Dancing Extraordinaire: Japanese Entertainers Under the Pandemic is a vibrant, intimate photography and video-based project that documents the Covid lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 through the experiences and private worlds of an eclectic cohort of Japanese performing artists, and the photographers who missed shooting them as much as the dancers missed their audiences.
As we in Los Angeles know all too well, every corner of the entertainment world was catastrophically, almost completely decimated by the pandemic. The dreaded virtual pivot aside, the rug was dramatically pulled out from under not only actors, dancers and singers, but the entire ecosystem of venues and production teams, as well. But there was a special dimension of sadness — emotional as well as economic trauma — for those personalities who breathe life in from the energy of a crowd, the feeling of an audience, the atmosphere of a stage.
And of course, many of such performers also teach, in a reminder that not only theatrical, concert and club venues, but also schools, athletic competitions, festivals, conferences, sports, and film productions all came to a prolonged standstill — and this affected the photographers and videographers whose work was to document these events as well. When their life’s work was to chronicle public happenings, they were at as much of a loss as the performers themselves. All of which formed the inspiration for the Japan Foundation’s poignant but ultimately uplifting and slightly surreal current exhibition based on the project — Dancing Extraordinaire — spotlighting not only extraordinary performers, but the extraordinary circumstances in which they found themselves.
Beginning in July 2020, freelance photographers Arisa Kasai, Shizuka Minami and Maiko Miyagawa began taking these portraits, visiting about 20 dance-based artists in their homes and neighborhoods over a period of about seven months, documenting not only the relatable situation of working while confined to their homes, but the very human range of emotions from joy to longing, loss to hope, pride and loneliness they were experiencing — giving them each the chance to express it all in the best way they know how, through their art.
Shizuka Minami’s “Chiaki, dancer. August 5, 2020/Neighborhood community center,” and “Hayate Masao, action film actor and director and parkour coordinator. November 11, 2020/Funabashi Shinsui Park, Chiba Prefecture” both give a more raw, action-centered and urban inflection to her portraits. In fact, while many of the series subjects do invite the photographers, and by extension, their audiences, into their homes, many chose to do the piece in local outdoor locations, again mirroring the ways in which we spent our first tentative steps back outside getting to know our neighborhoods all the better, while also finding them strangely, cinematically, affectingly empty.
Maiko Miyagawa’s “Kazami Nagasawa, dancer and choreographer. December 23, 2020/Neighborhood street near his home” features a marvelous posed shot in an empty, sign-painted intersection, a sliver of blue sky above, and no one else in sight; and her capture of “Atsushi Haruta, actor. December 25, 2020/At home” stars the most adorable human ever and his obviously beloved cat keeping their spirits up. Her iconic capture of “Takamasa Fujima, traditional Japanese dancer. September 29, 2020/Entry hall to rehearsal room” is like a hallucination, as an outsize and perfectly adorned demigod figure overfills a common room and seems to take flight in place.
The timeless drama of the classic swirl of bright red dress in Arisa Kasai’s “Atsuko Maeda, Dancer and Choreographer of Lucknow School of Kathak Indian Classical Dancing. October 21, 2020/Neighborhood park” contrasts with her shot of “yamadori, pole dancer. January 12, 2021/At home,” in which the dancer set up her practice pole in the corner of a bedroom. This is one of the series’ most charming motifs — the visibility of apartment clutter like kitchens and bike racks in the backgrounds of the makeshift home stages. Her “Dai Matsuoka, butoh dancer. September 23, 2020/At home” is both eerie and sweet, as the foregrounded children’s and wall drawings, earthy palette, and oblique light give the image a dreamlike, haunting quality.
Each portrait in the series comes with a full bio of the dancers, a moving personal quote, and a late-2022 update about how they’re doing now. Spoiler alert: They’re thriving.
The exhibition is on view at the Japan Foundation, 5700 Wilshire Blvd., Miracle Mile, through Feb. 25; free. Visit jflalc.org for more information.
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