Aphasia Dance Company: A Scattered State of Silence

I may have spent most of the 1980s and a good deal of the 1990s in Tokyo, but I was blissfully ignorant of most of what transpires on Japanese television as I didn’t own a TV set until well into the 1990s. Nevertheless, I was vaguely aware of a comedian named Beat Takeshi and a show called 風雲!たけし城  (Takeshi’s Castle) where contestants had to navigate a wicked obstacle course to take the Castle. I gathered that the show involved physical pain and a lot of mud – at best. I haven’t done much to pad my knowledge of weird Japanese game shows since then; I’m aware they exist in the same way that I know there is a Santa Claus at the Arctic Circle. I know he’s there, but I don’t need to see him for myself.

But last week, when I read on the website of the Rotterdamse Schouwburg that five Japanese dancers would be performing with Aphasia Dance Company, I went partly to support them and partly out of curiosity after reading this description of the evening’s performance

A Scattered State of Silence places the individual competitive nature against the need for social cohesiveness. As performers manoeuvre through these sticky situations they reveal their personality more than they are aware. Applying concepts and strategies utilised in games theory and relying on the wickedly painful Japanese sense of humour, the performance explores what life might be like if seen on a Japanese TV game show.

The setting was the intimate Kleine Zaal with the seating arranged in rows ascending from the stage floor. On the left side of the stage, the video camera operator, the judge and the MC were seated at a long table. Seated on the right of the stage, Jean Yves Evrard, with guitar and gear. The stage floor was a shade of black, the backdrop a large white screen, and in front of the screen, there were five chairs. The performers entered quietly, one by one, and sat down on the chairs with the spotlight exploring each one as they made their entrance.

The interaction between the performers started in small ways with sideways glances and copying each other’s movements, but gradually things intensified until the audience of around 50 persons was treated to a full-scale bare bottom-slapping contest between Takao Kawauchi and Keiichi Otsuka. Thankfully, their briefs seemed to be made of some magical material that never revealed too much of their physiognomy. So far, so playground.

In the second half, the previously anonymous performers returned to the stage with personas. The MC had entered the fray to referee the bottom-slapping contest and by now he was in full flow, introducing the characters competing in the game show: Masked Man (Takao Kawauchi), Backbone (Takiko Iwabuchi), Skinhead (Keiichi Otsuka), Hello Kitty (Sayaka Kaiwa) and The Machine (Hirokazu Morikawa).

The gist of the game was to complete simple tasks in pairs. The tasks were to be dragged, to be carried, to receive violence, to receive intimacy and one that completely eludes me now a week later – perhaps to be pushed? The tasks never changed, but they were switched so that every two minutes, we were treated to new contestants with a different pair of tasks. The idea was to wordlessly communicate what you wanted the other person to do to you and to understand what the other person wanted you to do to them, not consecutively, but simultaneously. At the end of the round, the judge awarded points on technical and artistic merit. The efforts of the performers were filmed and projected on the screen at the back of the stage, which was also used to display the points tally and the tasks. The video feed added to the visual interest as the camera was positioned at the side of the stage and picked up details and expressions on the performers’ faces that were not visible from the sixth row where I sat. (I never sit too close to these things to avoid any risk of audience participation.)

The game started out orderly enough, but, when a winner was named, it turned out that winning meant you were given black straps to tie up a limb of choice of the other contestants. As the ‘game’ progressed, contestants were less and less mobile because of the straps, and in the end they all joined together in a heaving mass of bodies moving across the floor, even engulfing the MC and his spirited commentary. Jean Yves Evrard accompanied all on the electric guitar.

Here is a taster from another performance with a different MC. Our MC was a strapping Dutch-speaking lad.

There was a strong whiff of improvisation about the whole thing. It lasted about one hour and must have been rough on the body, but the performers went at it with gusto, seemingly without considering aches or bruises. About halfway through, there was a bit of an interlude when the MC interviewed the performers. Calling to mind the endless hours I spent in classrooms in the 80s teaching “English conversation,” this was particularly nostalgic. “What do you like?” “I like to eat good food.” “Have you found any good food in Holland?” “Not yet!” (Hello Kitty) or “What makes you happy? “Death!”  “What makes you sad?” “Life!” (Masked Man) More entertainingly, Skinhead attempted in broken English to explain his childhood wish to become a vacuum truck driver to the clueless MC. Back before all households in Japan were connected to the sewerage system, toilets had tanks for storing deposits and a man in a vacuum truck would regularly come around to empty the tank. According to Skinhead, this man was very brave and he wanted to be just like him. I doubt very much that anyone except my companion, also a long-term resident of Japan, understood what Skinhead was trying to say. Notably, this was also the only evidence of the wicked Japanese sense of humor I spotted that evening. Or, perhaps I still don’t “get” game shows.

The Aphasia Dance Company is based in Belgium. It was founded by Ted Stoffer, a dancer who has worked with both the Scapino Ballet and the Rambert Dance Company in London. Aphasia, as you probably know, is the loss of the ability to understand and express speech. I found an uncredited interview posted on Vimeo where Stoffer explains his approach to dancing and the choice of the name. As he tells it, in the 1940s and 50s, some speech therapists in the United States started to use Native North American sign language to work with people suffering from aphasia. By the 1950s, people didn’t need to say so much about cowboys and horses and guns, so they started to adapt the sign language to their own needs. It is this connection between loss of speech and movement that suggested the name for the Aphasia Dance Company.

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