Hiroaki Umeda


Hiroaki Umeda is a choreographer and a multidisciplinary artist now recognized as one of the leading figures of the Japanese avant-garde art scene. Since the launch of his company S20, his subtle yet violent dance pieces have toured around the world to audience and critical acclaim. His work is acknowledged for the highly holistic artistic methodology with strong digital back ground, which considers not only physical elements as dance, but also optical, sonal, sensorial and, above all, spatiotemporal components as part of the choreography. Based on his profound interest in choreographing time and space, Umeda has spread his talent not only as a choreographer and dancer, but also as a composer, lighting designer, scenographer and visual artist.

Born in Tokyo, 1977, Umeda first studied photography at the Nihon University in Tokyo. At the age of 20, he gained interest in art more suitable for creating intense bodily experiences, which he is now known for, and started attending numerous dance lessons such as ballet, hip-hop, modern dance and so on. After about a year, in 2000, Umeda stopped taking lessons, founded his company, S20, and started creating his own multidisciplinary works by freely integrating all distinct dance practices and other art forms. In 2002, his ever popular work, while going to a condition, received great acclaim at Yokohama Dance Collection R (Yokohama, Japan) and was immediately invited to Rencontres Choréographiques Internationales (Paris). Director Anita Mathieu hailed the piece as ’a visual and sensorial experience. [...] The discovery of a young artist, both original and promising.’

In 2007, his new solo piece Accumulated Layout premiered in the prestigious Théâtre National de Chaillot with much anticipation, which resulted in a sell-out performance and another great acclaim. Drawing further from his now signature style of mixing digital imagery, minimal soundscape and extremely potent corporeality, Umeda’s other solo works such as Adapting for Distortion (2008), Haptic (2008), Holistic Strata (2011) and split flow (2013) has transfixed the audience in major festivals and theatres worldwide such as Festival d’Automne (Paris), Pompidou Centre (Paris), Biennale de la Danse (Lyon), Kunstenfestivaldesarts (Brussel), Festival Roma Europa (Rome), Tanz im August (Berlin), Tanzquartier (Vienna), NY Live Art (New York), The Barbican Center (London), Sydney Opera House (Sydney), National Chiang Kai-Shek Cultural Center, R.O.C (Taipei) and Aichi Triennale (Aichi). One of his most successful pieces, Holistic Strata, co-produced by the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media (Yamaguchi, Japan), which Umeda calls as a ‘kinetic installation’ has seamlessly assimilated the boundary between dance and visual art. Later it was credited by Le Monde as, not an one-man show, but as an ‘one man dancing landscape.’

In 2009, Umeda commenced his ten-year choreographic project ’Superkinesis’ and started working with dancers of distinct physical backgrounds such as contemporary dancers (1.centrifugal, 2009), hip-hop dancers (2. repulsion, 2010), classical ballet dancers (3. isolation, 2011) and Asian traditional dancers (4. temporal pattern, 2013). From the outset, Umeda’s minimal and innovative choreography style which harmonizes his singular physical language and the different dancers’ bodies has gained great attention and most pieces have been commissioned by important organizations such as Théâtre de Suresnes Jean Vilar (2. repulsion), Hebbel am Ufer (3. isolation) and Esplanade Theatre, National Chiang Kai-Shek Cultural Center, R.O.C and Aichi Triennale (4. temporal pattern), In ‘Superkinesis’, Umeda ventures into discovery of kinetic movements innate to human beings, preceding the construction of cosmetic choreographic languages, and, subsequently, attempts to construct a transcendental (super) order in the space and time of the stage per se.
In this series of choreographic experiment, Umeda considers dancers’ bodies as natural objects constantly affected by the natural force, and explores to discover kinetic languages by tuning into the subtle voices of the surrounding environment that only could be perceived by an acute sensorial receptor called dancers.

GötenborgsOperans Danskompani, Sweden has commissioned Umeda’s latest choreography piece, Interfacial Scale (2013), created for 11 dancers and an abstract orchestral music composed by Yoshihiro Hanno. Fresh from the show’s success, his latest choreographic piece Peripheral Stream (2014) was premiered at Théâtre Châtelet in March 2014, commissioned by the L.A Dance Project lead by Benjamin Millepied.

Extending from his interest in providing an unknown sensorial experience to the audience, from 2010, Umeda has been working on series of installations, which mainly focus on optical illusion and physical immersion. The main works include Haptic (installation) (2010) commissioned by Aichi Triennale, Holistic Strata (installation) (2011) premiered at Exposition EXIT at Maison des arts de Créteil, and split flow (installation) (2012) commissioned by the Van Abbemuseum of Eindhoven. His string of works combining visual and physical sensation has earned him Prix Ars Electronica, Honorary Mention, in 2010.

Artist Thoughts - Composing Holistic Sensations

1. Creative Principles

When the world is analyzed through the lens of Hiroaki Umeda, it is possible to assume that the whole of this universe as entirely virtual. When our eyes receive the light signals abound in the external world, they are firstly transmitted to the brain, then processed into units of information, and finally reach cognition by matching it with an existing linguistic code. However, obviously, all through this procedure, there are no tangible objects to which we can point at and say it as reality. In our everyday life, humans assemble plethora of informative signals into manageable units and recognize them, for instance, as an individual, an object, or certain scenery. Yet, according to Umeda, what hypostatizes these batches of abstract information is merely our 'belief system': 'When one has confidence on object's factuality they name it as real, and when this confidence is slightly undermined they rename it as virtual.' At the end of the day, however, when every sight is optically dissolved into molecules, both the reality and the virtuality are simply consisted of particles of light.

