Renowned butoh dancer, award-winning actor, choreographer and agriculturist Min Tanaka has tried hard to escape international stardom.
Tanaka, now aged 62, has spent the past two decades in the depths of the Yamanashi countryside, questioning the very thing that made him famous: “I don’t care if people don’t even think what I do now is dance.” But even there, his fame got the better of him, and in 2000 he terminated a dance workshop because participants were corrupting its purpose.
Only this summer has he decided to resurrect his workshops, due to an avalanche of inquiries from across the world — not just from dancers of all genres, but also fans. “(In the earlier workshops,) participants were using the experience as a career step to make business out of it, even when I wasn’t,” frowns Tanaka, who is recognized internationally as the pioneer of butoh second only to its principal founder Tatsumi Hijikata. “Some even asked for a certificate to prove that they’d learned butoh from Min Tanaka, but I wasn’t even trying to teach dance. I was just helping them to find a method of expression.”
Tanaka’s dance expertise has made him a hot property in diverse genres of art. He was asked to choreograph Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute” for Austria’s prestigious Salzburg Festival in 2006 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Tanaka inserted as many as 14 dance pieces, an unusually large number for a Mozart opera. He is also celebrated for his acting in the movies “Tasogare Seibei (The Twilight Samurai)” (2002), for which he won two Japan Academy awards, and “La Maison de Himiko” (2005).
Last November, Tanaka officially retired from solo performances on big stages. He “actually wanted to quit the year before” but requests for him to dance kept coming. In 2005, he won the Asahi Performing Arts Award and the Kirin Dance Support Award for his performance of “Totaidatsuraku (Where We Fall Into Transparency),” choreo- graphed by Hijikata himself in 1984.
“What such prizes bring is financial reward, and I continued for the extra year as a way to thank my staff, many of whom work voluntarily,” he said.
Born in 1945, Tanaka grew up in suburban Tokyo, where he studied modern dance. By the early 1970s, he was creating and performing original dance works, and in 1985 he founded the Body Weather Farm in Hakushu town, Yamanashi, a cooperative environment for dancers exploring the origins of dance through farming life.
Participants in the intensive summer workshop, this year titled “For the Body and the Environment,” spend the mornings training in traditional manual work such as raising crops and carpentry, and in the afternoon they join the body workshop led by Tanaka.
When Tanaka was still a student of modern dance in the 1960s and he first saw Hijikata perform, he describes himself as being “awestruck” — yet it was 15 years later that he decided to learn from the master, just three years before Hijikata’s death.
“The impact was not in his dance but his presence,” remembers Tanaka. “Even when he was standing still or twitching his fingers, I’d get goose bumps. But still, I didn’t want to just copy him and say ‘this is butoh.’ “
Many of Hijikata’s disciples went on to create new companies of butoh, the dance form he created with main collaborator Kazuo Ohno in post-World War II Japan in reaction to Western influences in dance. These include Akaji Maro, who in 1972 set up Dairakudakan, which became one of Japan’s representative companies in the genre. Though Tanaka also established the troupe Maijuku in 1981, he disbanded it in 1997 and its members joined Tanaka’s new research group “Dance Resources on Earth.” Three years later, he established a new multinational dance troupe and agricultural cooperative society, “Tokason,” based in the Yamanashi countryside.
Butoh is now familiar all over the world for the ghoulish white bodies, shaved heads and grotesque movements that characterized Hijikata’s dance style (later named Ankoku Butoh, which translates as “dance of darkness”) and subsequent butoh troupes such as Dairakudakan.
Yet Tanaka dances with a well-tanned body and graying hair — in fields, by the sea, and up in the mountains. He enthuses with a soft, warm smile: “Nature inspires me to dance. It comes impulsively, the feeling of ‘I want to dance right here, right now.’ “
According to Tanaka, dance existed way before history recognized it. “Humans were dancing before it was ever called ‘dance.’ It has always simply been the physical expression of something that can’t be described in words, reacting to the environment outside the body and expressing the truth prevailing in the body.”
Through dance, Tanaka gets in touch with the child with whom he believes he still shares the same body, the child who, he claims, reacted through sensations.
“When a child is waiting for a parent, and the parent doesn’t come, the child feels something that can’t be expressed by words. It’s a horrible intensity felt within the body, with the body,” he said. “The body can never lose the sensation, yet later we classify these sensations as ‘childhood’ and try to forget about it.”
And it is nature that reminds Tanaka’s body of these instinctive reactions. “Consider the movement of the body when you want to have a look under a particular tomato in a bush. You might bend down low and put your head on the ground, you may lift it up, you may go around the bush and look from the other side, or you may be tired so you just keep staring at it from above. Nature reminds us that our feelings are expressed physiologically.”
Tanaka took this concept on tour around Indonesia in the making of his “dance road movie” “Umihiko Yamahiko Maihiko,” which translates as “sea, mountain, dance,” and which is now showing in Shibuya. The film shows him in verdant nature and small villages, standing transfixed, stumbling along paths and dancing among oxen, by trees, rivers and the sea, collecting random audiences, including dogs and hens.
The movie was also an exercise in questioning the concept of dance.
“I wanted to dance for people who’d never witnessed the ‘art’ as we in the ‘modern’ world would recognize it: To see if they would call it dance, though what they name it is irrelevant,” he said.
Tanaka is “sick” of art that “relies on rehearsals and works toward a fixed date.” He feels that it forms a barrier between the dancer and the audience.
“When you’re watching a performer of any art, don’t you find yourself constantly wondering about the ‘real’ person behind the art? I do, all the time. My dance reveals that ‘real’ me; and its truth, I hope, speaks to the audience.”
Tanaka has found a new way of leading his summer workshop: “We’ll be destroying the belief that there is a fixed genre of dance called butoh, and we will be released from the self-conscious.”
Tanaka’s goal is to perform from impulse, the way haiku writers can. “It’s an effort — because I’m not a genius. I only developed the talent — so I’m constantly working it out for myself. This is why I work in fields that are on slopes, so that I’m always conscious of which area of my foot I am using to balance. Geniuses don’t need to do that: they don’t need to decide on a ‘theme,’ they are the ‘theme.’ I haven’t come across any ‘genius’ dancers yet. The last one was Hijikata.”
Whether or not he likes it, Tanaka is still very much in demand around the world. Before the workshop, he flies to Moscow, Amsterdam and Barcelona.
“I can’t wait to get back to the fields,” he sighs. “It’s a true joy to find myself needing to dance — like a musician with a melody flowing through his body.” He adds with a cheeky smile, “Melody flows through me too, actually, I sometimes burst into song in the fields.”
The Min Tanaka Workshop 2007, “For Body and the Environment,” takes place July 16-Aug. 31. The group will join Dance Hakushu Festival, from Aug 10 (The festival takes place Aug. 9-19). Twenty-five participants will be chosen, regardless of nationality, age, gender or previous experience. The 130,000 yen cost covers lodging and food. Send your name, age, nationality, height in centimeters, weight in kilograms, a brief CV, a full-body photo, postal address, phone, fax numbers and e-mail address to Min Tanaka’s assistant, Shiho Ishihara, at email@example.com or by fax to (055) 277-0079.
“Umihiko Yamahiko Maihiko” is showing at Theater N Shibuya until July 13. Visit www.maihiko.com
Tanaka’s career is captured in the photograph collection “Between the Sea and the Mountains,” by photographer Masato Okada. It has full English translation and costs 9,000 yen before tax. To buy it, contact Kosakusha publishers on (03) 3533-7051 or at firstname.lastname@example.org).