Artist Sakurako on her interest in Butoh: “I jumped out of a helicopter into the ocean and that’s how I had to learn to swim”

FONTEZ, better known to the world as SAKURAKO SAN (“cherry blossom girl”), is an artist who introduced Butoh – an avant-garde form of Japanese dance theatre – to Lithuanians.

She started her career in journalism (at that time Inga was known by the name of Kholmogorova) and rediscovered art later in life.

Did you always want to be an artist?

I think there was always a subconscious desire, but the conscious one came much later. Because I was gifted in the arts and had been doing it since I was a child, I wasn’t specifically put in art school. In those days it was like this: you go to art school, then you go to the academy, and that’s how you are programmed to be an artist from the first grade.

Since I was not put on that path (i.e. I was not allowed to go to the Čiurlionis School of Arts), when I graduated from an ordinary school, I didn’t really care where I was going to go, and I went to English Philology, because I liked English language and literature. And number two, I entered journalism.

At that time, I was more interested in being a student than in studying (learning to think critically rather than a particular subject, drinking beer, having friends, having a good time). And the conscious pursuit of becoming an artist, with the whole “what does it take to be an artist” thing, came about in Amsterdam, when I was tired of the double life of doing a job for the money and doing your art.

I needed to decide between this or that, in other words, money or freedom. Then I made a conscious decision that I was no longer eighteen years old and I knew what I wanted. I joined the Gerrit Rietveld Academy of Art, I studied, I gave myself the strength and the time to work for myself, to do what I want to do.

What has been your journey as a journalist?

I started working as a journalist at the end of my first year. I wrote as a freelancer for Respublica, back in the days when it was one of the main daily newspapers, just after the death of Vitas Lingis. Soon I was offered a post, and without thinking I accepted. My mother, after the loss of my father, was unable to support both me and my minor sister, so I had to earn a living.

I did really well, I had an early career. I was a fearless idealist and at that time everything seemed possible. After working as a journalist, I went on to study at Vilnius University for a Master’s degree in International Communication, and then I went to Amsterdam for further studies. By that time I was ready to say goodbye to journalism. I had already done everything I wanted to do in this field, and I was more interested in the other side of journalism: public relations and the media manipulation behind it.

After my master’s degree and a job at ABN AMRO Bank, I realised that I wanted to do nothing but art, and enrolled in the prestigious Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. It is named after the Dutch artist and is housed in a building he designed.

When did you start doing only art?

Art went from being a hobby to a profession and income when I was in my early thirties. That’s how my professional career as an artist began. One of my first works was an exhibition of self-portrait photographs, Me, Myself and I, which was exhibited in Amsterdam and later brought to Vilnius, before I studied at the Rietveld Academy.

And the dance performance (of course, I did individual performances while I was studying), such a serious project, for which I gathered a large group of dancers from all over the world, took place in 2012. That’s when I realised that I was going to work with performance, dance and theatre. This event is the starting point of what I am doing now. Until then, my life was full of many things: photography, sculpture (I was particularly fond of glass), installations. There was a period when I was only involved in site-specific installations. Since 2012 I have been making live art, performances, performances that fuse visual and performance art, dance and theatre.

You’ve lived in many countries around the world, how did these journeys begin?

It started with my studies in Amsterdam. And although I didn’t intend to live there for a long time, I ended up living there for about twenty years, with more or less time spent in other places.

It all happened very organically, because I was travelling with jobs, projects. Sometimes I was in residence for a week, sometimes for three months, three years. I lived in Paris for three years, in Belgium for two years, in Japan for up to three months, because it’s very difficult to get a visa there, and in Italy for only about a month.

At one stage of my life I was a nomad, a wanderer: I gave up my flat to friends, packed my things in a storeroom and lived with just one suitcase. I went from point A to point B, from point B to point C, without returning home as before. For about two years, without a permanent residence, I travelled to different places, mainly in Europe, but also in Asia.

“It is a discipline, a technique, a set of principles that each master finds his or her own way, but they are united by common principles. It is an immersion in oneself, a certain state of consciousness and body, where one discovers movement through imagery and then develops choreography from these movements. It is a strong presence on stage.”

How did you start practicing Butoh?

It’s a form of expression that when I first saw it on video (although watching Butoh on video is the same as kissing through glass), I realised that it was my language. And even though I didn’t seem to understand it at all, because I wasn’t a dancer at the time, I was just making conceptual art, I was intrigued by it, I became interested in it, I wanted to try it.

