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Thursday, March 2, 2006

TIF pushes theater's borders

Special to The Japan Times

With guest productions from as far afield as Kuwait, Israel, Germany and the United States, this year's 12th annual Tokyo International Arts Festival (TIF) is delivering a challenging program of theater and dance from some of the world's leading dramatists. In doing so, TIF -- held for the first time at the Nishi-Sugamo Arts Factory, a disused junior high school in Toshima Ward -- is living up to the high standards the nonprofit group's selection committee has previously set itself.

News photo
Sulayman Al-Bassam's "Kalila wa Dimna (The Mirror for Princes)" (top) and G.E. Lessing's "Emilia Galotti", directed by Michael Thalheimer, are showing at this year's TIF.
News photo

In 1999, the festival's bill brought together "The Man Who" from Briton Peter Brook -- one of the world's most important contemporary directors -- and "Dancing at Lughnasa" by his daughter, Irina. In 2002, TIF hosted the Japanese debut of the Berliner Ensemble in a violent, avant-garde version of Shakespeare's "Richard II" by director Claus Peymann. In 2004, the festival broadened its horizon with a "Program from the Middle East and Eastern Europe," that included productions from Kuwaiti, Lebanese and Palestinian dramatists whose work has rarely been seen in Japan.

After last year's provocative and cynical revision of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" by avant-garde German dramatist Frank Castorf of the Volksbuhne theater company, TIF looks again at original material from the United States in 2006. Explaining the return to the source of many foreign productions in Japan, TIF Director Sachio Ichimura says in the program "The United States is isolated in the art community today. From 9/11 to the war in Iraq, the U.S. government has pursued its hard line despite the will of many American artists, leading the artists to further isolation. But even if Bush's government is disliked by the rest of the world, American artists should not be considered likewise."

To open the festival, TIF selected four new American plays out of 1,000 submissions and staged collaborative read-throughs with Japanese actors and directors. "Mayhem," written by Kelly Stewart in 2000, concerned an ordinary American housewife who questions the values presented daily by the news media, while 2005's "Act a Lady" by Jordan Harrison portrayed characters who were exploring gender issues.

But TIF has not abandoned its interest in the Middle East. This year, it invited back Kuwait-born, English-educated Sulayman Al-Bassam, whose "The Al-Hamlet Summit" -- Shakespeare's "Hamlet" set in an Arab dictatorship -- was well received at TIF 2004. The 33-year-old Al-Bassam is premiering his latest work, "Kalila wa Dimna (The Mirror for Princes)" (in English with Japanese subtitles). "Kalila wa Dimna" is based on a famous Middle Eastern fable about the eighth-century confrontation between the moderate Arab world and expansionist Islam. Sure to be controversial, the question is how will Al-Bassam handle the currently hot issue of the coexistence of different religious viewpoints in the Middle East?

In TIF's dance lineup for 2006, leading Israeli choreographer 32-year-old Yasmeen Godder brings "Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder" after its successful run in Europe. In the dance, four casually dressed women and three male dancers perform a non-stop series of stylized and disjointed movements that Godder says were inspired by newsreel footage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- the dancers are contorted grotesquely by bomb blasts, dragged like dead bodies across the stage, use their hands as guns and finally end up stripped of their outer garments as if to show that beneath it all we are the same.

In the last major foreign staging of the festival, Deutsche Theater, formerly in East Germany, makes its Japanese debut with a reworking of "Emilia Galotti" by the 18th-century German dramatist and critic G.E. Lessing. Originally an examination of the tragic consequences of class differences between masters and servants, 40-year-old Michael Thalheimer transposes the play's themes to a capitalist world in which the same issues of human nature that concerned Lessing are every bit as alive (in German with Japanese subtitles).

With guts and imagination, TIF 2006 has put together a compelling event that allows audiences to see the world from unexpected vantages.

"Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder" runs till March 4 and "Kalila wa Dimna (The Mirror for Princes)" runs March 10-16, both at the Nishi-Sugamo Arts Factory, a 2-minute walk from Nishisugamo Station on the Toei Mita subway Line. "Emilia Galotti" runs March 21-29, at the Saitama Arts Center, an 8-minute walk from Yonohonmachi Station on the Saikyo line, a 30-minute train ride from JR Ikebukuro Station. For more details, call (03) 5961-5202 or visit www.tif.anj.or.jp

Nobuko Tanaka welcomes readers comments at nobukoipj@hotmail.com

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