As we head towards the 2030s, multiply world standards! — For Tokyo Festival World Competition 2019—

Yoshiji Yokoyama
Director of Tokyo Festival World Competition

The first edition of Tokyo Festival World Competition will be held from October 29 to November 4, 2019. It is my hope that this Competition acts as a gateway for launching artists – especially next-generation Asian artists – to a successful worldwide career in the Performing Arts. That’s why I want to ask you to join us — you, directors, playwrights, choreographers, actors, performers, dramaturgs, curators, programmers, producers, administrators, technical creators and staff, critics, journalists, scholars, researchers, students working on and for Performing Arts, and evidently the audience who support Performing Arts activities every day, as well as anybody who is thinking about the future of arts and our society.

But I guess I need to explain a bit more of my intention so that you understand why I made this Competition in order to think about the future of Performing Arts. If you are curious, please take some time to read the following…

>Why is it difficult to present Asian Contemporary Performing Arts?

I have been working as programmer for the World Theatre Festival Shizuoka for more than ten years, and every year, I feel the difficulty to program Asian contemporary works. Often my colleagues would say: “It’s interesting, but it’s not easy to get audience.” And finally, we always end up with more European works than Asians. Why does this happen? I think this is because both Japanese audience and producers are so accustomed to European frameworks, that it’s not easy to evaluate Asian contemporary works. The framework of “theatre” or “contemporary dance” itself, is very European — but we integrated this kind of “World Standard” in our “modern” culture (we’ll get back to this subject later). In Asia, we are keen to present European artists. But it’s not really vice versa (although there are more and more Asian artists in European festivals).

So, in order for Asian artists to work more globally, we have to question this “World Standard” itself. In a parallel world where India had colonized UK, the world standard of performing arts (?) would be very different. But even if we Asians make a new standard which enables us to better evaluate Asian works, it would not in fact help Asian artists work more globally. If this new standard is not something which all the others are willing to join, it cannot be a new world standard. So, how can we make an opportunity to reconsider the world standard, along with people from all over the world?

Here, I remembered that the Greek tragedies were presented in a form of competition. This was a system of constantly questioning the criteria of evaluation itself.

>Why a competition?

Some of you may be thinking, why a competition, why now? You may also remember that there used to be Art Competitions in the Olympics, which were eventually canceled because some claimed that the scoring criteria was ambiguous. Most people would agree that there is no single scale for measuring the value of a piece of art. I too agree with this statement. However, in this case, it is this very “scale” that I wish to make the object of competition. 

These days, as people move on-end throughout an ever-changing world where new values are born every day, the topic of “how do we get along with the multitudes of people with even more diverse values” will continue to gain attention. At the same time, I also feel that we are currently developing a system that allows one to go through life without having to deal with those who have different values than their own, and that the world is gradually being blanketed by a sort of relativism that essentially prohibits the agreement of individual preference, i.e., “you like that, and I like this.” I cannot help but feel that we are losing something in exchange for the liberty of choosing only what we want to see.

It is said that the French Revolution was brought on by a culture of viewing the same theatre acts and artwork together, and conversing over it. In sharing opinions, one must not only put their thoughts to words, but also show respect for the other’s point of view. By doing so, this creates a certain shared, inclusive value (which can involve more people), due to the ability to talk with one another and say “I liked this because so and so…” Take the Great Dionysia for instance, the large festival in ancient Athens—comparable to the Olympics—where citizens, all with different values, gathered to view a competition of tragedies and comedies and debated over them. The winning piece received an award, and was kept for future generations in the temple as an expression of the long cultivated values among the people. These pieces and debates went on to become the foundation of Western theatre. I don’t think it’s a very common thing for ordinary people to have thorough debates about the good and bad of religious rites and ceremonies. It may have been thanks to this particular unique characteristic of ancient Greek theatre that secured its place in our history books.

>Question the “World Standard” to prepare our 2030s

Now should be a good time to question the “World Standard”. It is said that in the 2020s, the center of the world economy will undoubtedly shift to Asia — or rather return to Asia after two centuries. Are we ready? Are we thrilled?

We, Asian performing arts practitioners, have been so accustomed to integrating European standards into our work for these one or two centuries, but the European frameworks are trembling and will continue to change form for the next few decades. Asian networks, on the other hand, have been developing for some time now and will also continue to do so.

