Shay Kuebler pops bubble of Japan's white-collar angst in Karoshi

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      It’s telling that Japan would have a word for “death by overwork”. The term karoshi became a dark symbol for the country’s bubble economy from the ’80s to mid-1990s—an era when young businessmen regularly put in 16-to-18-hour days, sometimes crashing at capsule hotels and not returning home for six or seven days at a time. Things have improved since then, but Japan is still the only country to keep statistics on fatalities due to overwork.

      Karoshi is also the title of Vancouver dance sensation and choreographer Shay Kuebler’s new piece. He became fascinated with the phenomenon of the bubble economy in Japan, and his work for five guys—himself, Josh Martin, Scott Augustine, Nick Lydiate, and Farley Johansson, all dressed in dark suits—explores the extreme pressures of that time and place. It’s a creative process that’s taken him to Tokyo and back and found him delving into research that has spanned the 18th-century Bushido: The Way of the Samurai to modern-day newspaper clippings to Robert Longo’s “Men in the Cities” photo series of businessmen in movement.

      Talking to the young artist at a coffee shop near the Dance Centre, where Karoshi will debut as part of the biennial Dance in Vancouver series, you get the sense he has an innate ability to soak up all this cultural history and then sample it like a movement mixmaster.

      “I have a lot of great information from friends from Japan, and there’s a really great story about these guys that lost their jobs in an office building and, you know, it’s very dishonourable to lose your job there,” says Kuebler, speaking animatedly. “The story is these guys every day would leave home, leave their families, would go on transit to the same building and because they were laid off, they’d go to the rooftop and read newspapers and look for jobs....So the piece is about appearance and how we present ourselves to the world. It’s about a society that has these strong values, and they’re really healthy—dedication, honour, respect, all those things—but losing self in the process because it’s so extreme.”

      At age five, before Kuebler had ever begun dance, he had studied karate and to this day he credits it for his signature sharp, explosive movement. It also gave him a lifelong fascination for Japanese culture that he was able to fully indulge for this piece. As Kuebler puts it: “The Japanese influence is something I have in me.”

      In February, he headed with his father, a second-degree black belt in karate, to Tokyo for a monthlong immersion in dance, martial arts, and all things Japanese.

      “I did traditional Japanese fan dance, contemporary dance, I also did house—which is kind of like a hip-hop form of dance—I studied aikido, and then judo at the U.S. Embassy with one of the oldest senseis,” he says. “And then I also did some Taiko drumming sessions, as well.”

      That last form has become a big part of Karoshi, with Kuebler recruiting Uzume Taiko’s drummer (and martial-arts practitioner) Jason Overy to create a live, percussive score for the work.

      As far as movement, Kuebler is drawing on all the forms he delved into during his research trip to Tokyo. There’s also a lot of play on the suffocating repression faced by the bubble economy’s office workers. You’ll see the men clawing and almost literally trying to climb out of their suits or falling into the kind of orderly formations you might see on Tokyo sidewalks or transit systems. There’s an entire section on the businessmen’s methods of release as well. As Kuebler puts it, “If you don’t let it out, you die, or lose it.”

      He won’t give too much away, but he will admit he refers to the era’s infamous “anger booths”: “They had these rooms where you could pay 100 yen: it looked like a living room and you could break everything in this room.”

      Making Karoshi has been a long, intense process, but it is clearly one of the highlights of a busy year for Kuebler. Just finished performing in Dana Gingras’s surreal and physically pummelling shortwave-radio ode, Heart as Arena, at the Cultch, he’s also set to appear in the 605 Collective’s New Animal (also by Gingras) in February 2012, and is working on its new company-created full-length work, Inheritor Album, for its debut at the Canada Dance Festival and Dancing on the Edge next summer. Combined with this major new work—which he dreams of touring in Japan—he’s definitely working hard, though not exactly facing death by overwork. But his dedication? It’s positively Samurai-like.

      “That’s important about this piece—that Japanese sense of dedication comes through. I mean dancers are all like that: we all want perfection but it’s so impossible to reach,” says Kuebler, and then reaches into his vast memory bank of Japanese culture. “There’s a great quote from Way of the Samurai that says you should push for perfection every day to the point of a Samurai sword. It’s never achievable, but you should push to that edge every day.”

      Karoshi is presented as part of Dance In Vancouver next Thursday and Friday (November 24 and 25) at the Scotiabank Dance Centre.