Yoshiko Swain, Fukuoka Dance Fringe Festival Artistic Director
Interview by Matt Perkins
Yoshiko Swain directs several dance festivals in Fukuoka including the upcoming Fukuoka Dance Fringe Festival. She is also the founder of Co.D.Ex, a non-profit organization which provides financial support for fringe dance in Fukuoka. We talked about Japanese contemporary dance, the Fukuoka Dance Fringe Festival, and her work as a producer.
Yoshiko Swain is modest about the role she plays in organizing some of Fukuoka’s most exciting dance festivals. She often breaks off to tell me instead about a colleague or another performer or speaker on the Fukuoka Dance Fringe Festival flyer. It is an impressive list. ‘Hear the voice of Thanatos’ features Norihito Ishii, who has only just finished performing with the world famous Sankai Juku in Kitakyushu. Kwong Wailap, a renowned Chinese festival director, will be speaking in English at an event on Sunday (2/3). The program also includes performers from Seoul, Beijing, and Holland as well as from cities across Japan.
The festival certainly expresses a little of the character of its creator; her desire to gather talented people together, her infectious enthusiasm for dance and perhaps her unconventional relationship with international dance. Born in Fukuoka, Yoshiko has trained in London, Paris and New York. She has two large posters of Pina Bausch, the renowned German dancer, hanging in her studio. She learnt a great deal of her technique from the wife of a former French Institute Director in Fukuoka and speaks English with a faint French accent. Yoshiko marvels that, fifteen years ago, people in Japan had no idea what contemporary dance was. Contemporary dance, she explains, is an expression of the body – unlike other modern forms there really are no rules. Cutting vegetables, concentrating on repetitive tasks, working in a department store, all of these are ‘techniques’ of the body that help us to function in society. Unlike many Japanese dancers, she had no one teacher so no one whom she had to ask permission when she wanted to do her own thing. She started the Fukuoka Dance Fringe Festival to provide young and more seasoned performers alike with a no-pressure environment to exchange approaches and ideas. This year, she has been amazed with the quality of the performers and doubly surprised that, even though she couldn’t always gather the money together to fund travel costs, many artists have returned to Fukuoka regardless.
One entry from Seoul, ‘I owe you an Apology’ has won a highly prestigious award which allowed its performers exemption from army service. In trying to explain why the Korean dance scene is so vibrant, she describes the country’s dangerous position and the need to express something of that fear in contemporary dance. More down-to-earth, and a little cynically, she points out that the South-Korean government funds a lot of art in order to send a message: their country is up to date, sophisticated and unafraid. Dance does not have this kind of financial or official support in Japan, nor is it a country with a thriving performing arts department in every university. But Japan is fragile, Yoshiko feels, where hikikomori shut-ins and teenage suicide are frustrated expressions of a general failure to talk. Today, more than ever, understanding the body is crucial. From last year, the government suggested an hour of dance time at many Junior High Schools. Of course, she says, some children might tap into the real power of dance in these small windows. We all know deep down, she explains, that ‘the body is wise’. But hip-hop classes, while they might be a start, are not the way forward.
She has come to believe in a break from dance as a straight transaction, where one pays money to receive entertainment. She has a lot of respect for professional dancers and companies but contemporary dance, the kind on offer at the Fukuoka Dance Fringe Festival, is not really entertainment. It doesn’t sell ‘joy’ or ‘dreams’. It feels to her far more radical. It might make you change direction, quit your job and start over.
Working as a dancer has taught Yoshiko Swain that most people spend their lives trying very hard to live a little better. Yoshiko Swain is definitely no exception to this rule. She pours a great deal of her own money into these projects and into her organization Co.D.Ex. She is certainly putting immense amounts of time and effort into creating environments for performers and audiences alike to collaborate, study and communicate.
The Fukuoka Dance Fringe Festival runs from 2.2 (Sat) ~ 2.3 (Sun).
I studied English Language and Literature at Oxford University and am currently studying Japanese at the Japan University of Economics in Fukuoka. I enjoy writing, directing and watching plays, theatre and dance. I am interested in learning more about Japan’s performing arts. As it can be tricky, especially with elementary Japanese, to track down the best shows I started this guide as a way to help English speakers stay up to date with what’s on. Keep checking the Fukuoka Now blog for up to date information about the performing arts in Fukuoka.