Tokyo-based physical theatre company tarinainanika are preparing for their Camden Fringe debut of Tokyo Fugue, a mesmerising piece of physical theatre about feeling lost, set in the maze-like train system of Tokyo. We spoke to artistic director Tania Coke about the dangers of drowning out the voices of our bodies and how corporeal mime can help – plus Japan vs England, escaping management consultancy and returning to where it all started, the Cockpit theatre!
You are on a train. You are searching for someone. You fall asleep. In your dream, you are on a train. You are searching for someone…
With three bodies, three chairs, a collage of English and Japanese text, a lullaby, a fugue and some train sounds, it conjures up the dizzying experience of life in a modern metropolis. The audience is left breathless and wondering: what is it, after all, that I am chasing?
The scenes unfold like the variations of a fugue, in sequences of meticulously crafted movement. With three bodies and three chairs, a collage of Japanese and English text, a lullaby, a fugue and some train sounds, Tokyo Fugue conjures up the breathless experience of life in a modern metropolis. At times poetic, at times comical, at times unsettling, this is theatre that speaks to the soul.
Talking to… Tania Coke
Tania Coke is the artistic director of tarinainanika, a physical theatre company specialising in the art of corporeal mime. Tania and her husband and co-artistic director Kentaro Suyama perform their original creations at festivals and venues across Japan and teach regular classes and workshops in the expressive power of the body.
How did Tokyo Fugue come about?
Tokyo Fugue began as an experiment. Up until then, tarinainanika creations were mainly duets (involving Kentaro and me). By bringing in a third actor, Toshihiko Nishimura – with his experience ranging from Rakugo (Japanese comic story-telling) to classical and modern theatre repertoire – the physical and vocal possibilities multiplied exponentially. The ‘content’ of the piece (the themes of feeling lost, searching, sleep, trains) didn’t come until later. Once the idea of fugue had emerged as a way to tie everything together, we then had to tackle the biggest job of creating a coherent structure – which largely involved throwing things away.
What we want to do with this piece is to touch people. The main theme of the show is universal: the search for meaning and identity amid the distractions of everyday life. But following the tradition of corporeal mime, the theme isn’t what matters most in our creations. When I hear the music of Bach, I am moved by the perfection and harmony of his composition. It resonates with my longing for harmony in an imperfect, unharmonious world. Tokyo Fugue is our best attempt so far to create harmony through theatrical form, and in particular, through the presence and action of three bodies on stage.
You studied PPE at Oxford: that’s quite a change!
When I was little, I was obsessed with dance; I was perfectly sure that I had been put on this planet to be a dancer. At the age of ten, I took the entrance exam for the Junior Royal Ballet School and failed. My little heart broke. I put away my dreams and did what everyone seemed to think I should do. I wound up as a management consultant, after studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University.
Then one day I picked up a flyer for a weekend workshop at The International School of Corporeal Mime. On a whim, I signed up. And that was it. I was smitten. My wonderful boss agreed to my request for a semi-sabbatical: I went part-time for three months so I could investigate this “art of the thinking body”. Three months turned into three years, at which point, I finally quit my consulting career to focus on what mattered to me most.
What was it like moving to Japan from London?
Moving to Japan – like choosing Corporeal Mime – didn’t feel like a decision. I was just following my nose. During my time at the International School of Corporeal Mime and the Theatre de l’Ange Fou, I fell in love with a man who happened to be Japanese. After 18 years in the UK, most of which was spent doing Corporeal Mime, Kentaro decided he wanted to go back to Japan, taking with him Corporeal Mime… and me! Moving to the other side of the world had never been in my game-plan, but given all the changes that had happened in my life, it suddenly made sense to leave behind everything familiar and be forced to relate to people through the language of the body.
Do you find there’s a difference between Japanese & British theatre?
Japan has its own unique forms of stylised physical theatre, such as Noh and Kabuki. But strangely, beyond these traditions, the genre of physical theatre isn’t well developed. This is something we long to change. It’s our dream to set up an international physical theatre festival in Japan, and involve artists from the UK and around the world.
How did tarinainika come about?
What else would we do? Between us, Kentaro and I had received 21 years of inspiration and wisdom from our teachers, Steven Wasson and Corinne Soum. tarinainanika is our way of passing it on. For the last eight years, we have been creating and performing in theatres, studios, temples, shrines, universities and offices across Japan, and teaching Corporeal Mime to artists as well as business people, students and the general public.
tarinainika’s work is about freeing the body to communicate in a world where machines communicate for us. Is that right?
Actually, it’s not only machines that are drowning out the voice of the body. As a management consultant, when I was preparing for a client presentation, I agonised over each word, I fussed over the layout of each Powerpoint slide, I even made conscious decisions about what to wear. But it didn’t occur to me to think about what I was expressing through the way I stood or moved my arms. And yet, I had spent my childhood dancing in the trees and giving impromptu performances in living rooms and kitchens.
By my mid-20s, the desire to express myself physically had been conditioned out of me. My body had become lazy and unimaginative, my physicality squished between the confines of social convention and personal habit. And I don’t think my story is unique. It seems to be the norm in our modern urban society. From adolescence onwards, while verbal skills are expanding, physical expression starts to deteriorate. And it’s probably happening even earlier than that, now that children are hooked on digital devices from such a young age.
“From adolescence onwards, while verbal skills are expanding, physical expression starts to deteriorate.”
But don’t misunderstand me. I love words! And I love my trusty computer which is allowing me to communicate with you right now. I just want the best of both worlds. And I believe it’s possible.
Do you think theatre can help us?
Art leads the way for social change. There is already a resurgence of physical expression in the performing arts. There are so many physical theatre and dance theatre companies out there today, compared to the past. Our role, as artists, is to go beyond conventional forms of expression. Through training, we can, over time, break out of personal habits too. This artistic progress will have a ripple effect through the rest of society. So all is not lost for the expressive power of the human body!
Corporeal Mime, with its structured stylised technique, is at the forefront of this development. It opened my eyes to possibilities I could not have imagined in my days as a management consultant. I like to believe that in 100 years’ time, human beings will be able to express themselves and relate to one another better than they do today, thanks to art-forms such as Corporeal Mime.
You’re returning to the Cockpit ten years after your first solo show. How does that feel?
Kentaro and I trained and began our careers in London at the International School of Corporeal Mime and Theatre de l’Ange Fou. It is very exciting to be sharing our work back in the UK after eight years on the other side of the world. For me personally, it is particularly exciting to be performing at The Cockpit, where I did my first solo show, Camille Claudel, in 2008.
It feels like coming full circle. (Although I hope it’s a spiral – spiralling closer and closer towards the ideal…) I’m also thrilled to be participating in Camden Fringe for the first time. Camden was at one time a big part of my life. I was a community mediator for Camden Mediation Service for many years and used to live on the Kentish Town Road. Both Kentaro and I hope, through our participation in the Camden Fringe, to contribute to the flow of ideas and energy across the globe. We’re grateful to all the people and organisations that have helped to make this tour possible
Book a place on tarinainanika’s open workshop at the Cockpit on 31 August. Sign up for the UK-Japan Artists’ Networking Event at Daiwa Foundation on 29 August. Find out more about the company’s crowdfunding campaign, Tokyo Fugue and the Universal Language of the Body.