Reinventing the Dancing Body

The Impact of Japanese Culture on Brazilian Dances

by | Oct 24, 2007

Photo of a dancer on stage, crotched down in front of a large bowl, with a tulle skirt pulled over her head.

Emilie Sugai and other artists inspired by Japanese traditions have influenced dance in Brazil. Photo by Joao Caldas

The interest in Japanese culture from food to dance has deep roots among us in Brazil as we have the biggest Japanese colony in the world, outside of Japan itself. Therefore, the images of Japanese culture are much more than a landscape to be contemplated. Once a friend who was born in a small city in the interior of São Paulo told me that he only discovered that the word “konnichiwa” (hello) was Japanese and not Portuguese when he was already in his teens. Throughout his childhood, he had heard his mother greeting all the merchants of the region this way, even when they weren´t of Japanese descent.

Stories like this have been part of our daily life for almost a century. From 1908 onwards, more Japanese immigrants were drawn to Brazil than to any other country. Most of them settled in the southern states of São Paulo and Paraná because São Paulo in particular had the most dynamic economy in Latin America. Highly restrictive immigration measures adopted by the United States and Canada had redirected the Japanese immigration process to Latin America, mirroring in a certain way the opportunities available to pioneers in the United States before the turn of the century.

The Japanese dance experience in Brazil started from the very beginning as a way of preserving cultural memory and bringing people closer together. Several small amateur groups tried to preserve the Noh theater dances, the Kabuki choreographies and other Japanese folk dance traditions. These groups used to present performances to the members of the Japanese colony, using the everyday community meeting spaces such as Japanese language classrooms or neighborhood barns For several years I wandered over every week to a small room in a building in São Paulo’s Japanese district of Liberdade to take private classes from Professor Noburo Yoshida of the Kanze School of Noh. On some specific occasions, such as New Year’s, the presentations were open to the public, but normally they were limited to the community.

It is important to observe that the Japanese immigration to Brazil has gone through different phases with two powerful periods (1908-1938 and 1953-1979) that had a significant impact on the way the cultural and artistic interchanges evolved. The fifteen-year interval between 1938 and 1953 was one of the most difficult periods for the Japanese community. President Getulio Vargas adopted a policy of nationalization aimed at forcing the descendants of foreigners to “speak the national language and understand that Brazil was their home country.” This policy conflicted directly with the Japanese immigrants’ mentality and their desire to raise their children in the Japanese tradition. The nationalization policy was codified by a decree in 1939 to prohibit all foreign languages from being spoken in public spaces. By 1952, the only source of news from Japan was Radio Japan, which began broadcasting to South America in 1937. All the newspapers written in Japanese were forbidden, as were the dancing events.

After the war, the policy changed. Successful coffee farmers and a small number of professionals and business owners were the first to abandon the old mentality. They saw themselves as foundation builders for an entirely new community of Japanese beyond the homeland. Thus began the transition from countryside to city and from loyal subjects of the emperor to citizens of Brazil. The first researchers of Japanese culture started their work between the 40s and the 50s. At this time, most of the texts written in Portuguese were related to Japanese literature and language. The focus on discourse strategies may be interpreted as political resistance to the Brazilian policy in force at that time. In the 60s and early 70s, universities began Japanese studies with the creation of the field of study of Japanese Language and Literature at the Universidade de São Paulo (1964) and at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (1979). The main focus continued to be the Japanese language, only later embracing literature and poetry as well. The great change that would open new channels for the dialogue with contemporary Brazilian art occurred outside these research centers.

Two very important publications triggered the new possibilities of dialogue with Japanese culture. They were Ideogram, Logic, Poetry and Language (1977) by the poet and translator Haroldo de Campos and Aesthetics, Reflections on Eastern and Western Arts (1983) by the musician and composer Hans Joaquin Koellreuter. Both authors proposed a very different approach that understood Japanese culture as a sort of “poetic operator” capable of inaugurating new creative processes, no longer limited to the studies of language or the repetition and imitation of the traditional arts. They were inspired by the experiments of artists like the cinematographer Sergei Eisenstein, the poet Ezra Pound and the musician John Cage to seek a dialogue with the Orient without imitating or exercising any type of authority on the other culture. This did not mean that the traditional manifestations should be removed. What did change were the strategies of translation that Haroldo de Campos would start calling “transcreation” (“transcriação”).

