Japanese butoh group, Dairakudakan. Image courtesy of the artists

Alive and Barely Kicking

Tokyo's performing arts scene is slowly returning to life

It’s being mooted that Tokyo, and Japan as a whole, escaped the full brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic and its catastrophic effect on the world’s population and global economy. The number of cases is relatively low when compared to Europe and the US, and the number of deaths or serious cases decreasing daily. When Yuriko Koike, Governor of Tokyo, introduced a lockdown in the spring of 2020 the city became a wasteland for a few months with most people working from home and bars, restaurants and retail stores either closed, operating on limited opening hours or completely empty. 

From May, Tokyo started to slowly open up again and the streets, public transport and businesses kickstarting into life once again. Sure, it’s still not back to the normality of previous years but Tokyo has begun to look like its old self again. For live performance industries spring was dire and pretty much no events were held across the city for fear of infections and a dent to their reputations, something which Japanese put a great deal of importance on. 

Major music festivals, such as Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic, were cancelled outright and the ballet and contemporary dance schedule postponed. However, gigs and performances are slowly being reintroduced and music events have begun being held across the city with limited capacity. For ballet and dance, schedules have been planned and the New National Theatre, Tokyo (NNTT) has an autumn program fixed with “Don Quixote,” “NNTT Ballet School Autumn Concert” and “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” planned between October and December. 

New National Theatre Tokyo performs “The Nutcracker.” Image courtesy of NNTT

NNTT, however, announced on September 24th that, “regarding the lifting of Government restrictions on capacity limits on event venues, we now received approval from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to sell additional tickets for Opera ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ballet ‘Don Quixote.’ These seats were previously arranged as empty seats to maintain appropriate social distancing. Tickets for each performance will continue to be sold on the current seating plan with the social distancing arrangement until the additional sales dates are listed. Additional tickets will then be sold for each performance from the first additional sales day onward.” 

Tokyo-based events manager Takahiro Kanazawa, in a recent email interview with Fjord Review says, “The live performance industry has pretty much stopped since the pandemic so it has had a serious effect on those working in this industry as well as artists. Save Our Space is an organization intending to save the art and culture scene in Japan by raising awareness in public by asking the Japanese government for further financial help. The Save Our Space movement started in relation to the Japanese government’s poor strategic measures and subsidies for the art and culture scene, which Save Our Space believes is as important as any other businesses existing in Japan.” 

The Tokyo Ballet has also been required to reschedule its plans for 2020 with performances of “Don Quixote,” “M” choreographed by Maurice Béjart and “The Nutcracker” being held at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan with a revised 50 percent capacity being strictly introduced. The only real positives regarding the situation for dance in Tokyo is that there are actual performances being held and that ballet and dance enthusiasts can actually attend if they wish. This is in stark contrast to other countries such as the United Kingdom or US where theatres have been closed and seasons cancelled since March. 

The only real positives regarding the situation for dance in Tokyo is that there are actual performances being held and that ballet and dance enthusiasts can actually attend if they wish.

When asked what he thought about the future of live performances and events in Tokyo, Kanazawa mentions, “I’m not sure if things will return to normal but I think they will eventually have to. Online streaming was becoming a thing, but not everyone enjoys the online experience the way they enjoyed going to gigs or performances. The experience is so different from seeing the real thing up close.” 

TPAM (Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama), established in 1995, is an annual festival and space where professionals from performing arts industries gather and exchange ideas through performances and meeting programs. It has announced plans for its next edition in early 2021 with organizers stating, “TPAM2021 will be held from February 6 through 14, 2021. Pre-events mainly for local participants will be held at BankART Temporary from late January. Since there isn’t sufficient reason to believe that the ban on entry into Japan will be removed by February 2021, we have to assume that we will have significantly fewer physical attendances from international participants than before. Physical international meetings have been the foundation of TPAM, so it is likely that the programs will be under significant restrictions. But we will try to facilitate involvement in alternative forms or deliver what we want to share via the internet.” 

The ban on entry into Japan has caused chaos for international families, business people and artists scheduled to perform or tour in the country. The Japanese government has recently agreed to open its borders to a few select Asian countries such as Singapore but the outlook for citizens of Australasia, Europe and other continents still looks bleak. 

2020 has been a turbulent year for all industries, with performing arts communities being hit especially hard and seeing little or no support from governments. The Japanese government isn’t an exception and its response to aid theatre, dance and music particularly lacking. With charities and private organizations rallying to help keep these industries alive, only time will tell which performing arts companies survive. And perhaps more importantly, when the pandemic is over (if it ends at all) how many companies will be left standing?

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