant the time and space. What inspired you to perform the Locus Focus, and how do you dance it?
MT: Because the Locus Focus takes place in nature and on the street, the place is the center of focus. The place is the top priority, and I experiment and see what kind of dance would come out by dancing there. So, the bottom line is I am not sure if I can dance or not until I begin dancing. I do not decide in advance how I dance, and I do not even know how the dance begins nor ends. I dance in different places every time, and not always do I have the other people in the places. That’s why the dance turns out to be completely different in each occasion.
I try to choose the places to dance not just based on my feelings but on my thoughts based on the information I get. I chose the places that make me think there seems to be something there. For example, developed land and the places where the landform had changed in the past contains the information on how they once were. When I am dancing in such places, there are things happening in my head, and, sometimes something actually happens at the place.
Min Tanaka (dancer)
Began his own activities in ‘74, and developed a brand-new style, “hyper-dance.” Debuted internationally in the Louver in ‘78. During the 80’s he presented a number of avant-garde performances in former socialist countries, and gained international accolades. In ’85, he moved to a mountainside village and has continued dance activities rooted in farming. In ‘02, he debuted in a film as an actor and has appeared in numerous films and TV nationally and internationally ever since. Publication includes My Bare Body, co-authored Conscious Body, Contagious Mind, and photo book Photosynthesis MIN by Keiichi TAHARA, among others. www.min-tanaka.com
–What is it that is happening?
MT: For example, I once danced in a Korean graveyard in Kyushu island. The people buried there had been forcedly taken to Japan as captives, tried to escape, and captured. There were no grave stones but only regular stones left there without any marks. I was dancing as if rubbing my body on the place, and rage-like feeling rose in me irresistibly.
Sometimes the emotions, joy, anger, grief, and pleasure, get stimulated, and other times new forms or movements, both of which are elements of dance, emerge. Sometimes, of course, I get stunned by not having anything happening. There is no correct answer, because I myself do not know what would happen to me.
–I saw your dance in three occasions, the Locus Focus taking place in a cityscape, your theater performance at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, and a collaboration with Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculpture at Mito Art Tower. They were totally different in terms of not just the settings but your dance, and you seemed to be dancing feeling each space. How was that possible?
MT: I began an experiment with dancing improvisationally in various indoor and outdoor places around 2004. It was mostly in Japan at that time, but I also did it traveling for 45 days in the Indonesian islands where nobody knew me at all. It wasn’t out of the blue that I started it. In the early 70’s, I had shaved all of my body hair, wrapped my penis with a bandage, painted my body in an earthlike color, and performed a form of dance which was almost as if I was only lying on the ground. I did it in just about every kind of place in Japan and overseas.
It is only because I’ve had the experience at that time and continued on from there, that, when I dance, how can I say, I am in a state that I vacate my body for the time, space, and conditions leaving things called “the self” or “I” outside of my body for a while…
To put it roughly, a life form called human begins its life first as a body and gradually forms “the self” together with its surrounding environment, in my understanding. I can’t say when exactly the self emerges, but the usual state of a person is that the self inside his or her body controls the bodily movements.
Contrarily, when I dance, it is like I take myself out of my body… When I am in a good condition, myself comes to be watching my body from the front, back, or the top while I am dancing.
In such a state, various things in the time, space, and conditions can start to come into my body. I try to dance sensing those things. Sometimes, depending on the things coming into my body, my body starts to move before I think.
My dream is to become a mere body with no trace of me when I dance.
＜To regain the original way of being as a living thing.＞
–I see. You are dancing while feeling the elements that comes into your body. In that context, what is the purpose of dance for you?
MT: Dance for me is to sense my body more vividly than in everyday life.
For example, when I am dancing intensely, my body of course balances and continuously controls its movements in conjunction with the nerves and muscle. In the middle of that, let’s say I see an audience standing up and leaving. Then many things start happening in my body. My brain starts to have a discussion saying like, “my dance is not good enough,” or “no, that’s not true.” My ears catch the footsteps, or my eyes are seeing a different view in the next instance. You see, in a body, various sensations are actively and simultaneously running around. And then, when I see the audience coming back to the seat, my brain, ears, and eyes that were busily moving around in my body all get relieved, like, “ah.” Interesting phenomena.
I can’t feel that much of what is happening in my body in everyday life, because my “self” gets in the way. But, when I dance, it becomes possible to feel.
I believe that a human body is packed with the history of human being as a species, the trajectory of how human beings have become them. Originally, they were a single-cell organism to begin with. But, we are too convinced in the idea that it is the self who is thinking. And it has made us forget that we are organic forms living in nature. By feeling your body more, you would probably be able to regain the original way of being as a living thing.
I really love the moment that I am feeling my body, having been set free from myself, because that is for me freedom. I can more fully and richly live my life that I only live once, because I have that moment.
–By controlling the self and taking it out of you, you can take back the way of being as an organic form. Would that be possible only because your bodily sensations are well-honed?
MT: All the humans are able to achieve it, whether you are dancing or not. Concentration in general means to separate yourself from the surroundings and be in a state where you can’t even hear the sound.
To the contrary, the ideal concentration is beyond that stage, and perhaps a condition called “awakening,” to articulate. The awakening is the state that your body is open and vacant and therefore it becomes more receptive and adaptable than usual condition.
–What could be possible if you are in the state?
MT: If you are a genius like Einstein, for instance, you can come up with the idea like, “What would happen if I run in the speed of light?” We probably can’t reach that far, but we should be able to think absorbing various things more keenly.
