Mami Izumi is a performer and dancer from Japan living in the Netherlands who I met recently.
When I heard about the Waldorf Project/Chapter Three/Futuro and her involvement with it I was very curious as to how she ended up performing in such an experimental piece.
This is a girl who harks from Kobe City, the West side of Japan in a mountainous region away from the urban expanses. At the age of five she was already dancing away at ballet class and when she turned 10 she moved to Osaka to continue her education travelling a four hour round trip per day to get to her evening ballet class. Sweet sixteen arrived and she moved to the UK for six months taking up study at the Northern Ballet School in Manchester, returning to Japan to work for a dance company before settling down to consider the kind of dance style she wanted to do next. Research led her to Austria where she studied Contemporary dance which eventually landed her in the Netherlands working on many artistic and diverse dance projects.
Wonderstruck by her achievements in such a young, yet matured and seasoned life, when an opportunity presented itself and Mami invited me to the Waldorf Project/Chapter Three/Futuro to see her perform, I leaped at the chance. I didn’t know what to expect at first, but was intrigued nonetheless after hearing about her involvement with this unique project.
The audiences gaze is one of escapism and influence, as we engross ourselves in television, video games: a virtual respite. We’re protected by a fictitious disposition where the LCD screen both separates and inspires, luring us deeper into a fantasy. Sometimes we choose to believe what’s seen before our eyes, culturally enriching ourselves or simply just feeding our minds with propaganda and sensationalism. Either way, we can get lost in the stream of metadata.
In the case of the Waldorf project, I found myself stepping into another life where set design alone couldn’t prepare me for such transmutation.
The disclaimer states: ‘If you suffer from Nyctophobia (fear of the dark), Claustrophobia (fear of closed spaces) or fear of physical interaction, then this experience may not be for you,’ which gives you a tiny inclination as to the strangeness that awaits. A small group of us turned up dressed inconspicuously in black, like we were part of some beatnik collective ourselves, feeling already very much part of what we were about to endure.
Mami also had a unique experience in that the performance itself evolves around the audience, having to connect with them in challenging ways.
“The performance is about your emotional journey,” says Mami “the director Sean Rogg has been exploring emotional trips for four years, the first two times he made four different rooms, which had a different emotion. One had joy, sadness, anger and trauma. He saw that the trauma room always had a big impact on people because the next room was always joy and happiness. He was looking for people to have a moment of relief, to get over and go beyond where you are, so this performance is really about going deep into a negative level of your emotion and then to bounce up to the level where you’ve actually never felt happiness or the right side of yourself which is really beautiful.”
Three by three we were led outside and into a darkened space, illuminated by strange liquid-filled glowing rectangular capsules resting in between black marble plinths. Ambient space music echoed drawing us in with meditative subliminal chords.
Long-haired oriental girls then emerged, assailing each of us, man-handling us to our designated plinths. Meeting others at our respective podiums, our strange arrangements were perhaps similar to what a cyber-punk dwelling might be like. We each were bestowed a host, feral and provoking in character, yet utterly graceful. Once all was settled they made various audience members suckle from the balloons protruding from the side of the glass orbs. Each suck released webs of coloured liquid into the tank like magic. These beautiful creatures then released these liquids into tumblers from a small tap and made us drink the strange tasting fluid watching on intently. In some cases they made others drink more and quickly, testing gag reflexes. It was like a ritual of reliance to be forcibly nourished whilst the taunting nature of our teasing hosts were exposed.
With absolutely no dialogue between the audience and our dominators, there was instead a lot of physical work, pushing, pulling and controlled constraint, Mami shares how she prepared for the role
“We talked a lot. Our task is to let the audience enjoy the performance. They’re the main act as we cannot do this performance without the audience. Sometimes there’s technical problems as well, and every night the numbers of people attending are different so we have to solve this and prepare well.”
“I personally do a thirty minute yoga practice which is really short but intensively focuses on the breathing system. We must have the concentration in this performance, especially in darkness as we don’t see much inside and we don’t want anybody to get hurt.”
The torment continued as we were then thrown across a wall, made to kneel and then taken through to another ethereal like space which housed a small LED platform with a dancer lavishly pouring thick, creamy warm blue coloured liquid into people’s mouths. She writhed on stage, some were hauled onto the platform like captured prey and we gathered under her spell before being hoarded into the next sensory invasion. But surely our herding from one space to another wasn’t straightforward?
“It’s generally all challenging because we have to let people drink, eat, and we have to organize the people from one place to another. One serious problem we have is that we cannot speak! If something happens, we have to find a dialogue in silence.
