Interview with Yasuko Yokoshi “On Inheritance”

Interviewed by Jun Tsutsui (dracom)
Tsutsui : First of all, could you please tell us how you and an American experimental musician Gelsey decided to do this project?

Yokoshi : It’s been a while, but in NY in 2013, I presented a work called “BELL”, which reconstructed the dance of Kabuki piece “The Maiden at Dojoji Temple” interpreted from the view of the contemporary dance. Gelsey was a singer in that performance, and during the creation process, she learned a song “Dojo-ji” for nagauta with a master teacher in Japan. Both nagauta and Kabuki generally accept only men, and it’s not so usual that a female singer sings on a big stage. So, I was worried if she could learn and sing “Dojo-ji”, but at the end, she did a good job. The teacher who taught her Nagauta was impressed by the speed of her improvement. I think that it was a discovery for the teacher as well to know that a female foreigner can sing “Dojo-ji” so well.
Even before that, I had often invited dancers from NY and made them learn Japanese dance with my teacher, who was also surprised by their quick learning. This doesn’t apply to anyone, but outstanding artists can learn to perform Japanese traditional arts, even if they are not Japanese. I have witnessed that more than once.

Of course, there are problems with language. Especially for singing, pronunciation is a big challenge. In the case of Japanese dance, it is difficult to draw a line between what is “authentically Japanese” and what is not, when foreigners try to make a Japanese-like posture. They do get really close, though. Even when present-day Japanese dancers perform Japanese dance, it doesn’t really become authentic Japanese dance. Similarly, American dancers may not settle easily into the posture of Japanese dance. The distance they each have is not so different from one another.
Can we, in this contemporary period, obtain the same posture that Japanese had hundreds of years ago? No, it’s impossible. But that is what traditional arts forms do try to maintain precisely. And in order to inherit that tradition, do they absolutely have to be Japanese? This is a natural question that arises. If some foreigners can perform Japanese traditional arts so well, can’t they inherit them even if they are not Japanese, as Western classical music and ballet were inherited slowly over time by Japanese?
Today, some foreigners are interested in Japanese traditional arts more than Japanese. In that case, speaking of traditional arts, what is particular to Japanese and what is shared with the other parts of the world? I am interested in the process of how these performances will be inherited by the succeeding generations. Based on this kind of thinking, I came to ask Gelsey, an American, to take part in this creation.

In many fields of the traditional arts, they are struggling with the lack of successors. I’m not the person concerned with the traditional performance, but it is an interesting problem for me as a choreographer who is often involved in the training program for choreographers and dancers. From my perspective, not so many contemporary dance artists are coming out in Japan. There are many dancers, but there is not an environment to bring up choreographers and artists who can create works. Not many dance performances are around, neither the audience. I won’t be surprised even if the contemporary dance performances are extinct in several years. Certainly, dance in general will not disappear and continue in different forms. However, I imagine that what I have been doing will vanish soon.
I think that the inheritance of the arts are “so fragile”, because it’s human who carry them on. Even Noh, with its history of 600 years, I hear that it is getting difficult to find the successors. That’s why I think inheritance is an important assignment to overcome for any types of performing artists.

Tsutsui : Do you also have a sense of urgency?

Yokoshi : Speaking of Noh, I’m not one of those who are involved nor a Noh performer; yet, it is an intriguing case to follow and observe. Likewise, my teachers of Japanese dance despair of the current state of Kabuki, saying that Kabuki is not Kabuki anymore. But I think it’s not so much to worry about. At any period, successive performers tend to be disapproved, so it’s not something unusual.
Yet, these changes might be occurring in a somewhat different way in these days. For example, Hatsune Miku has made a debut as a Kabuki actor recently. Real Kabuki actors perform with Hatsune Miku, who sings and dances, and it’s been very popular among the young audience. She is indeed a good performer because the digital technology is so evolved. She can dance as if she is a professional dancer, because the information of the movements actually performed by a dancer Kanjuro Fujima was digitalized and used. When you see that, Hatsune Miku seems much more fantastic than less-experienced performers. Hatsune Miku remains beautiful, never getting old. Now, does that mean the traditional performance may be inherited by Hatsune Miku? Humans will no longer be needed? I mean, I don’t believe that. But I think this change that is happening in the current period, is a kind of change that performers in the past have never encountered.

Tsutsui : Are you attracted to these kind of situations?