In what framework will the people of the 22nd century discuss what we are doing today? I think that our actions from the present to the 2030s will decide this framework. I also think that this framework will not necessarily be considered as ‘Theatre History’ or ‘Performing Arts History.’

Some of you may think that the notion of “theatre” is soon to reach its expiration date. The very notion of theatre (théâtre, Theater, etc.) was formed between the 16th century and the 19th century in Western Europe, and it was more or less around this time period—especially through the 19th century—that the center of the world economy moved from Asia into Europe and North America.

In the same period, three genres of Performing Arts were institutionalized in Western Europe as parts of infrastructure and of the education system: theatre, dance and opera. In this system, the notion of theatre is defined by the exclusion of dancing and singing, and therefor the idea of “theatre” is not always applicable to those of other cultures such as Asian ones.

The notion of “Performing Arts” also includes the modern European notion of “arts”, with their classified “genres”. Influenced especially by Asian practices, Richard Schechner, theatre director and professor emeritus of New York University, proposed the idea of Performance Studies, which pertains not only to Performing Arts, but performance in general. 

What global frameworks are to be chosen in the 22nd century will also depend on what terms non-Western cultures like China, India or Indonesia will choose to use in the upcoming decades.  

One of the obstacles we must deal with when thinking about a non-Western performing arts framework is the connection between so-called “traditional” or “folk” arts and nationalism. As the framework for Western performing arts became a global one, most of the elements fostered in the local history of non-Western countries, more often than not, were contained to more “traditional” categories—as opposed to the “modern” or “contemporary” arts of the West—and were associated with anti-westernization/colonization ideology and/or nationalism. But in reality, the act of men and women using their physical bodies as a form of expression is -and always will be – both local and contemporary. Furthermore, it has become a form of media that—also due to its scale—neither conforms to, nor fits the framework of the 20th century notion of “country” or “nation” that has been established through today’s mass-media. The time is ripe for us to take another look at what we see as “local and contemporary” in non-Western areas. 

On the other hand, history and/or the world dwells within our bodies, here and now. As we continue to enclose the world and history into digital space, if we do so to a point where we begin to lose ourselves/our humanity, along with this, we will lose both our world and history as well. If we continue our current state—i.e., the competition between the powers of capital and nationalism in digital space—it is safe to say that our technology of physical bodies facing and interacting with each other directly will become a rare and invaluable thing.

>What we can do, starting in Tokyo, in Japan

It is not too late to begin thinking about this. It will take a bit more time to rethink the framework of Performing Arts. These next few years, from now to the 2030s, including whether or not we will be able to do our part here in Tokyo, will prove crucial.

Why Tokyo? The metropolis has certain historical particularities and strongpoints. Over the past two centuries, Tokyo has been the center for Japanese performing arts activities such as Kabuki, which intricately blended popular culture with sophisticated culture – one example of the diverse accumulation of art and culture that has traversed from the Eurasian continent to Japan over the centuries – on a level that is not in the least inferior to other Asian regions. And after that, we have the 150 years of unique history (somehow the longest in Asia) of acclimatization to Western theatre culture, while referring to Kabuki, Noh or Bunraku as “Japanese theatre”. In today’s world, we do not have enough opportunities to share and talk about these experiences with other parts of the world. It is a pity both for the people of Japan and of the world.

>Tokyo Festival World Competition 2019

At Tokyo Festival World Competition 2019, we will be competing theatrical performances that entail human bodies and their individual crafted “technology” that is, the stage. We have asked festivals directors from five different regions throughout the world—Asia, Oceania, Europe, Africa and Americas—to recommend artists/collectives, from each of those regions, who are not yet well known internationally, but will be important in 2030s (and I allowed myself to recommend a Japanese collective).  

We also invite important artists from each region to judge who will receive the award for Best Work, Best Performer, and Best Staff. The performance that receives the award for Best Work will be performed again in the festival the following year. Furthermore, we invite Japanese-speaking specialists of performing arts from each region to decide the recipient of the Critic’s Award. We have also created the Audience Award where the viewers vote for their favorite performance. 

Through this Competition, with you all, we wish to create a platform to discuss the future of Performing Arts—a future that may prove to be different from anything we can imagine. But no need to fear. Our collective thinking and sensibility can lead us towards a more intelligent and less exclusive future. It should be the most important role of what we call Performing Arts now. Please come to join us in Tokyo this October!