The Undecided Space
in the Audience’s Mind

An interview with dancer Ikko Suzuki & artist Kirara Kawachi

Ikko Suzuki and Kirara Kawachi


Born in Tokyo in 1972. After he entered Ritsumeikan University in 1992, he started to study theater performance. Since 1997 he has been doing dance and butoh performances in countries all over the world. At present, he is studying kagura and exploring the fundamental elements of butoh.


Born in Chiba Prefecture in 1971. She graduated from the Department of Painting at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, USA. Ranging from video and sound installations to drawings, her work addresses concepts based on history and the fusion of art and science.

How did you become a dancer?

ISI started performing as an actor when I was a college student in Kyoto. After I graduated, I started to investigate a style that would have fewer limitations. When you take plays abroad, the audience won’t know what you are talking about if you speak in your own language; they will only be able to see the quality of your acting. I began to concentrate on using bodily expression as a tool for communication. I studied many styles of dancing like butoh and kagura, one of the oldest styles of dance in Japan. From both modern and traditional dances, I build my own style.

How do you work with the space you’re performing in?

ISThe space in which I dance is something I take seriously. Of course, in a theater, we perform in a‘box’—a black box. There, the way you decide to use the box in making your art is called into question. Dancing in a space like Gallery éf is different, however: it has been a kura1 ever since the beginning. I dance every year at Jomyo-in temple in Yanaka where there are 84,000 jizo2 statues. I also danced at this two-hundred-year-old traditional Japanese tearoom called Oukyokan last year. These spaces have their own unique histories that define why they are shaped and situated in their particular ways. Although I am not an architect, I sense that there is a certain meaning in a space and I try very hard to capture what it is. Studying these things is very important to my choreography. I want to understand the sense of time within each space.

Specifically what kind of details in the space have you picked up on?

ISFor example, the Oukyokan tearoom was named after a famous painter from the Edo Period called Oukyo Maruyama. It had a room where he once stayed as his eyesight began to fail from illness. He kept painting during his stay and after he recovered, and the room still has a fusuma3 that he painted. The building was originally situated in Aichi Prefecture, but it was moved to the area behind the Tokyo National Museum, where it exists today.

When I was asked to perform there, I tried to imagine what it would be like for a painter to lose his eyesight, and incorporated that into my dance in terms of emotion and physical movement. How would your sense of perception be affected if you couldn’t see anymore? Did he lose sight in one eye? Or was it both his eyes? What would happen when your space became partitioned? Addressing questions like these changes the way you respond to and absorb the space you are performing in, and it affects the way the audience views your dancing.

How did the collaboration for ‘3.10 — 100,000 People’s Words’ come about?

KKhe collaboration draws on the firebombing of Tokyo on March 10, 1945. It was only through working with an American sculptor after 9/11 and then again later during an artist-in-residence program here that I had come to learn about the huge air raid on Tokyo. One hundred thousand people died right here in Asakusa, but I didn’t known much about it until then. I think a lot of Japanese people are unaware of this too, since there were so many massive air raids on Tokyo.

We didn’t have enough time to create an artwork about this event during the residency. But at the end of the residency, we met Suzuki-san and immediately I felt that this could be another opportunity to make a piece on the bombing of Tokyo. Suzuki-san and I tried to produce a video piece in various locations including a nagaya4 in Sumida Ward that survived the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, but it didn’t work out well.

Our ideas finally started coming together when we were introduced to Gallery éf in 2004. It’s likely that this performance wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for this particular space. The gallery staff had been working on a project called Collapsing Histories with an American curator that year and had just started to think about presenting an art piece on the theme of war that explored communication and interaction with history. That’s when we came along. The timing was just right.

Suzuki-san, how did you react to this particular space and its history? How does it influence your choreography?

ISThis kura is a witness to a long history: it’s been around longer than any human beings alive today and has survived so many disasters. I felt that it was a challenge to try to talk to this entity and sustain a worthwhile conversation. Simply comparing myself to its history, I would never be able to live up to all the things it must have felt and experienced up until now. But I think about how I might be able to come closer to it. Although it’s already our fourth time performing here, this space gives me new discoveries every time and that changes my dancing every time I perform here.

Kawachi-san, how did you respond to the space in order to create the sound work for this collaboration?

KKFor me, it’s the idea of the ‘time’ that the space owns. I am adapting my own perception to find a moment when everything that happened on March 10, 1945 — the spatial and temporal aspects of that night — comes together into a single moment that can be connected with the present day. The sound work consists of a layering of the voices of survivors recounting their memories of the past as well as other sounds that we can all identify as coming from the present, such as the noise of level crossings and trains passing, or the sound of water lapping against the banks of the Sumida River. For this year’s version of the performance, I’ve added the sound of children reading about the bombing from history textbooks. I think the artist’s job is to think about what can be drawn from the past to improve people’s lives in the present. I want to connect 2008 with those horrendous times in the past so that people will truly understand. I want us to share it all, both the past and the present day.

What do you think of the potential for cross-media collaboration in general?

