Vancouver’s new TomoeArts uses a whirling mix of Japanese dance, music, and projected visuals to conjure the otherworldly
TomoeArts, an emerging contender in Vancouver’s burgeoning interdisciplinary-performance scene, has the rare distinction of having been named for both a female warrior and an abstract shape used in Japanese art.
Tomoe Gozen was a 12th-century general known for her skill with the bow and the sword; a tomoe is a commalike design that signifies a swirl or vortex. And, aptly enough, the new company’s founder, Colleen Lanki, is riding boldly onto the local stage with Ten Nights of Dream, a whirling mixture of dance, music, and projected visuals.
The new piece—which debuts at Centre A from tonight to Saturday (May 21 to 23) as part of the explorASIAN Festival—takes its name and many of its themes from Yume Jyu-ya (Ten Nights of Dream), one of the lesser-known works of Natsume Sí´seki. Often called the Charles Dickens of Japan, the early-20th-century author won fame for his realistic novels, many depicting life among the poor. Yume Jyu-ya, however, is an atypical collection of brief fantasies, some set in the distant past, some 100 years into the future, and all marked by a dreamlike sense of otherworldliness.
The book’s metaphorical images of mysterious ships, teeming pigs, and curious burials made an instant impact on Lanki when she first encountered them in Tokyo, some years ago. That it’s taken her this long to bring them to the stage, however, has to do with why she was there in the first place—pursuing her studies in Noh theatre and nihon buyoh dance.
Lanki has an unusually diverse skill set: although she’s not ethnically Japanese and has trained in western theatrical techniques and contemporary choreographic styles, she’s also immersed herself in the aforementioned traditional Japanese art forms.
“I spent many years studying both Noh and nihon buyoh in Japan, and I have a real interest in Japanese aesthetics, but I also do a lot of physical theatre and movement theatre,” she explains by telephone from her Vancouver home. “So I wanted to be able to form a company or some sort of umbrella that would help me do both things.”
The impetus for the birth of TomoeArts, she adds, is that she’s invited her dance teacher, Fujima Shí´gí´, to perform in Vancouver in 2010, and she thought she’d better have some sort of production company in place before his arrival. Ten Nights of Dream is a test run, of sorts—but an unusually ambitious one. Aiding the dancer-choreographer in its creation are composer-performer Alcvin Ramos on shakuhachi and other instruments, and a team of UBC theatre-design students working under the direction of professor Robert Gardiner, who’ll provide an atmospheric wash of lights and projected imagery.
The main focus, though, will be on Lanki, dancing solo and displaying some of the techniques she’s learned from Fujima Shí´gí´ and his predecessor, the late Fujima Yí»ko. (The two are unrelated and share the same name in tribute to their artistic lineage; as their student, Lanki goes by the stage name Fujima Sayí».)
She describes the core principles of nihon buyoh as threefold. “The primary core of any nihon buyoh dancer is koshi, and that’s the chi, where the weight is, the centring—basically, the hips,” she explains. “Secondly, there is always, always a sense of playing character and gender. And the third, I would say, would be the use of the eyes.
“My teacher always said that if a dancer didn’t use their eyes, they were a bad dancer,” she continues. “And I think that’s critical. I use my face too much—that’s a critique I get from most Japanese dancers—but that’s because I’m a trained actor and I find it really hard to turn that off. I tend to overuse my face. But the idea of trying to incorporate the eyes as a living choreographic element, it’s critical to the success of any dancer. People can function and do all the steps and look beautiful, but the work doesn’t live unless they’re actually thinking and seeing what they’re dancing.”
Lanki’s choreography for Ten Nights of Dream incorporates these concepts, but it’s not always faithful to them. When she began working on the piece, she was interested in finding out what it is “that makes nihon buyoh nihon buyoh”, and how far she could stretch the form before it became something else.
“I have pushed some of these pieces so far that they really aren’t nihon buyoh anymore,” Lanki admits. What’s crucial, though, is that they’ve emerged from her body, her training, and her life experiences. Aesthetically speaking, she’s half western and half Japanese, and so hybrid forms come naturally to her.
“I never wanted to limit myself to doing only classical work, and I’m not ethnically Japanese, so that would be very challenging to maintain,” she notes. “But I want to continue to do contemporary multidisciplinary work, and to use what I’ve learned from nihon buyoh—to be able to draw on that learning and to share it.”