I went to a workshop when I had the chance and that’s when I realised that this was for me. I started to study Butoh in depth, both in Europe and in Japan, with different masters like Yoshito Ono, Ko Murobushi, Yukio Waguri, Masaki Iwana, Natsu Nakajima, Yumiko Yoshioka, and many others… I would go to Japan, work there, do research in the archives of the Keio University Art Centre in Hijikata, and I would get theoretical and practical knowledge.

My first workshop took place in Germany near Berlin at an artist residency in a remote location during “Ex..it!” festival, which takes place every four years, lasts for two weeks and ends with several performances with the masters and participants. There is a large audience, who come from Berlin and other cities. In fact, the workshop could be called a kind of Butoh Olympics, because it brings together Butoh practitioners of all levels from all over the world. I, so to speak, went straight from zero to the Olympics and dived in head first. So, instead of learning to swim in the pool with a coach several times a week, I slowly just jumped out of the helicopter into the ocean and that’s how I had to learn to swim.

How was the stage name Sakurako born?

My love, or perhaps a more appropriate word would be resonance, for Japan and its culture, started even before I discovered Butoh. I discovered that connection through visual art and installations. Because when you create a work in the academy (whatever it is: photography, sculpture or installation), you have to write an artistic statement (an artist’s manifesto, a justification for that work). When I started to analyse why and what I was doing visually, I found most of the correspondence in reading Eastern philosophy, especially Japanese.

It was from Butō that my more serious knowledge of Japanese arts began. I also studied Nō theatre, although this is a tradition that has been handed down from one generation to the next from father to son. It was a great honour for me when a Nō theatre master took me, a foreign woman, in and encouraged me to go deeper. I started attending lectures with his friend, another master. He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Japanese, but we had a great conversation during and even after the lectures.

I also studied martial arts, Chado/Sado (tea ceremony), Sumi-e (Japanese ink painting). It was interesting to learn Nō because it gives you an understanding of the basics of what we avant-garde break when we practice Butō. And it all started with texts, Eastern philosophy.

My stage name is very simple. When I started doing more performance and dance, I wanted to separate my visual art and live performance. This is how my stage name was born, which reflects my love for sakura and my favourite celebration in spring, when the sakura blossoms on my birthday. A manifestation of beauty and the transience of everything. So the Japanese name Sakurako, meaning cherry blossom girl/child, stuck organically. I was named by a tea ceremony master I met at a temple when the sakura was in bloom.

What is Butoh, how do you understand this art form?

Butoh is a thing that avoids definition. It’s hard to define what the avant-garde is in itself.

Butō emerged in the late 1950s, discovered by Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. Thanks to them, Butō performances started, which were shocking in Japan at that time. The context here is that Japan was devastated after the Second World War. We are not just talking about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also the defeat of the war, the loss of the face of the nation, the undermining of everything.

And in that context, Hijikata, a dancer who has tried many forms of dance (Nō theatre, Western ballet, flamenco, etc.), was looking for a new way of expressing himself, a new way of talking about what is relevant now, because it is no longer appropriate to do so in the old forms. And that is how Butō came about.

It is a discipline, a technique, a set of principles that each master finds his or her own way, but they are united by common principles. It is an immersion in oneself, a certain state of consciousness and body, where one discovers movement through imagery and then develops choreography from these movements. It is a strong presence on stage. Not like in the classical styles, where forms and combinations of movements are replicated and then choreographed. Here, each dancer discovers an authentic movement.

This is avant-garde dance theatre, which is quite niche, emerging from the underground. It can be very varied in form – it can be a solo, it can be a group, it can be naked or in costume, with or without a white make-up, the pace can be very slow or very fast, it can be grotesque and chaotic. It is important to maintain a certain presence, a state of body and consciousness, to reveal authentic movement. It’s all about philosophy, worldview, attitude.

Choreography is traditionally a combination of forms and steps that are learned in advance, while Butoh is about immersing oneself in oneself and expressing that through the body. You have to discover non-canonical, non-programmed movements and use them to create a language, to put it into a sequence of movements – sentences. So far, some of the movements seem repulsive because they are non-canonical, some are very slow, meditative. It’s an individual work of each artist with his own body. I like to discover the body in a critical, liminal situation, how the natural intensity feels. Everything happens through imagery.

