THE UNKNOWN DANCER IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD was part of the Breaking the Mould event series at The Japan Foundation, Sydney. The series brings emerging, boundary-pushing work from Japan’s art and contemporary theatre scenes to Australia.
This was an astonishingly bravura performance that blended ballet, Butoh , theatre and contemporary dance. The performance was poignant, funny and thought provoking, and a performance which gets us to look at the selfishness of modern society as well as meanings of life and existence and the painfulness of death .
Yamamoto is one of Japan’s hottest theatre makers. His solo theatre project Docu(nt)ment has been established since 2012 and his blending of projected text, movement, photography and moody lighting has won him fans and awards across Asia.
It is unclear who the ‘Unknown Dancer’ really is – perhaps he is the person next to you. Or even the one in the mirror. Who knows?
We discover life in a Japanese suburb on the fringe of a major city, a somewhat unsavoury suburb called Nagai. The entire “non-community” of a city precinct is shown as both intimately knowable yet anonymous. In the daytime the neighbourhood throngs with people who treat each other indifferently; at night, it morphs into a dangerous zone, festering with crime.
The densely crowded urban atmosphere that THE UNKNOWN DANCER IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD creates – with its overload of technological information , use of projections , the recreation of Japanese morning TV, and the use of Twitter is very contemporary . Simultaneously the show also examines Japan’s complex culture and modes of expression.
Wataru Kitao , the solo performer, is amazing. He morphs from being a gorilla at the zoo to numerous other characters – train attendants, ‘Train Boy ‘( a train itself – sort of think Starlight Express), an innocent school girl trampled to death , a the girl’s mother, a TV presenter, a prostitute, her pimp and their unborn child, a lovesick teenage boy, an old grandfather with a boisterous young child … and many more all wonderfully and clearly delineated. Conversations are carried on using both spoken speech and ‘text messages ’ as translated on the back screen.
Kitao is incredibly energetic and charismatic , with his long hair dyed at the ends .He is sinuous with incredible elevation for his jumps. Martial arts like moves are included but ballet is used as a base (Yamamoto favours a wide fourth position and lots of demi plie at times ,and also some use of demi pointe – but it is fractured restructured and reworked Kitao’s jumps and turns are sensational).
Throughout the work Ei has been talking to his mother on his mobile. But it turns out she passed away several years ago ( or did she ? Is Ei also dead ? has he in fact ever existed ?
The main plot of the show follows the aftermath of a traumatic train accident at Nagai station .There is also mention of a horrific hostage crisis at Nagai library .It is gradually revealed that both events took place years ago yet the narrator can’t forget them. Throughout the performance, characters would consistently be questioned by disembodied voices asking why they should even care about the show’s events.
The work also reflects on the value of life and art – towards the end we are confronted by an ‘ artistic terrorist’ in a direct address to the audience challenging our own passive and superficially neutral observation of the play’s events. The audience was accused of being selfish and of selfishly trying to read hope and despair into what they had just seen. So what are we to make of it and what are society’s hopes for the cold, selfish future?!
Running time 90 minutes. Performed in Japanese with English surtitles.
THE UNKNOWN DANCER IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD played the Eternity Playhouse on the 22nd and 23rd March.