In terms of communication between humans, we probably would become able to sense the elements of the other people in addition to your own bodily sensations. We often react to the words of the other people when communicating. Especially now in the era of the internet, our communication tends to heavily depend on written words. But the words not necessarily contain everything. When you say a word “freedom,” what I think of it and what others think are slightly different, most likely. Because we can’t catch the difference, the communication does not go well. To communicate, it is important to exchange the elements that our bodies have, not just the words. There are many elements, such as generations, climate and topography, and culture. Your words are endorsed by those elements that have been fostered in your body. You are ignoring all that and gathering your concentration only on the words when communicating. That’s why you communicate way out in left field.
We often pick on other people only by the words and look of them, but what we can see and hear are overwhelmingly insufficient in communication. Even while talking so much like we are doing right now, there are so many unspoken words between us. So, it is important to surmise and imagine the elements our bodies have, not just the meaning of the words coming out of our mouths.
By being in the state of awakening and open to others, you will become able to sense the elements that the other people’s bodies contain, not just the words they express. Then, I think, you can trust each other more.
And perhaps you can value the sensations that a life form originally has, once again.
For example, curiosity. I don’t think almost all the life forms could have survived without curiosity, to be precise, an interest toward the outside of the body separated by the skin. When you encounter to something you don’t know, you back away without realizing or you puzzle and take one step closer to the thing. Humans used to have those curiosity, but now you receive the explanations on what is what before you actually reach out and come closer to the thing. That have made our curiosity toward other life forms fade down. Originally, though, it was because of mutual interest in each other that the relationship with the surroundings was established. I think we probably can retrieve the sensations important as a life form.
＜To live following and learning from my body as a model＞
–Lastly, tell us about the ideal relationship that you would like to have with your body.
MT: Tatsumi Hijikata, whom I was deeply inspired by, past away 10 minutes after he finished talking with each of a dozen of us who visited him receiving the news that he was in critical condition. We were all sad, but on the way home from the hospital, all of us puzzled, “how could he finish talking with all of us and then die?” He was as if he knew he would die after he finished talking with all of us. Not too many people can feel the moment of death like he did.
You can probably say, that was exactly what it is to die together with your body.
A body is packed with various things and it thinks, acts, and communicates at a tremendous velocity I can’t catch up ever. Hijikata’s way of death is what can only be done because he knew what his body had done for him, I think. If possible, I would like to feel what my body is doing for me following and learning from it as a model. And, I seriously hope to have such a relationship between me and my body that let me die together with my body.
Min Tanaka (dancer)
An avant-garde and experimental dance deeply inspired by Tatsumi Hijikata, the founder of Ankoku Butoh, the dance of darkness.
Tanaka learned classical ballet and modern dance, and in the 1960’s, he actively performed as a modern dancer. He then gradually become skeptical about the cultural and class-bound identity of the culture and dance industry vis-à-vis post-World War II society. In 1974, he began exploring his own expression distancing himself from the industry and developed “hyper-dance”, emphasizing psycho-physical unity of the body. His pursuit resulted in forging a major cultural impact on the art and culture community in Japan and abroad through collaboration with intellectuals, scientists and practicing artists of his time.
In 1978, Tanaka made his international debut by participating in Time-Space of Japan—MA, conceived by Arata Isozaki, architect, and Toru Takemitsu, composer, in Festival d’Automne à Paris (Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the Louvre.) For four decades ever since, he has presented solo and group performances throughout the world in Europe, the U.S., former socialist and Third-World regions.
His activities outside the formalist theater/dance/ music scenes and beyond the boundary of daily life and dance gradually drew the attention of avant-garde activists, artists, novelists, life scientists, ethnologists, anthropologists, philosophers……and he became more actively involved in collaborative research and creative projects for social education and transformation. These cross-genre activities vary from choreography and performance in opera, contemporary and traditional folk dance, visual art, architecture/landscape, medical/psychiatric science to free improvisation music. (For example, his first choreography in opera was commissioned by Seiji Ozawa. As such, Tanaka’s broad variety of activities has often been formed with the people with an avant-garde spirit in each genre.)
While actively performing and collaborating in various forms, Tanaka opened an organic farm in the countryside in Japan with his fellow dancers and researchers out of his curiosity in the intrinsic affinity between our body/labor and nature. He was at the age of 40. Through this ongoing farming activity, he has come to be convinced, mentioning that, “dance is deeply and irreversibly rooted in humanity’s practice of agriculture.”
His eager exploration into the origin of dance encompasses traditional and folk arts/dance, not to mention their contemporary evolution of such time-honored human endeavors. He has collaborated with traditional arts such as Japan’s Noh theater, Rakugo, and Rokyoku, and even performed in and collaborated several times with the successor of the framework of the Indian traditional art festival, Kutiyattam, recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage and often called as the world’s oldest form of theater.
In recent years, he has been invited to play as an actor in a number of films and TV programs. For his first film appearance in Twilight Samurai, an epoch feature film directed by Yoji Yamada, Tanaka won the Best Debutant Actor’s Award and the Best Supporting Actor’s Award by one of Japan’s leading cinema associations. More recently he has further expanded his scope of activities in narrating in documentary films and acting in TV drama series, including NHK’s year-long historic Taiga drama. He also appeared in a Hollywood film in 2013.
Tanaka’s incessant and exclusive search for the origin of dance continues and has come to take an even more deep-rooted approach, with the Locus Focus project, a site-specific and improvisational dance performance series taking place at a variety of every-day life scenes throughout Japan and abroad.
Film (dance road movie): Umihiko Yamahiko Maihiko: Min Tanaka’s Dance Road in Indonesia （https://goo.gl/cm5tAk）
Publication: My Bare Body （https://goo.gl/8WwXV4）