It’s challenging because everyone is different and some have different journeys and others need to speak all the time and in this case, we have to tell the person to be quiet somehow.”
When it comes to events like this, it’s easy to assume that everyone is from artistic milieu but Mami explains that others from completely different backgrounds have become ‘victims’ of the installation with a few funny incidents along the way
“I should make a list,” Mami laughs “There was a father who was once married but turned out to be gay and came with his boyfriend. He also gave a ticket to his daughter and it was the first time that she met the boyfriend and they shared such an experience! Another woman had claustrophobia, couldn’t drink alcohol and couldn’t hold herself in the middle. She came to me and said that she didn’t want to continue so we had to let her out of the space. We didn’t know why she was so panicked but she said ‘I don’t know what’s going on here, this is psychologically crazy,’ and we asked her how she came here and she replied ‘My father gifted me the ticket,’ Her father must’ve known!”
The bond between performer and audience is established fairly quickly in this installation, it’s quite intimate that I’ll admit even I felt like my personal space was being pummeled. I felt nervous for the performers, hoping that they would never break out of character under such intrusive exchanges.
“I’ve never had such close dialogue and physical contact with the audience as normally we have a clear border between the audience and the performers.” Mami adds “This is my personal interest, how we can break the border to get inside of each other. In the beginning I struggled and I’m also coming from such a culture where we don’t have so much contact. We don’t hug or kiss on the cheek to say hi. When I first started I had more distance but now I feel completely fine to get closer. Some audience members reject us and get tense in the body and do really unusual things! It’s also nice to observe how people react as well.”
After worming our way through a blacked out enclosed maze painfully on our hands and knees which felt like an eternity, we finally saw the light.
Bodies awaited in another haze-clad exposure, some loitered whilst others just lay in a motionless trance on top of each other under the rule of our guides, craving the next torment which brewed inside of us, well maybe not all.
We endured other ichorous enclaves, coming full circle after being force fed, licked and finally loved. After being subjected and servile we were oddly reunited both audience and hosts.
‘You’re probably feeling more connected right now,’ director Sean Rogg said.
And I was, with myself even more, but I wondered whether Mami had ever done something similar to this before. It also struck me that a three-hour performance is a long time physically speaking because as a performer you’re giving so much of yourself away. Mami shares her viewpoint on this.
“It’s a unique thing I’ve never ever done before. I do conceptual work, get naked on the stage and many kissing and sensual things, but this kind of performance is my first time. I give my energy to people but I also gain the energy from people. They’ll always be a relieving moment at the end of the performance. This is the moment I always feel I’m gaining my energy back; from their feelings, eyes and expressions.”
I wondered whether director Sean Rogg’s piece was inspired by J-Horror as all of the dancers were Asian. Mami explains
“It’s a really personal experience for him as he saw video clips that he liked and saw a lot of Asian women who have smoke in their mouths and release it onto people’s faces. This actually happens in the performance. I think it was a visual decision.”
As we talk I mentioned how I think it’s great to see Japanese women as super scary demonic entities because it’s so opposite to what is portrayed in Japanese society where the women still remain subservient and it’s still very male dominated. It seems like women’s oppression manifests itself into these powerfully dark entities which is why J-Horror works so well because it’s terrifying to see a woman scorned, broken and a woman who’s constantly under rule but finally lets it rip! It comes down to the ‘wet dead girls,’ phenomena a term coined in the early 2000s when there was what felt like a sudden release of Asian horror where women were portrayed as sinister, mysterious and feared entities.
The truth is the Sadako and Kayako archetype has been around for centuries with Japanese folklore stories still terrifying natives. Film Kwaiden actually gives you a taste of the kind of folklore which has re-envisaged classic Japanese culture in modern cinema.
Mami laughs replying “I never recognised that expression, but when I’m feeling neutral and looking ahead, some people say I look scary and I’m like, ‘but I’m not trying to scare anyone’, but they actually see something that I’m not feeling and it’s actually really funny.”
My dreams are filled with images of Asian women in shadowy confines. I have been so affected by the project that it makes me wonder that with the range of reactions Mami has experienced, whether people do truly understand the concept.
“I think so, we were quite worried in the beginning as we went quite deep in it and it was a more violent. But eventually we found that the violence is not about using a power, it’s about the attitude and the mind. We’ve found that the people have started to enjoy it more this way and the tickets sold out.”
Thank you Mami Izumi for sharing your insight into such an intimate experience for both audience and performer. You can read more about Mami’s very own solo performance, one in particular called ‘Cotton,’ a truly original sounding masterpiece awaiting the world’s adulation.