Yokoshi : What I personally lament is, that we may no longer see the marvelous performances by the actors and dancers of traditional performing arts I have been able to see. But I note that Noh in the period of Zeami and what we see now as Noh may considerably be different. So, the inheritance doesn’t necessarily mean to keep it unchanged. It is obliged to change or transform into different forms with the traces of that period. And part of me doesn’t agree with this change, and thinks, “Why do they let Hatsune Miku perform Kabuki!” I am just old-fashioned, you know.
Kabuki was born when Izumono Okuni made her appearance; but many people may have thought, “What is this woman?” at that time. At any age, someone like her has appeared and reformed the society. Maybe Hatsune Miku is the contemporary Izumono Okuni. This performance was created as an opposition of the traditional arts towards the digital culture invented by human. Why not, if the culture evolves by doing so? It is only a change.

Tsutsui : It seems that some parts of you are very interested in that situation, whereas other parts of you are regretful for the way traditional arts are inherited.

Yokoshi : That’s probably because there are two perspectives at the same time in myself: one as a director, and the other as a dancer. They are not completely different, but they are in parallel to each other. Let me describe. There is me, who craves to spend my time practicing as much as I can to improve as a student led by a teacher; but at the same time, there is also me who wants to create performances as an artist, who has the impulse to destruct or to stir. Perhaps I believe that something will become alive, by stirring something steady and established. That’s my temptation as a performing artist. Dance cannot exist, if you don’t keep stirring. I have an inner conflict between myself as a creator and as a performer who wants to inherit without deforming the beauty, completely keeping it as it is. Embracing that contradiction within, I always ask myself which is my true self.

Tsutstui : Have you been interested in inheriting since long ago?

Yokoshi : I never thought about inheritance, at all. But I remember that my first contact to “dance” was with bon-dance, which grandmas of the neighborhood taught me. When I was learning ballet, there was always a teacher who taught me. To learn from someone is something inseparable from learning dance. For me, dancing meant to be given from someone else. Since when I was little. Though I realized the importance of it only later.
When I was dancing as a dancer in NY, I often danced improvisation in the performance. I was dancing under the continuous pursuit of “who are you?” by choreographers. I was dancing asking myself, “what is my dance?” for about twenty years. At that time, I was too concentrated on that, and I never thought if I was inheriting something from someone.
When I was dancing in the United States, I always bore a title as a Japanese or Asian dancer. It was difficult to dance as Yasuko Yokoshi as an individual, detaching the culture that I carried on. If I had been in Japan, I could have only danced without having this consciousness of being Japanese. Because I was abroad, I was more sensitive to reflect on “where you are from” or “what you bring on with your body”.

Tsutsui : Did you go to study in the United States to become a choreographer?

Yokoshi : No no, I wanted to be a secretary. Bilingual secretary. I wanted to become an English speaking secretary, so I went to the United States to study. The university I entered happened to have a department of dance, so I took a dance class for the physical education credit. That was the beginning, and I learned Graham technique and Cunningham technique among others. There wasn’t yet a word “contemporary dance” at that time, as it was in the beginning of 80s when I went abroad.

Tsutsui : Now I understood how you got interested in the inheritance through this interview. Now, may I ask if you have any aesthetics on extinction? Don’t you often think that it’s better to disappear with its beauty, rather than being inherited in a strange form?

Yokoshi : Speaking of the Japanese traditional dance, my teacher has a totally different aesthetics from that of the master who inherited the school. I learned the aesthetics of the predecessor of that school, but it disappeared without being inherited. Then I thought, what a shame.
However, I don’t feel any necessity at all that today’s contemporary dance should remain. It’s not so interesting. It is a disappointing fact that audience is fewer and the size of grants are becoming less. I want a lot of good performances and interesting artists to come out.
After I came back to Japan, I found out that there are tons of young dancers and many many great things even nearby in the world, but not so many occasions to see and feel them. Nothing can grow, if you don’t see quality works. That’s irritating, I feel. I saw a lot of extraordinary works in NY. I was nurtured as an artist by its great offerings. I wish that Japan can offer such soil.
It is an indispensable soil, for the younger dancers to create and continue to dance. It is just sad that Japan lacks in it, especially because it is my home country. How can it change?

Tsutsui : Even now, does NY offer so much?

Yokoshi : Well, the amount of performances is much more, and the stock of artists is rich. They have a fundamental power. When you see the community, you can feel the power of the people.
Now that I came back to Japan, I continue to think why no communities or links are born, even though there are so many people who want to dance and each of them has a strong belief. Whether speaking of schools, theaters or supporting grants systems, producers and other practitioners should move as a whole. Otherwise, artistic activities will never function in the society.

