Japan and Africa are half a planet apart. Their cultures — Japan’s restrained and disciplined, Africa’s exuberant — seem just as distant.
But Japanese choreographer Kota Yamazaki, who spent time in Senegal a decade ago, found qualities in common. The evening darkness in the village where he was working with the Senegalese troupe Jant-Bi reminded him of the black nights in rural northern Japan where he grew up.
“That village and the life there reminded me of olden times in Japan,” says Yamazaki, 53, from his home in New York. “I felt a common feeling and atmosphere in their lifestyle. … At night the houses went completely dark.”
He was intrigued. “Darkness blurs the relationships between people,” he says. “It makes people see ordinary things like space differently. You don’t see things very well, people’s outlines get blurry, and you don’t know how far away you are from other people. This really affects your psychology, too.”
That sense of possibility inspired Yamazaki’s dance theater piece (glowing), which the Miami Light Project presents Friday and Saturday at its Wynwood venue, performed by Yamazaki and his Japanese wife, Nishimura Mina, two African dancers and two New York contemporary dancers.
The dance artist also found inspiration in a 1933 essay by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki that talks about the importance of darkness in Japan’s culture and aesthetics.
“Japanese culture appreciates ambiguity and the implication of shadows, as opposed to Western culture, which puts value on things like clarity and precision,” Yamazaki says. “After World War II, Japanese culture was westernized, so now it’s not so true. But in olden times I think it was very true.”
Yamazaki also found a physical connection between Japanese and African dance during a half-dozen trips to Senegal from 2001 to 2004 to work with Compagnie Jant Bi.
His dancing is rooted in Butoh, a 20th century Japanese style characterized by extreme, often grotesque physicality and an intense, inchoate atmosphere that are seen as reactions to the horrors of World War II. A grounded, bent-kneed stance is the basis for both African and Butoh dance, but for Yamazaki, the similarities went beyond the physical.
“Both forms have a sense of timelessness,” he says. “Butoh is very slow, and African dance has a very different speed and tempo, but it also has a sense of timelessness. You almost feel that time doesn’t end.”
In rehearsals for (glowing), there was more meaning than usual in the movement. The American dancers only speak English, but the African dancers speak none, and Yamazaki’s own English is limited (his wife translated for this interview).
“We used body language and we found our own way to communicate,” he says. “The most challenging part was to make a coherent piece with totally different dancers and dance forms. But it was also the most exciting thing.”