Ten Days in Japan

By Ruth Grauert

December 10–22, 2009

I had found Susan Buirge on Google. I remembered her with fondness from the Nikolais Company of the 1960s. Back then she and I had spent hours together in the archives, preserving the bits and pieces of information, reviews, etc. on Nik and his works that were stashed here and there.

And I remembered a performance piece that she had presented at the Martinique Theater—with many television screens surrounding the audience, displaying the live performance, and even a freshly cut flower for the ticket. I found that she has had an impressive record since immigrating to France in 1970, directing schools and projects with grants from the French government. She had written and published several erudite volumes, having several grants and commissions that not only gave her access to dance around the Mediterranean and the Far East but also for choreographic works that reflected her growing interest in indigenous dance. Since her residency in Kyoto and its follow up over several years, she is now residing in a small town in Shimane Prefecture on the west coast of Japan, where the Shimane Prefecture Foundation for Cultural Promotion partners with the National Choreographic Centre of Tours, France, in promoting her work.

The kagura performance we saw near the town of Takachiho
Photo: Susan Buirge

Susan has set up a research project called Plateforme to examine the choreographic processes of the Kagura and what might be its potential influence on contemporary choreography. Kagura is a sacred artistic rite performed when making an offering to the spirits. Usually per­formed annually or even less frequently, the spirits are invited to occupy the sacred area and are worshiped with performances of music, song and dance. The kagura is performed by men only. In the town where we went to see a kagura, in Takachiho in Miyazaki Prefecture on the island of Kyushu, the boys study this dance in grade school. When they are older and if they elect to continue dancing, they are apprenticed to the performing group. At a small restaurant where we had dinner the men we talked with assured us that they could all do the dances that we were about to witness. As part of her project, Susan has conducted a workshop for dancers connecting the kagura process and modern dance composition and will do so again in September 2010.

We went to Kyoto. In the stone gardens, rocks and boulders are placed in stark design and are surrounded with marble chips that are raked in an exact pattern which, along with the fact that they are retraced every morning by devotees, were of particular interest to Susan. The structures are reflected in guided waters. Drooping tree limbs are supported by all kinds of props. The deep moss understory in the forests is a product of the humid climate, the notched and carved beam construction of roofs the product of careful craftsmanship. The Phoenix Bird is the weather vane silhouetted against the skies. All of these come from a human depth that can be felt. And what can be felt can be transferred to motion, should we give ourselves permission. Perhaps this is what Susan is after—the creation of dance from what is. She has sought the source of motion in kagura—and found it to be the pull of Earth.

Japan!! What remains with me? It is clean. The taxis have the seats covered with white crocheted covers in the manner of antimacassars. I picked up what I considered a piece of trash, a rumpled candy wrapper. “Don’t do that. Someone must have placed it there for a purpose.” Susan’s garbage is in three parts as ours is. She must put it in labeled bags and deposit it in the municipal bins at the foot of her street. If it is not properly sorted, it is put in a return bin, with a note telling her that it is not proper: a disgrace, for the bags are there for all the neighbors to see.

I noted some people wearing breath protectors over nose and mouth. In one family of four, one child and one parent wore a mask, the others did not. So I asked about this: “The Japanese sense of responsibility: those who feel ill wear the mask to protect others.”

The important signs are bilingual, Japanese and English, a reminder of the long years of U.S. occupation.

It is beautiful and cared for. Crowded living quarters in the cities are clean, of course, and graced with icons, tiny Buddhas and the like, in surprising places (shed roof tops) with flowering plants in all kinds of planters. Aging trees are propped in all manner of ways until they really die. Aging people are revered. When we finally reached Susan’s village, her office executive, Tamaki, and her family hosted us for dinner. They were sure Susan did not know how to care for me and gave her very specific instructions. People I met on the street bowed. The Japan airlines put an identification tag on my jacket and a small stewardess escorted me, carrying my carry-ons from checkin to my seat on the plane. Then I made sure I displayed that identification at the airport to board United for the USA. And I am glad I did. After waiting for eight hours the flight was canceled. Another stewardess carried my carry-ons to and fro, made sure I got transportation to the airline’s supplied hotel, and wrote (in English) instructions as to what to do after she left me.

