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Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012

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Lady in red: Mayumi Kagita, one of the most famous flamenco dancers in Japan, performs in "Kanki — The Rising Sun in Rhythm of Jerez" at Theater Villamarta in Jerez, Spain, in November 2005. MIGUEL ANGEL GONZALEZ

CLOSE-UP: Mayumi Kagita

A fusion of cultures revealed in dance

Staff writer

On Nov. 19, the Pit hall of the New National Theatre, Tokyo, in Shibuya, was filled with hundreds of eager theater-goers. They had come to see a performance of "Onna Goroshi Abura no Jigoku" ("The Women-Killer and the Hell of Oil"), a play written by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724) — Japan's greatest dramatist, known for his kabuki and traditional bunraku puppet works. For this version of the play, however, the performance was to be far from traditionally Japanese.

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Kagita during her interview with The Japan Times. SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO

In the NNTT show, Mayumi Kagita, one of Japan's most famous flamenco dancers, and her husband, choreographer and director Hiroki Sato, took the well known play and created a fusion of kabuki and flamenco, which was staged by the couple's Arte y Solera dance company.

Kagita herself convincingly played the male lead — the villainous Kawachiya Yohei — by dancing in a powerful, masculine style. Accompanied by Spanish guitar, songs and percussion, Kagita strutted across the stage like a prancing stallion, showing her marvelous zapateado — the flamenco technique whereby dancers create rhythm by stomping or tapping their feet.

However, though Kagita's interpretation of the passionately wild male character of Yohei showed her flexibility as a dancer, she normally plays female roles. In an earlier performance she took on the role of the heroine in "Flamenco: Sonzaki Shinju" (Flamenco: The Love Suicide at Sonezaki"), another play based on one of Chikamatsu's representative works.

"Sonezaki Shinju" is based on an actual incident and is popular for its tragic tale of an ill-fated romance between a shop clerk and a prostitute who had no choice but to kill themselves in order to be together forever. The Arte y Solera version of the story was first shown to the public in Tokyo in 2001, and the remarkable blend of traditional Japanese and Spanish performing arts achieved great success — winning second prize in the Theater Category of the Japanese government's Agency for Cultural Affairs Arts Festival in 2001.

In 2004, "Flamenco: The Love Suicide at Sonezaki" was further honored by being the first official performance of a foreign dance group at the Festival de Jerez flamenco festival in Jerez, Spain, the birthplace of flamenco.

Following on from that successful mix of Japanese drama and Spanish dance, in 2010, Kagita and Sato created a flamenco show based on another traditional Japanese performing art. This time basing it on "Dojoji," a tragic love story written by Kanze Kojiro Nobumitsu in the 15th century and one of the most well-known masterpieces performed as a noh play.

In early December, Kagita, the now 46-year-old flamenco dancer and instructor of Spanish dance, spoke to The Japan Times about her creative process from her studio in Tokyo, a few weeks before heading back to Jerez in Spain, her second home.

When did you start dancing?

Since I was small, I danced whenever I listened to music at home. But, I actually began to learn dancing when I was 6. Some of my friends had started taking modern ballet lessons, and they showed me their leotards. I thought, "I want to wear that!" So, I asked my parents if I could visit the dance studio in Shimokitazawa (Tokyo). They said yes. When I saw my friends dancing, I couldn't sit quietly! And I began dancing in my usual clothes.

Did you continue taking modern ballet lessons throughout childhood?

Yes. When I was an elementary school student, I went to lessons after school.

In junior high, what did you do as an extracurricular activity?

I established a dance club in the school. At the same time, I adored acting and entered a theater company for children named "Gekidan Iroha."

Did you continue to enjoy the dance club and modern dance lessons when you were in high school?

No, actually. I started going to discos after school. I kept it a secret from my parents (laughs). I was a bad girl! I went to discos in Shibuya and Shinjuku with my friends from the theater company. Some were actually in Kabukicho (Tokyo's adult-entertainment district, in Shinjuku).

How did you hide that from your parents?

I lied to them, saying "I am going to stay at my friend's house." Some people imagine that my reason for going to that kind of place was to hunt boys. But I went there to dance.

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Taking the right steps: Twenty-five-year-old Kagita (left) performs at a Spanish restaurant in Shinjuku, Tokyo, in 1991. MAYUMI KAGITA PHOTO

What kind of music was playing there at the time?

Michael Jackson and other soul music. Earth, Wind & Fire was very popular, too. It was around late the 1970s, early 80s.

I read in an article that you were influenced by the movie "Saturday Night Fever." Is that true?

Yes. The film triggered the disco boom in the United States, which spread to Japan. I was dancing to that kind of music. Dancing on a dancefloor was a different kind of fun from that in the studio. With modern ballet, I tried to dance beautifully. It was healthy and sound. At the disco, if my dancing wasn't any good, nobody watched me. But, if I danced well and I looked attractive, people watched me. It was thrilling and exciting!

After graduating from high school, you entered the dance department of Japan Women's Junior College of Physical Education. Did you choose that college to make dancing your career?

I hadn't decided that then. I didn't have a subject I felt I was good at. But I had to select something to study. So I continued dancing.

In college, what kind of dance did you learn?

I learned various dance styles. I took classes in Japanese traditional dance, pantomime, modern dance, classic ballet, and rhythmic gymnastics.

When did you first discover flamenco?

I encountered it in a class of Spanish dance. Before that, I'd seen flamenco on TV. But I saw the dance live for the first time in that class. It was taught by a Ms. Keiko Sato.

What was your first impression of flamenco?

Ms. Sato was so skinny but she stomped the floor and made such a big sound. I was surprised by the impact of her dance. I had never seen that way of beating the floor with your feet.

In ballet, dancers never make a sound with their steps. Is that right?

Yes. When they dance the audience rarely notices the dancers landing after a jump. They are required to be light on their feet and land on the floor quietly.

Is Ms. Sato's class why you became so interested in Spanish dance?


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