Puppets of doomed lovers from Sugimoto Bunraku (photo courtesy of Hiroshi Sugimoto)
Sugimoto Bunraku: On Jan. 11, the city of Yokohama gets a new theatre. The Kanagawa Arts Theatre (KAAT) will open its doors, putting its 1,300-seat hall, plus studios and rehearsal spaces, at the service of the performing arts. Kanagawa Arts Foundation, which also runs nearby opera and ballet venue Kahagawa Kenmin Hall in a business neighborhood poised to become Yokohama's arts district, has programmed a splashy opening season. Its centerpiece, in March, will be a high-profile production of Sonezaki shinju tsuketari Kannon meguri (The Love Suicide at Sonezaki), a classic bunraku drama written in 1703 by Chikamatsu Monzaemon.
The event is organized by the year-old Odawara Art Foundation, established by Hiroshi Sugimoto to bring a global, modern perspective to the research and transmission of traditional Japanese visual and performing arts. Sugimoto is an internationally acclaimed contemporary artist and architect based in Tokyo and New York and best known for his photography. He will direct and design the play under the title Sugimoto bunraku. (Seiji Tsurusawa—who has more than 50 years of bunraku experience and a governmental "Living National Treasure" designation under his belt—joins him as the production's composer.) Unlike other revivals, Sugimoto's works from an unabridged script that includes a "Kannon Pilgrimage" overture, in which doomed courtesan Ohatsu goes from temple to temple praying, "Let our love be a bridge to the Buddha realm." The character is based directly on a real person by that name. In the spring of 1703, she went into the forest with her lover, a clerk to a soy-sauce merchant, and side by side they took their own lives. Just one month later, Chikmatsu's play about their demise opened in Osaka, and the ripples began.
Sonezaki shinju popularized in Japan the dramatic idea—not unlike that which Shakespeare had put on stage in England a century prior—of lovers' double-suicides. The writer took things a step further in suggesting that by such an act (shinju) star-crossed lovers' souls might be united in paradise. The play was a lucrative hit and sparked a genre called sewamono that drew its drama from current events. But its cultural effects went far beyond the theatrical sphere: Its spiritual and romantic depiction of shinju was linked to a skyrocketing youth suicide rate—leading in 1723 to a governmental ban of the play, along with the stern warning that "love suicides" would be denied a Buddhist funeral service. The play was not performed again until 1955, by which time a narrator's script and the puppet master's diagrams were the only clues remaining to what the original performance might have been like.
Gallery descriptions of Sugimoto's black-and-white photographs tend to characterize his work as a "time machine," preoccupied with memory and preservation. He is also a noted collector of meteorites and fossils. In recent years, Sugimoto has incorporated elements of noh theatre into his artwork, and now he seeks to bring a balance of contemporary perspective and historical fidelity to his first theatrical production. The trick he must pull of, of course, is to respect tradition without treating it like one of the fossils in his collection. "I feel as though Chikamatsu's spirit has descended on me," the director says confidently about his version. "If he were alive to witness this modern Japanese society, he would do the same thing as I do." (March 23–27; (81) 45-633-3708; www.sugimoto-bunraku.com; www.kaat.jp)
PuSh International Performing Arts Festival: Audiences may come and go as they please to a number of this festival's 17 main shows. Spectators must simply don headphones and begin moving around the igloo-shaped performance space of Iqaluit—the latest in a series of geographically focused installations by Belgian artistic collective Berlin—in order to trigger seven on-screen scenes of life in the titular Inuit city. The collective has given similar kaleidoscopic treatment to the smallest town in Colorado in Bonanza, which is also on view this month at PuSh (as well as at Minneapolis's Walker Art Center and New York's Under the Radar festival).
In La Marea (The Tide), written and directed by Argentina's Mariano Pensotti and co-produced by Vancouver's Boca del Lupo, nine personal mini-dramas play out repeatedly in windows and on corners and balconies in one concentrated neighborhood block. Vancouver itself is also on display in the latest project by Germany's Rimini Protokoll, 100% Vancouver, in which 100 demographically representative Vancouverites are assembled on stage. A different view of the city emerges in City of Dreams, a collaboration between local and international artists, in which a "map" of Vancouver is assembled from hundreds of found objects and snippets of audio recordings.
In the midst of the genre-bending, there is scripted drama to be found, including a work by French writer Bernard-Marie Koltès, In the Solitude of Cotton Fields, given the spiky air of an Eastern European punk concert thanks to a band called the Natural Born Chillers, and to the vision of buzz-gathering Polish director Radoslaw Rychcik, who kicked off his career assisting Krystian Lupa. (Solitude was seen in September in L.A. and Portland, and plays early this month at Seattle's On the Boards before landing in Vancouver.) The punk theme continues in Hard Core Logo: Live, based on the Michael Turner novel and subsequent mockumentary (think This Is Spinal Tap) about the downward spiral of a punk band. The musical-theatre adaptation is co-produced by the Canadian companies November Theatre, Theatre Network and Touchstone Theatre. And Peter Panties, written by Niall McNeil and Marcus Youssef for co-production between Leaky Heaven and Neworld Theatre, irreverently imagines a collision among the fictional creations of classic literature and pop culture. (Jan. 18–Feb. 6; 604-605-8284; www.pushfestival.ca)
The Red Shoes: England's Kneehigh Theatre and director Emma Rice, who charmed audiences abroad and on Broadway with the Noël Coward adaptation Brief Encounter, are touring a grimmer tale, marketed to "brave children" (and non-squeamish adults). The Red Shoes, a revival of a decade-old production, played Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse in November; it crosses the world to Australia's Sydney Festival this month before a spring berth at London's Battersea Arts Centre.
Rice cannily allows the viewer's imagination to do the heavy lifting in this twisted fable. A crucial, gory scene takes place out of sight, yet induces cringes of horror. Patrycja Kujawska, in the central role of a young girl, never says a word as she careens from liberation to desperation. But her expression of agony, when her stylishly clad feet force her literally to dance on her mother's grave, is graphic enough to raise goosebumps. (Sydney: Jan. 18–30; London: March 2–April 9; (44) 1872-267910; www.kneehigh.co.uk)