Susan’s home is in Kamate, a fishing village eight hours by train south of Osaka in the southern section of the island of Honshu. There, there is a hot spring. A traditional (i.e., with floor mats for beds) hotel, which has no tourist trade, has diverted the hot spring to baths that overlook the Sea of Japan toward South Korea. The townspeople (including Susan) are privileged to use it during certain hours. How glorious to sit in a hot bath and look out over ragged rocks to a tossing sea with an occasional snowflake thrown in!

Despite the temperature (not unlike ours here in the Northeast USA), there were hillsides covered with wild blooming narcissus, and in Susan’s dooryard red camelia trees just coming into bloom. Everything is damp; undoubtedly this influences the vegetation, as the maples were still red and many deciduous trees still in leaf. And moss, wonderful moss, covering the floor of the forests. I saw no koi, no goldfish. We speculated that they had all been taken in for the winter.

Tamaki’s uncle drove us for an hour or so to a main train station where we boarded a train for the village on the Island of Kyushu where we were to attend a kagura, another all-day trip. Folding hills, terraced rice paddies, forests and streams, and towns, large and small, rushed by like a kaleidoscope. It is said that the warming global climate may put an end to extensive rice farming, as Japanese rice needs a period of cold. And as in many cultures, the young seek work in the city, leaving no one to work the family fields.

We settled into the hotel in the small town of Takachiho, ate at a local bar where we westerners (Susan and I) made a hit with the gentlemen diners. We went up into the hills the next afternoon to see some of the kagura. (This was the story part of it, which was not the part that interested Susan. She wished to view abstract dance.)

That evening about 6:00, Tamaki bought three bottles of Sake, which were our tickets to the main event in consideration of Susan’s status as a digitary. We taxied up to the performing area, a traditional roofed pavilion. We were early and were able to seat ourselves near a post (we brought chairs as we knew I could not sit on the forestage as the audience did). The town dignitaries (mayor and councilmen, I presume) sat on stage right, drummers and flute player on stage left. Dancers entered between the seated dignitaries.

This was the abstract dance that Susan relished. The dancers were beautifully and heavily costumed, faces sometimes masked. Properties ranged from supposed knives and swords to vines and sticks. Most of the dances were quartets, but one had as many as eight dancers. There were several solos. The age range of the dancers seemed to be mid-twenties to late eighties. The performance was casual. Costumes were adjusted on stage. When an octogenarian fumbled, a younger dancer “fixed” the problem. Movement was up out of the earth, and one of the dancers whom Susan said was a rice farmer (all of the performers are townsmen, and Susan’s designation of him as a rice farmer is speculative and romantic) was truly magnificent. At about nine o’clock the audience had grown to standing room, six or so rows deep before the forestage. And someone complained that the chair sitters were obstructing their view. I went down from the platform, put on my shoes, and headed for the oil drum where they had a much-needed wood fire burning. Susan cozied closer to a post and remained videoing the proceedings. At about that time dinner was served on stage to all the dignitaries. (The dancers served the dinners.) There were speeches and much bowing.

By then I needed a facility. Susan had said they would be available, but probably Eastern (slits) not Western (seats). I didn’t care. I looked around, saw no signs of anything. To one side was a table where several women were gathered, eating by lantern light. I went up to them and jiggled, the universal language for my need. They consulted. One woman rose and beckoned me to follow. Sure enough a toilet—a Western one with a heated seat. When I emerged, there was my guide who led me to a sink and gave me a paper towel—service in the Kyusha Mountains with the universal Japanese sense of cleanliness.

Back to the kagura, which, between warming up at the drum and peering over the heads of the seated ones, I really took in a great deal. But finally I was too cold and needed to get warm in bed. I found Tamaki. She worked her way to Susan to inform her, and then cabbed me back to the hotel. I went to bed and Tamaki returned to be with Susan. I went to sleep. In the morning I learned that they lasted until 2:30 a.m. when the mime narrative part of the Kagura was to begin.

I do believe Susan showed me not only the obligatory Kyoto but Japan as few Americans see it: a village with one store, a lumber mill, hot spring baths, and a temple on the hill where the bell tolls in the New Year—and a town devoted to ancient ritual and the presentation of it yearly.

Susan has a purpose in living in Japan. She wishes to die in a country that honors Dance.

Photos by Ruth Grauert unless otherwise noted

Ruth at the Golden Palace, Kyoto. Photo: Susan Buirge