In the case of the Noh Theatre, for example, after returning from a year studying in Japan in the early 90s, the actress Alice K. produced Hagoromo, based on Haroldo de Campos’s translation of the 14th century play by Motokyio Zeami. However, what appeared on the stage was no longer the “katas” or Noh-style modules of movement, but a certain understanding of the space-time interval present in the gestures and the organization of the scenic elements. At the end of the 90s, the choreographer Angela Nagai, who had also studied Noh in Japan, would propose an unusual bridge between this classical Japanese theatre and candomblé, investigating similarities between the incorporation of entities in the Afro-Brazilian rituals and the ever-present symbolic incorporation during the Noh plays, when the principal “shite” character reveals his true ghost identity, which characterizes the plot.

With regard to modern Japanese dance, one of the great landmarks was the year 1986, when the master of Japanese butoh, Kazuo Ohno, came to Brazil for the first time and overwhelmed various artists who, thereafter, became very interested in better understanding this practice, which arose from the postwar experiences in Tokyo. Ohno was invited by the choreographer and plastic artist Takao Kusuno, pioneer of butoh dance in Brazil. He had worked in Tokyo with an important butoh company, Dai Rakuda kan, and then decided to move to São Paulo, where he lived from 1977 until his death in 2001 Several Brazilian dancers studied with him. Some of them were not only interested in butoh training but in broader research on one of the main issues of the butoh experience: the metamorphosis of the body. Among them was the actress Dorothy Lenner and the choreographers Denilto Gomes, Patricia Noronha, Emilie Sugai, and Ismael Ivo, just to name a few.

Emilie Sugai deserves special mention among these artists for continuing Kusuno’s research connecting butoh to personal questions regarding her search to retrieve her Japanese roots, as well as to the possibility of reviewing butoh training and linking it to the contemporary dance being investigated in Brazil today. Other Brazilian choreographers decided to go to Japan on their own to study under masters of butoh like Kazuo Ohno himself and Min Tanaka, as did Maura Baiocchi, Denise Courtouké, Ciça Ono and Marta Soares. With the exception of Ciça Ono, none of the other artists had any blood ties to Japan. These choreographers were motivated by the desire to get to know a new form of training, not necessarily to create a new vocabulary for dance, but above all to re-invent the body. The Lume Group, headquartered in Campinas (in the interior of the State of São Paulo), also invited several Butoh dancers to work over the past ten years, and eventually produced spectacles with Anzu Furukawa and Tadashi Endo.

Toshiyuki Tanaka is another Japanese artist who immigrated to Brazil at the end of the 90s. Toshi, as he is known among us, started teaching the seitai do-ho technique. It is a method of preparing the body that was developed in Japan under Master Noguchi and has captivated Brazilian artists seeking to sharpen their perception and awareness of the body.

After 2000, others continued to experiment. Choreographer Leticia Sekito, for instance, created the choreography “Disseram que eu era japonesa” (They Said I Was Japanese), based on the images of Pop Japan. Although she is of Japanese descent, she has never been to Japan and has been trained in Western contemporary dance. The images of Japan that made an impact on her life came from two different streams: training in the martial art ai ki dô, very much used by artists who work with contact improvisation, and the transmission of the images of the cultural industry (films, animes and mangas).

After all these experiences, you can see that in a very particular way, Japanese culture in Brazil has shown us, in many different moments of cultural history, how the represented body has become a complex net of time that simultaneously links past, present and future—an amazing idea that I still wonder about after all these years, and that continues to haunt me.

Fall 2007Volume VII, Number 1
Christine Greiner works at the Catholic University of São Paulo. She is the author of Butoh, A Thought in Evolution(1998), Noh Theatre in the West (2000), and The Body – Clues for Indisciplinary Studies (2005), among other books and articles.

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