In the field of Noh, the community is extremely firm. They support each other in order to continue to present performances. They have a collective power. They keep the theater for Noh, fundraise and work on the audience development on their own. Is it because Noh has the community which was born on the Japanese soil? Contemporary dance was not born in Japan, so it doesn’t have roots here. It may be a reason why it doesn’t grow much.

Tsutsui : Do you have a desire to let someone inherit your experiences and artistic styles developed until today?

Yokoshi : You mean, to leave it to the succeeding generations? To the younger ones? … (silence) … Well, … if it’s useful, or if it’s requested for. There are a lot of good dancers in Japan. But not great choreographers yet. So I wish that they come out. Still, choreography is not what can be inherited. Of course, I want someone to dance what I have created so far, but it’s another story …

Ah! But I may say this. It’s related to why I’m interested in Noh and Japanese dance. You can find full of characteristics of the physicality of the Japanese in the traditional performance arts such as Noh, Japanese dance, Kabuki, Bunraku and all. I haven’t encountered artists who create works with that perspective. There is a huge gap between dance and traditional performing arts. There is no transversal connection between those who create dance performances and those who practice traditional performing arts. That is why Japanese contemporary dance is so fragile. Most of Asian artists today possess the basics of the traditional performing arts, and they translate them into the private perspective with contemporary ideas. There should be some artists like them in Japan too, but there aren’t yet. I hope that the traditional performing arts are conserved and inherited among those who practice them, but it is not my task. I would rather try to insert the reflection of the Japanese physicality into my work. As an artist, I’m most interested in that.

Tsutsui : Then, what you are doing is inheritance, do you agree with that?

Yokoshi : Yes. Definitely! I am contributing to the inheritance. As an artist, to an extent, I have some power to transmit messages. I also think that I’m more capable of receiving information than many others, because I am an artist myself. I invited Gelsey to Japan, and she learned songs of Noh to create a performance together. For her life as a musician, I’m sure that she will make a great use of the musicality of Noh into her work. Her music will encounter many people. I actually feel more satisfied when these encounters have a greater impact to others, rather than receiving thousands of audience to my performance. It may be a quiet, steady work, but it’s profound and solid. With the guts. A small seed, but an outstandingly worthy work to do.

*This text is an extract of the interview in August 2017.

Yasuko Yokoshi
Director, choreographer, video artist. Born in Hiroshima prefecture. After having worked in New York since 1996, Yokoshi moved her base to Kyoto in 2013. In 2003 and 2006, she received New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Award. Active in incorporating different genres in her creative works, she has worked on the Japanese and American literature, history, pop culture and traditional arts in her dance pieces. In addition, she has coproduced a work with teenagers, published a book and produced independent films. In 2014, she has presented her dance piece “ZERO ONE” for JCDN’s “We’re Gonna Go Dancing!” II. After the tour in Japan and residency at KIAC, its English version was presented in Danspace Project in New York and was selected in “The Best Dance of 2015” by the critics of the New York Times. Later, it was invited to the direction program at TPAM 2017.

Jun Tsutsui
Leader of dracom. Director and playwright. Recipient of Kyoto Arts Center Performing Arts Prize 2007. At Segal Center Japanese Playwrights Project 2018, his representative work “Sokonaizu” was selected as one of the excellent Japanese contemporary theater plays. dracom participated in the world competition at Tokyo Festival in 2019. As a director, he has directed “Silent Seeing Toyooka” at Kinosaki International Arts Center, “Blurring Life” at DANCE BOX and “Children of Destruction” at Kyoto University of Arts and Design. In addition, he performed in the works of Zan Yamashita, marebito theater company, KIKIKIKIKIKI and akakilike. He is active outside of theater as well, in conducting interviews and so on.


Yasuko Yokoshi shuffleyamamba
Artistic Direction, Choreography, Media Concept: Yasuko Yokoshi
Co-direction, Music, Performance: Gelsey Bell
Dramaturge: Jun Tsutsui(dracom)
Choreography, Guest Artist: Norico Sunayama (dumb type)
Co-choreography, Performance: Narumi Ueno, Terunobu Osaki, Haruna Shibuya, Juri Nisihoka, Sawami Fukuoka

Period of Stay: 2019 3.3 (Sun.) - 3.17 (Sun.) & 9.14 (Sat.) - 10.7 (Mon.)
Date of Performance: 2019.10.5 (Sat.) - 6 (Sun.)
Venue: Izushi Eirakukan

© 2013 Kinosaki International Arts Center