The Company of Elders, produced by Sadler’s Wells Theatre (U.K.), was invited by Saitama Arts Theatre (Japan) in 2018 as a model for dance companies which feature elderly performers. The article discusses how the triple bill by the company strived to explore the possibilities of creating dance by tapping into the physicality of the elderly performers, as well as how that challenge can be contextualised in the modern history of dance.
Keywords: dance, elderly performers, physicality, Company of Elders, creative process
1. A Dance Company of the Elderly
The Cabinet office of Japan estimates that, in 2015, 26.6 percent of the country’s population was of those over 65, the highest rate in the world. The country’s long-standing position at the top of the world’s life expectancy list has perhaps led to the impression that the country is hospitable to the elderly. In actuality, while it is true that its national medical insurance service covers the entire population, Japan’s medical care system for senior citizens is riddled with problems at a time of decreasing birth rate and aging population. The current administration strongly advocates more elderly people working, with a clear political aim at reducing the expenditure on the national pension scheme and medical care, raising the suspicion that it is not serious about tackling the problem.
Art-sector participation by elderly people, on the other hand, is starting to take on various forms. Stage participation of older adults was the main agenda for the World Gold Theatre Festival, held by the Saitama Arts Theatre (SAT) in Autumn 2018. Theatre directors and companies engaged in theatre programmes and projects involving the elderly were invited from around the world to give performances, workshops and symposiums. Its clear emphasis was on theatre made by the elderly as well as its social significance.
SAT’s resident professional company, Saitama Gold Theatre (SGT), has put on ground-breaking performances since its creation by the late Yukio Ninagawa, in 2006, soon after he was inaugurated into the office of the SAT artistic directorship. The company, with actors in their sixties and nineties, was at the centre of the Gold Theatre Festival.
In fact, Japan has several similar active theatre companies consisting of older adults, which makes it surprising that the country has had no dance companies with senior dancers. That was one of the reasons why the Company of Elders (CoE), produced by Sadler’s Wells Theatre (U.K.), was invited as a model which SGT could look up to.
It is easy to imagine that aging gives rise to difficulties for performers. The stronger emphasis on physicality makes dance especially challenging for elderly performers. Because of this, elderly dancers, especially those over 70 years of age, draw our respect. Just to see them dance is moving in itself. Dance can keep them healthy and motivated. Obvious, however, is the fact that their participation alone does not automatically warrant artistic merit. Undeniably, we are likely to see dance pieces by elders within a certain, often predetermined frame of expectation. The performances given by the CoE were examples of how performances by senior dancers can debunk that frame and be compelling enough to make us reconsider our possible prejudices against aged stage performances.
2. Creating with the Aged
CoE’s performance was a triple bill, each session made by a different young choreographer. The first piece, Fragments, Not Forgotten, was choreographed by Seeta Patel, who has a background in Indian traditional dance and contemporary dance. The dancers make each move as if to trace the fragments of their memories, never hurried, and with pauses and repetitions. It is hard to determine where their moves come from, but it is easy to see that the moves are deeply rooted in their physicality. As the ten or so dancers follow one single move, they start to go off synch, and rather than diminishing its artistry, the divergent movements make the piece all the more interesting. Those are most likely the moves that Patel must have drawn from her interaction with the dancers in the rehearsal—the kind of moves that were not given to but extracted from the dancers’ physicality. Pina Bausch and others have adopted this method, but it was even more effective in Patel’s piece because of the age of the performers.
The second piece, Adrianne Hart’s A Tentative Place of Holding, picks up pace with clearly choreographed movements, which were not too complicated, but with intermittent pauses and hiatuses. These pauses were strategically contextualized so as not to be received as being awkward. When dancers attempt an off-balanced move, instead of testing the limit as young dancers would do, they simply emphasise the imbalance by extending their arms and legs a little more than usual. They cannot risk taking a fall, of course, but in this piece these slight emphases were enough to make the moves effective. If younger performers had danced to the same choreography, the movements would have been much smoother, but then that would have been a totally different piece. This is a package with occasional naturally occurring hesitations and pauses calculated into the piece. Moreover, those “awkward” movements did not stop the flow, but rather varied the pace and even accelerated some moves. Hart must have had a full grasp of the physical possibility of her dancers and planned the choreography accordingly to create maximum artistic effect.
