The work of Zan Yamashita, a Japanese dancer/choreographer based in Kyoto, avoids the harmony of beautiful moving bodies in favour of an art of discontinuity. Unlike his contemporaries, Yamashita uses language as a primary element to disrupt the continuity of performance and lead his audience into an experimental space where language and dance are allowed to combine in fresh, colourful ways.
Yamashita was born in Osaka in 1970 and began his dance career in 1989. The late 1980s and early 1990s were a time of generational transition in Japanese dance, when the torch passed from the Butoh generation to their successors. Tatsumi Hijikata, the most important founder of Japanese avant-garde dance, passed away in the middle of 1980s, and Saburo Teshigawara won second place in the Bagnolet International competition for choreographers in the same year. As Butoh had become an accepted genre, a number of dancers from the younger generation experimented with many different styles. Zan Yamashita was able to develop his own independent style, which included the introduction of poetry into his choreography in the mid 1990s. In an interview with a dance critic Naoko Kogo, Yamashita says, “When I started my career, Dumb Type held the spotlight with the mixed-media theatrical style. Perhaps I was perverse, and an idea of reading poems flashed before my mind”. The original version of It is written there was first performed in 2002.
InvisibleMan and Cough followed it, forming a trilogy on dance and language. In It is written there – both in the 2002 and 2008 versions – audience members are given a book before they enter the theatre. The book is one hundred pages, containing words, short phrases, diagrams and so on. They work as hints or instructions to the dancers, and four dancers move and dance as according to what is written on the book. In InvisibleMan, there is a reader, performed by Yamashita himself, who reads aloud all the choreography to the dancers. In Cough, a number of Haiku poems are projected onto the screen, while a solo dancer. (Yamashita) performs a series of related movements.
His first name “Zan” may sound like “Zen”, but Yamashita has nothing to do with it. The sense of “empty-ness” pervades many aspects of Japanese traditional culture and forms an essential part of its aesthetics (seen for example in the traditional paintings and gardens in Japan, and in the Noh theatre). This traditional aesthetic sense is often referred to by a Japanese word “Ma”, which means in-between-ness. It is true that, in It is written there, there are many blanks and margins on the pages of the book that the audience is given, and that there are moments of long silence on the stage. Yamashita’s empty-ness, however, is much closer to a modern sensibility.
This stylistic trait is evident in Cough. Yamashita says that the inspiration for Cough came from the poetry of Hosai Ozaki (1885-1926), one of the most famous modern Haiku poets of the early 20th century. The title itself is a quotation from one of Ozaki’s poems, and Yamashita projects the poet’s Haikus on a screen during the performance. It is worth noting that Ozaki was a member of the Jiyu-ritu (free verse) Haiku movement. This literary movement dates from the 1910s, when the lifestyle associated with modern cities began to take root in Japanese society. It was also the age when the inner rhythm of the individual artist came to be more strongly emphasised than the formal, outer rhythm of traditional rules and regulations. Late in his life, Ozaki succeeded in penning the so-called “shortest poetry in the world”, expressing the solitude and humour characteristic of the lives of modern city dwellers.Without a doubt, Yamashita shares Ozaki’s sense of solitude arising from the fragmentation of modern daily life.
So, can we say that Zan Yamashita is a kind of modern lyricist who chants out his own inner emotions through the form of the dance poem? Perhaps, but much depends on the audience and its reaction to his work. In his recent pieces, Yamashita is more of a formalist or conceptual artist than a lyricist. In It is written there, the book that the audience is given in advance is used to effectively convey a sense of discontinuity, rather than any sense of empty-ness.We cannot recognise a direct Brechtian influence in it. Rather, the sense of discontinuity has its origin in Yamashita’s sense of distance to the practice of making dance. His formalistic approach to choreography interrupts the natural flow of sentiment and reveals the essential border between dancing and living, or art and life.
What about the title of the piece, It is written there? The book that the audience receives is edited by Yamashita himself, compiled from selected notes and memorandum for his choreography that had piled up on the desk for years, fragments from his diary, famous Japanese pop-songs, and so on. According to the choreographer, another reason is an incident that occurred when he was working at a part-time job. One day, he asked the boss what he should do next, as he was new on the job. The boss said to him, “It is written there – just read and do it”. In this sense, It is written there is a phrase of instruction or order, but nobody can figure out exactly what this phrase orders you to do, as there is always a gap between what is written and what you do. One may say, therefore, that this work is suggestively touching on the power relationships that we face every day, everywhere; that is, the relationship between the one who orders and the one who is ordered, the one who makes somebody dance and the other who dances. In this piece, Yamashita offers us a lot of ways to play with the gap and dislocate the social connection created through so many instructions and orders.
For people expecting beautiful dance, It is written there might be regarded as irritating and controversial. To be sure, Yamashita is entirely aware of this provocative edge. After seeing this piece, people may feel as if the dance were transformed into the shape of the book sitting on their lap.
For Yamashita, collisions between language and dance form a vital wellspring for his art. He is always dancing discontinuity on the stage, thus directly connecting to the real lives of his audience.
Naoto Moriyama (Kyoto University of Art and Design)