ISCross-media collaboration has a lot of possibilities: it draws the attention of people with different fields of interest. I think it’s very important when people who have no familiarity with dancing get a chance to see a dance performance, or when people who focus entirely on dancing pay attention to architecture; it broadens their way of thinking. If you focus solely on just one art form, you can become judgmental about what is good and what is bad and forget about everything else. Cross-media work allows the audience to have a more open and undecided space in their minds, and it’s in that space that people’s values begin to change a bit. If viewers allow themselves to broaden their minds like this, then fields of art will start growing and spreading as well.

So in a sense, the audience’s expectations are a form of media in itself?

ISWell, for example, when I danced in the Oukyokan tearoom, the audience came neatly dressed in kimono as if they were there for the tea ceremony, but we never served them any! So when I flew in dancing, I think they were surprised to see that style of performance in a tearoom of all places. But they ended up enjoying it. It was not something they were expecting to see in that context, but cross-media ideas allow the audience to wander into a new world.

In terms of artists working with each other, cross-media collaborations demand that you be mature enough to communicate. It is not about seeking out a hierarchy but showing respect to other artists while communicating clearly and straightforwardly with them. It’s all about connecting with someone who has special knowledge of an area of art that you have no knowledge of. Process is incredibly important: there would be no value in, for example, an architect just building some sort of space and asking me to dance however I like. In a situation like that, if the architect and the dancer don’t communicate with each other and discuss the meanings behind the space and how that should relate to the dance taking place within it, then the final work probably won’t be any good for the audience.

KKIn the process of creating 3.10, the staff at Gallery éf, Suzuki-san and I talked a lot. Then Suzuki-san and I would go talk to people who experienced the bombing. We would be very persistent in confirming and refuting things with one another. When you lose that combination of tenacity and honesty during a collaboration, you know that the work will end up seeming fake and unconvincing. If you placate each other by pretending to understand what the other is talking about even when you don’t, then you are starting off on the wrong foot.

You both live very close to Asakusa, across the river in Sumida Ward. What does this area mean to you?

ISI was born and raised in the shitamachi area across the river; it’s my hometown. People tend to have complicated feelings toward their hometowns, and I was the type to distance myself from it — I went away to university in Kyoto. There’s a big distinction between East and West Tokyo. If you take the Sobu Line from west to east, you can see how the character of the passengers gradually changes as the train makes its way across the city. The train starts off full of the more stylish-looking people you find in Tokyo, but by the time you arrive at a station such as Ochanomizu, you’ll begin to see more and more blue-collar laborer types on the train. Whenever I see that sort of scene, it really hits me that this is the area where I was born and raised. I don’t get the impression that people living in the west — even though they are residents of Tokyo too — can understand how it feels. They may see what I am seeing, but they won’t feel it with the same intensity.

So you have an acute sense of Tokyo’s social space?

IShere is a big gap between the culture that shitamachi areas have been cultivating through the ages and the casual atmosphere of Tokyo in general; certainly it is very different from the atmosphere that has emerged out of the development of Roppongi Hills. People in the shitamachi areas are more zakkakenai.5 There are no barriers between them. They are kind, open, and they step into other people’s homes. If you are having a problem, they worry and come around to make sure you are all right. In the old days, if you ran out of soy sauce, you would go borrow some from your next-door neighbor. More and more, people live in condominiums, so this kind of social space is dying out. But there is still some of that old-time spirit left in the neighborhood where I live. There’s nothing wrong with condominiums, but they have changed the way people relate with one another.

How have your respective fields of art changed over the past fifteen years?

KKI think that when it comes to sound work, there has been a general trend towards using brash industrial sounds and noises, or mixtures of city sounds. I don’t understand the significance of those sounds. I think that the processes through which the creators of these works came to find possibilities in such sounds are very interesting. However, for me, it is important for artworks to have a deeper meaning within.

What about in the field of dancing?

ISSo-called ‘contemporary dance’ in Japan hasn’t produced anything I find particularly exciting. There is a real trend towards introverted performances that feel like someone is reading out of their personal diary. On the other hand, I do see extreme improvement in the physical abilities of Japanese dancers. Japanese dancers used to have an inferiority complex about their abilities in comparison to the many excellent dancers in Europe and in other countries, but they have overcome that.

Back in Japan, a lot of people have become bored with dance in the last eight years or so. The mood at the moment is one of wanting amusing entertainment and not much more. It feels like there are few artists and creators who are committed to inquiring deeply into the substance of their creations. Nevertheless, I expect that in a few years this tendency will turn around, and people will start thinking more.

Presently, there are so many people saying that everything has already been done before and that there is no such thing as a new dance. I feel that it’s actually becoming true. I think, in a way, we are at a dead end.

The question is, where do we all go with things being the way they are? Do we just keep dancing because as long as you can dance it’s okay? I want to think hard about the bigger questions in life and incorporate them into my work. I would be really happy to see other dancers do the same from their own viewpoints; that would create a stimulating environment here. We shouldn’t always have to rely on other countries as places to realize our art; we should be able to do it here in Japan as well. However, I recognize that being abroad allows you the freedom to dance in an environment with fewer expectations of how you should be dancing.

I sense that dance in general is suffering a low period right now. But I also believe that dancers can overcome this situation. When things are down, the only way we can go is up.


  1. A small warehouse or granary.
  2. The small replicas of Jizo Bodhisattva are used in Japan to protect unborn, aborted, stillborn or miscarried babies.
  3. Sliding screen / door.
  4. Row house.
  5. Crude and candid.