Their last piece was Dickson Mbi’s Abyss. Mbi’s background is hip hop, which requires not only agility but also sudden pace changes and a good sense of rhythm. Obviously, huge difficulties are posed for the elderly as a consequence, but the virtue of this piece is that Mbi did not expect this of his dancers. The dancers’ powerful stomping on the floor defines the beat and drive. Then, they create a light upward motion with their arms as they stomp the beat. Their movements are not quick, but when the ten or more dancers move in one motion, the pace seems to pick up. They do not dance like young hip hop dancers, nor are they painstakingly trying to imitate their moves; inspired by and aspiring to the spirit of hip hop, they are using their limited agility and flexibility to its fullest. While what the title, Abyss, suggests remained obscure, the performance turned out to be a wonderful fruit born out of the collaboration between them and Mbi.
The three choreographers are of quite different feathers, but it was clear that the three pieces they created were a result of a very close collaborative process with the dancers. Time must have been spent trying to understand their aged dancers’ physicality and exploring possibilities through observation and dialogue, before they were able to give the pieces their final shape. It was not just the choreographer dictating the moves.
As a build-up for the 2018 World Gold Theatre Festival, SAT invited some affiliates to Sadler’s Wells for symposiums and workshops in the year preceding the festival. I had the opportunity to participate in the workshop conducted by Simona Scotto, rehearsal director of the CoE, and got a glimpse of their training process. We did some relaxed, large movements collectively, and then each of us was asked to come up with and hand over a simple move to another. Simple, basic collaborative exercises like this was at the core of the company’s method, which is vital, especially in a company of elders.
3. Age in the Eyes of the Beholder
The mere sight of old people moving on stage can be touching, but their age of course is not the only reason one is moved. Take Kazuo Ohno, the late butoh dancer. Ohno was exalted as being simply inimitable because of his consummate spirituality, and his dance often praised as sublime and mature because of his age. This perception, however, seems to be changing. The change was brought about by Takao Kawaguchi, who, in his series of performances entitled “About Kazuo Ohno,” has reproduced Ohno’s dance as faithfully as professionally possible since 2013. Initially, his approach met scepticism from some quarters―scepticism that it was materialist without any regard for Ohno’s spirituality―but many have now discovered what used to be hidden under the veil of the myth of Kazuo Ohno. They have found that there was more to see in his dance than its spiritual height achieved through his aged body; his dance, on a more materialistic level, was full of subtlety and versatility. Ohno was not an aged dancer. He just happened to be old.
Another point of reference is Pina Bausch. Her representative dance piece Kontakthof (1978) was performed by dancers over 65 (Kontakthof with Seniors, 2000) as well as young dancers over 14 year of age (Kontakthof with Teenagers, 2008). None of the dancers were professional, but the company members who had been with Bausch since the beginning had worked on meticulously choreographed pieces. Admittedly, Kontakthof does not require transcendent physical skills, but a subtle sense for pauses and moves is an absolute requisite, nonetheless. Whatever the intentions were of limiting the age of dancers, their performances were powerful enough to show that their age, whether young or old, did not mean handicaps or privileges.
The same holds true with the CoE’s Triple Bill. We are made aware that age does not mean anything in itself. The dancers were not asked to challenge their aged physicality and, therefore, their moves were natural and light; the kind of quality achieved not by struggling with techniques, but by the natural extension of what they have within. It is not that they did not work hard for the show. Of course, they did. However, their hard work was not aimed at making the impossible possible, but at exploring their artistic possibilities with the choreographers. Hence, the utmost individuality. Their moves may not have the same briskness as youngsters’ hip hop, but that takes nothing away from their performance. They are doing what they can do just like anyone else. It just happens that they are elderly dancers.
*Katsuhiko Sakaguchi is a dance critic as well as lecturer at Waseda University. He teaches Mathematics and Cultural History. His research topics include wartime relationship between dance and politics in Japan. His publications include Takaya Eguchi and Misako Miya’s Modern Dance Group Touring the Battlefront (Sakaguchi and Nishida, 2017, Canta) and the Japanese translation of John Dee’s Mathematicall Praeface in Essential Scientific Writings in Renaissance Europe (Ikegami, ed., 2017, University of Nagoya Press). He is an editorial member of IATC Japan’s journal Theatre Arts.