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Re:moving with Hiroaki Umeda

One of the leaders of Japan’s avant garde art scene

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Published: 30 Jun 2020


Time taken : ~10mins

In a tapestry of pulsating light and sound, an elusive figure ebbs and flows with the electronic waves, in response to seemingly arbitrary sonic cues. Impulsive yet cerebral.

This spectacular and hypnotic combination of textures in movement, sound and light is the work of the Tokyo-based dancer and multidisciplinary artist Hiroaki Umeda.

Abstract yet precise, minimal yet expansive, Umeda's practice centres around "impulse", which is both the seed and the goal of his creations. Umeda sees the body as "a place pregnant with language preceding language, and emotion prior to emotion", and "impulse" is therefore the pre-linguistic and pre-emotional quality that he investigates in movement. This is the basis for the codification of his organic method of movement, coined Kinetic Force Method, in which he seeks "a pre-dance movement principle" that transcends socially manufactured genres or institutionalised classifications. His philosophy of movement is also rooted in post-anthropocentrism, where humans, objects and nature are essentially the same—without our linguistic codes or belief systems, we are all made up of particles of light and matter.

I want to provide unknown physical sensations to the audience,

Hiroaki Umeda

For a dancer, Umeda had a late start. Taking a range of classes from ballet to hip hop, 20-year-old Umeda felt that the dogmatic disciplines he had encountered did not accommodate his physicality and he decided that he would have none of it. In 2000, at the age of 23, he founded his dance company S20 and so began his lifelong experiment with movement. His works, described as being both subtle and violent, have shown in festivals and arts centres all over the world, from the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Tanz im August in Berlin and NY Live Art in New York to The Barbican Center in London, Sydney Opera House, National Chiang Kai-Shek Cultural Center in Taipei and Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. Umeda featured in Esplanade's dans festival 2013 and in ConversAsians 2012. His solo pieces Adapting for Distortion (2008), Haptic (2008), Holistic Strata (2011) and split flow (2013) have all earned critical acclaim.

From 2010, Umeda expanded his practice and dance works into visual arts, creating installations that focus on optical illusion and physical immersion. Of note are the installations Haptic (2010) commissioned by Aichi Triennale, Holistic Strata (2011) that premiered at Exposition EXIT at Maison des arts de Créteil, and split flow (2012) commissioned by the Van Abbemuseum of Eindhoven.

In this interview, we check in on Umeda, one of the leading figures of the Japanese avant-garde art scene, on the topics of mobility and limitations. And we're not at all surprised that the dancer-choreographer has only gone deeper into exploring what's truly primal in our corporeality.

Cover photo by Shin Yamagata

What is a typical day like for you now?

Every day is very relaxing for me. I spend my time cooking, gardening, reading, surfing the Internet, etc.

What is the biggest contrast in your routine between the pre-COVID period and these uncertain days?

The biggest change in my routine is that I don’t need to think about the work at the beginning of the day. I just do whatever I feel like doing. And another good thing is that it is easier to find time and have the time to talk to friends and family.

One fall-out of this pandemic has been the limits to an individual's mobility: restrictions on travel and being confined to one's home. What are your thoughts on this for the medium of dance?

I believe that what is important in dance is knowing more about the body. The unexpected limitation sometimes gives different perspective to our thoughts. I think that we are able to know more about dance through a different perspective because of this situation.

An extract from Median (2018)

Loneliness – does that feeling terrify or endear itself to you? Why?

It gives me time for confronting myself and has allowed me to take time for introspection. It is not so bad.

What, to your knowledge, is the biggest socioeconomic issue facing your country right now? How do you think that trickles down to you and your work?

Freelance dancers and choreographers have been influenced significantly by the situation. For example, one of the sources of income of many dancers is teaching. But all the studios have been closed. They lose places to teach, and that means that they lose places for generating income.

For me, many of my performances overseas have been cancelled and more will be cancelled. The biggest problem for me is that the borders of many countries are now closed. The dance scene in Japan is very small so we have to do our work in other countries too. On the other hand, I have been interested in finding and developing different formats of dance performance. The situation that is limiting us has given me a creative outlook. I would like to mention that some Japanese organisations are trying hard to support artists and art communities and I am very thankful that they are doing so.

How are you rethinking your practice as a dancer/ choreographer, whether in big or small ways?

As a dancer, I became more interested in the more primitive and simple elements of body and of movement. For instance, I have done more research into breath and consciousness for movement. It is very exciting to deepen those kinds of things for dance.

An extract from Intensional Particle (2015)

What keeps you hopeful? What keeps you moving?

All societies have been facing the same situation and we all have had to rethink what is important for society. In Japan, I have to admit that art and the art scene in Japan struggle to be understood by society and majority of the Japanese people.

I myself have had to rethink and confront what dance and art can do for the people and society. I haven’t had a clear answer yet but what I want to do is to discover primitive elements and deepen the thought of body, dance and art. If I could find that, I would have a way to communicate more with people through dance and art. That would be a way to place value on dance for people and society.

Tell us what your next work or creative project is about.

For body and dance, as mentioned, I am exploring its primitive elements in dance and choreography. I believe that it will be a method of choreography that combines different styles of dance. For my solo dance piece, I have been developing a piece which can adapt to different formats and thus be presented in multiple formats of art, for instance, something that can be performed in the theatre in the usual way, but can be shown online, in VR, in a dome, etc.

One word or a phrase to sum up your life/practice right now.

Stay calm.

Acknowledgement by:

Hiroaki Umeda

Choreographer and multi-disciplinary artist Hiroaki Umeda is recognised as one of the leading figures of the Japanese avant-garde art scene. His work considers not only the physical element of dance, but also optical, sensorial and spatial-temporal components. Since the founding of his dance company S20, his subtle yet violent dance pieces have toured around the world to critical acclaim. These include Umeda’s solo works Holistic Strata (2011), split flow (2013) and Intensional Particle (2015). Some of his works have been performed by leading dance companies, such as Sweden's GötenborgsOperans Danskompani and L.A. Dance Project led by Benjamin Millepied.

Based on his profound interest in choreographing time and space, Umeda has spread his talent not only as a choreographer and dancer, but also as a composer, lighting designer, scenographer and visual artist. In order to extend his interest in providing an unknown sensorial experience to the audience, Umeda has been working on series of installations since 2010, which mainly focus on optical illusion and physical immersion. His string of works combining visual and physical sensation has earned him Prix Ars Electronica, Honorary Mention, in 2010.

Umeda commenced on a ten-year project Superkinesis in 2009, working with dancers of distinct physical backgrounds to explore the concept of kinetic language. For this project, dancers functioned as acute sensorial receptors who could tune into the subtle voices of our surroundings. In 2014, he started ‘Somatic Field Project’, which aims to nurture young dancers as well as his own movement method, coined the Kinetic Force Method.


Re:moving

As things around us move beyond our control, artists around the world revisit movement and redefine what it means to move.
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