Butō’s themes are varied – death, the violence within us, sexuality, gender, all the problems that are masked and not shown in public, but on the other hand Butō also interacts with beauty, tenderness, empathy for all life forms.

For me, Butoh is a great tool and a way to talk about humanity, about the human condition and our society.

How was Okarukas Dance Theatre born?

Let’s say it came about a bit by accident. At the time, I was doing a residency in Paris and came to Lithuania for a short time with a project. Oskaras Koršunovas invited me to give a seminar to his students. That’s how I met his students, other actors of the younger generation of theatre, dancers and a few people from the Academy of Arts. A mixed group was formed, and I gave them a workshop on Butoh basics. It was a lot of fun, and both the students and I really enjoyed it – everyone worked hard and interestingly, and we did some really incredible things in a few days. And I was very impressed by that.

I went back to Paris, I continued to work there, but I kept in touch with the Lithuanian students, they kept asking me to come back to teach again. So, when I had time, I came. Then I invited some of those students to my residency in Paris, where I was doing a play with an international group at the time.

After this unexpectedly intense collaboration with young Lithuanian artists, I started thinking about coming to Lithuania. I hadn’t lived here for twenty years, and I thought it would be quite interesting to do a residency at home. Meanwhile, my partner in life and on stage, Phil Von, was also interested, because he had not been to Lithuania. And so it turned out that the residency in Lithuania lasted more than three years, our little daughter was born, and we have been living here ever since. As I like to joke, I’m still fighting the climate, which is not good for me at all – winter kills me.

When we came here, we started our own activities, we were artists-in-residence at the Užupis Art Incubator, and that’s how we slowly started to live and work here. Fellow students formed a group, and that was the first projects, we needed a legal status. Thus, in 2017 the dance theatre Okarukas (stage name Sakurako, written on the other side) was born. At the very beginning we worked at an incomprehensible pace, at the speed of light. We took part in all the main festivals and events in the country and represented Lithuania abroad. And although everything was very active, after the birth of our child, we had to slow down a bit.

And now the theatre is still alive, although we don’t do as many projects. I choose what I do, I have learnt to say “no”.

What do you do now?

We are currently staging a new play based on the dystopian novel “Masha, or Post-Fascism” by Ukrainian writer Yaroslav Melnyk. I rarely stage plays based on material, more often I do it from my own script. The novel resonated with its relevance and the theme of humanity, which is a theme that is relevant to me in my work, so we chose to make a dance performance based on the themes in the book. It’s a story about a dystopian post-fascist society made up of humans and fat, human-like animals whose meat is used in the food industry. It is set in the distant future, when the world is in the grip of a resurgent fascism, a totalitarian dictatorship and propaganda. It is also a love story between a journalist from a propaganda publication floating downstream and one of the fat women he keeps, Masha.

In Meat Factory, we ask what is humanity. How the unthinkable becomes possible, what are the preconditions for the emergence of fascism, why is it possible for human beings to behave in such a cruel way, how does a person become a cog in the system, and how can one resist it. This story explores the boundary between man and animal, asking what it is that makes us human. Although the situations created are based on a dystopian novel, they are very relevant in the current global context, with wars in neighbouring countries, the killing of innocent civilians, women and children, for example in Ukraine, Palestine, etc.

The material is heavy, violent, there is violence, naked flesh, and we work without any embellishments, without glitter, using the intensity of performance art, Butoh and flamenco dance techniques, physical theatre principles, and we are telling a story, asking questions in a body language that everyone understands.

Creating independent dance theatre is extremely difficult, even with funding from the Lithuanian Council for Culture it becomes almost impossible. This time we got half the funding we needed, so it is very difficult to create quality work in conditions where you don’t have a rehearsal room, a performance hall, a permanent company, where it is practically impossible to find time when everybody is available to rehearse, because people are busy studying, or working on various other projects and organisations.

Meat Factory is probably one of the last independent products of the larger scale Okarukas. It’s too much for me to be a director, a choreographer, a director, an administrator, a PR rep, an accountant, a cleaner, a driver, etc. We have a young daughter and we cannot work late and at weekends under these conditions, because it deprives her of the parents she needs the most. So the priorities are very clear, and although my work is very important to me, my family and my little daughter come first.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *