When I speak with Russian Tokyo-based photographer Yulia Skogoreva in a cozy coffee shop in the Yoyogi district of the Japanese capital, it becomes apparent very quickly that motion, or bodies in motion to be precise, is what she is essentially invested in. The Muscovite’s ongoing projects with female sumo and contemporary dancers are, for her, much the same in that they celebrate the human body in a series of ritualistic, performance-focused or natural settings and her role is to be a spectator, a probenleiter who probes, pushes and guides the dancer to where they belong.
With a keen interest in contemporary Japanese dance, butoh and ballet, Skogoreva has been involved in performance since before she first arrived in Japan more than a decade ago. “Well, I grew up in Moscow and seeing dance was something very natural there,” says Skogoreva. “My parents always took me to see some performances and I really enjoyed it. I never thought about becoming a dancer myself but I always enjoyed watching dance.”
Skogoreva majored in Japanese Studies with a focus on Japanese Linguistics at Moscow State University so when Japanese contemporary dance troupe Noism came to the Russian capital for a series of performances as part of the Chekhov Festival, she jumped at the chance of being an interpreter for the group. In her fourth year at the time she had already lived in Japan for one year and the attachment and admiration for the country was growing. “When I saw contemporary Japanese dance group Noism for the first time it was mind blowing,” she says. “At the time photography was just a hobby for me but in between the breaks I took some backstage photos—I still have some of them.”
After graduating from Moscow State University, Skogoreva entered the Nippon Photography Institute in Tokyo where she initially studied fashion photography. However, after some time her focus shifted or returned to dance, a discipline that would eventually transfix her and would have a huge impact on her life as a professional photographer. “I realized that I got along better with dancers than fashion models,” says Skogoreva. “I enjoyed them being so natural and flexible. We would frequently meet and do photoshoots together just for fun so by the end of my time at the photo institute I already had quite a big portfolio of dance photography. Even my graduation work was focused on dancers.”
Having graduated the Nippon Photography Institute and gained valuable experience shooting editorial work for publications such as Vogue Singapore, Japan-based dance magazine Alexandre and being confirmed as the official photographer for biannual Japanese dance festival Dance New Air, Skogoreva probed deeper into dance, the critical theory behind it and the intrinsic relationship between dance and architecture, another creative discipline that fascinated Skogoreva since moving to Tokyo. Inspired by dance theorist Rudolf Laban who sees bodies as “living architecture” the Russian creative began combining her intellectual curiosity and admiration for the two artforms.
“For me the human body feels very geometric and I always try to emphasize those body lines and angles,” says Skogoreva. “So the collaboration usually happens when I look for a dancer or know someone or post on my website and people reach out by themselves. I always choose the location—I have a big list of places in my head but it can also be random if I walk and see somewhere nice. So I bring the dancer to the location and ask them to become inspired by what they see and then I give them freedom to move. I follow them with my camera but sometimes I may request that they move faster or slower or little details but mainly they are free to do whatever they feel and I just observe. These photographs are never staged, just captured in the moment. The dancers never pose, they just keep moving. I enjoy this as the dancers are just being natural and they forget about the camera as they are so concentrated on their own dance.”
Our conversation veers, then, to architecture and Skogoreva’s admiration of the work of Japanese architects including Junya Ishigami—and Teppei Fujiwara whose work for Pavilion Tokyo 2021 titled “Street Garden Theater” Skogoreva photographed with a dancer interlocking and interacting and, thus, becoming part of the structure itself. Fujiwara himself is a proponent of architecture as theater and performance, a Hegelian take on the function and classification of art, and this reflects Skogoreva’s work which blurs the lines of photography in that it could seen as dance, art or architecture photography—something that obviously thrills the Moscow native.
Skogoreva’s ongoing online project, “Connection,” sees her travel the world (so far the list includes countries such as Japan, Russia, Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Mexico and Hong Kong) contacting dancers and asking to photograph them in a variety of urban environments. “[this project] explores connections on different levels,” says Skogoreva. “The simplest levels are the lines of architecture and body lines and I put the photos together and I can connect those lines in one. But also the connection between people. The way it happens is that I travel to a new country, often I don’t know anyone there, but I post that I’m looking for dancers in this city and some respond but because the timing is tight we usually only get the chance to meet once on the shoot day. But we are always able to connect even though sometimes we don’t have a mutual spoken language, we create spectacular results. This gives me the power to keep going.”
Critically, during the interview I ask Skogoreva what she learns from photographing dancers and her answer is quite surprising, beautifully poignant and touches very sensitively on the subject of the situation in Ukraine and how art can be used as a process for peace, understanding and perhaps even love:
“The ability to adapt to any kind of situation. And although nowadays I usually only work with individual dancers and not in a group, what inspired me initially was the harmony they achieve when they perform together, the synchronicity, the balance.
“I used to work with some big ballet companies and there you have a big mix of dancers from all over the world and sometimes not everyone can speak English but dance itself is such a powerful language that it connects all the different people. Once they perform together it looks so perfect and creates such an amazing harmony. I think this and dance itself is a representation of peace. The way people can connect through dance…”
We end our conversation on the subject of butoh, the nihilistic and often disturbing Japanese artform which has transfixed both of us for more than a decade. Skogoreva explains she was introduced to butoh in Moscow and once acted as an interpreter for a butoh troupe where she was exposed to the madness and chaos but also to the seminal work of Japanese lensman Eikoh Hosoe and his majestic series “Kamaitachi” which followed founder of butoh Tatsumi Hijikata as he ran amok through a rural town in Japan. Skogoreva comments, “[Hosoe’s work Kamaitachi] was so inspiring and I even did a little homage when I was at the photo institute. So that’s how I learned about butoh and later when I came to Japan I had the chance to photograph some of the butoh dancers and sometimes it was scary because when they are so in character and it’s spiritual. I thought maybe I shouldn’t be there.”
When speaking with Skogoreva about dance and her own art, and the profundities involved in discussing and interpolating art, I’m reminded of the time I interviewed leading butoh visionary Akaji Maro, who runs the acclaimed Dairakudakan troupe in addition to being a legendary actor whose work includes an appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Maro, a curious and eccentric figure leaned over to me and said very quietly, to my question about why humans dance.
“To make amends or compromise with the secret of existence. The irrationality of human existence—the fact that we live and exist is hard—it’s kind of like existentialism. Something similar would be mythology. A lot of communities all over the world have mythologies about gods and why they and we exist. Performance and dance and other art forms are similar. To make amends with the irrationality of existence and how to overcome that and the secret of why we exist and why we are who we are.”
As Skogoreva sits up, puts on her coat and exits the cafe, we say goodbye and she jumps on her bike and cycles through the city, like a dancer nimbly making the next move, watching and learning and putting her next step forward into the unknown.
An exhibition of Yulia Skogoreva’s work, titled “Connection,” runs at Now&Then gallery, Kyōto, from April 30 to May 14, 2023.