Information flow in breakneck speed and the society shifts in light-footed rhythm in a megalopolis such as Tokyo; and together with this incessant stream of transformation the given value system in society is rapidly lost. Growing up in this liquid milieu, it was inevitable for Umeda to lay the groundwork for his belief system by resorting neither to language nor history, but to his own substantive body. For Umeda, the body 'is a place pregnant with language preceding language, and emotion prior to emotion.' In other words, it is a place where 'archetypes of signs exist': where languages and emotions are still in its totality avoiding the distortions cause by the society. Umeda highly respect the value of these primitive yet complex sensations in the body, which emerges from multifarious external interactions, and abstain from easily processing them through the empirical encoding system called language. Umeda calls this pre-linguistic and pre-emotional entity as the 'Impulse,' and by observing, analyzing, and theorizing it thoroughly, he situates it at the basis of his artistic creation.

The 'impulse' is considered as the seed and also the goal of his creation. Based on the various physical stimulations that are stocked inside his body, Umeda logically composes all stimulants on stage—light, sound, image, and body—in order to share his 'Impulse' with the audience via the delicately orchestrated performance. 'I want to provide unknown physical sensations to the audience,' says Umeda. In other words, through his stage abound with stimuli; he attempts to liberate the audience's receptor of the senses, which has inevitably become dysfunctional in today's society. For Umeda, precisely this aesthetic (or aísthēsis in Greek, meaning sensation) experience is the most significant social power that art possesses. It is only when we encounter extremely radical and sublime experiences that go beyond the realm of empirical language that we envision an ideal world that has never been before, and beget imagination that could change the future.

For Umeda, when the world is dissolved into minimum base units, the basic components are merely particles of light; or in some other cases atoms and protons. By the same token, when this microscopic vision is inverted to a macroscopic perspective, it is possible to suggest that all entity on earth—whether humans, artifacts or Nature—is ultimately constituted of the same material, and thus are coherently united as a whole. Put otherwise, in Umeda's thoughts, 'man is merely a collective entity of particles, not so different from stones, ants and birds.' This notion derives from Umeda's conviction that, what is thought to differentiate humans from others, like souls, minds and spirits, are actually intangible objects and, again, cannot substantiate its existence. Moreover, Umeda does not subscribe to the doctrine that individuals are contained within one body. Just like a flock of birds could occasionally be recognized as a single unit of life, 'the demarcation line between the individual and the collective is actually quite obscure.'

Naturally, thereby, the common philosophy of individual humans, being superior to all other life forms and objects, becomes a contrived concept. When everything is dissolved into atoms and protons, there is not much difference between humans and objects, and not much certainty between individuality and entirety. And when the world is observed through this newly adopted lens, an ethically more 'humble world,' constructed from non-hierarchical networks, connecting humans, objects and nature emerges. Armed with this philosophy, Umeda abandons the hierarchical structure common to stage, which readily apply materialistic elements to accommodate the human body. In Umeda's pieces, per contra, the fact that humans exist on the equivalent level as all other natural and artificial entities is clearly emphasized. In short, Umeda's works are conceptually deeply rooted in the philosophy, which could be called as 'post-anthropocentrism.' Humans, objects and nature coexist with ease, and subsequently from here a holistic spatiotemporal experience filled with somatic stimuli is born.

Artist Thoughts - Composing Holistic Sensations

2. Dance Method

By briefly attending distinct dance lessons from ballet to hip-hop, Umeda realized at the outset of his career that, in the foundations level, there exists a 'common denominator for physical movements,' which is adaptable to all dance styles. Thanks to the belated entry into the world of dance at the relevantly mature age of twenty, when his conceptual basis was already fixed, Umeda could not blindly obey to the existing dogmatic disciplines, which did not accommodate his physicality at all. Moreover, when observed through his eyes, the stylistic differences perceived among distinct dance forms were only like the differences seen in fashion styles: they are different only when analyzed through the scope of an established cultural institution. Beneath the cosmetic variances, however, there should exist a pre-dance movement principle transcending all social categorization. Supported by this hypothesis, Umeda eliminates all categorization and pursues to discover the underlying 'Kinetic Principles,' which, in turn, becomes the constitutive elements of the 'Movement System' transcending all styles. This is the basis of Umeda’ 'Kinetic Force Method,' where 'kinetic movements' function as the alphabetical components for constructing the 'Movement System' that transcends the law of stylistic genres.

The practice of Kinetic Force Method could be divided into three stages. First step is 'standing' in the Neutral Position. According to Umeda, it is essential for the mover to master two kinetic principles to accomplish the postures of standing. That is, the 'Principle of Balance' which becomes the basis of movements, and the 'Principle of Tension and Relaxation' which generates all movements. In Kinetic Force Method, a perfect balance is obtained by controlling the three gravity points of the body: the center of the hip, the center of the chest and the effort point of the sole. Umeda claims that, 'If these three points are in full control, all human standing positions could be accomplished.' For instance, the so-called Neutral Position is achieved by 'placing the top of the chest, over the hip, over the center sole, and aligning it in a single grid.' And when the mover masters the gist of Principle of Balance, he or she will gradually notice the importance of the Principle of Tension and Relaxation. This is because when one stands in the most natural position in tune with the laws of physics, all redundant tension disappears from the body, which, in turn, enables the mover to generate maximum range of motion in minimum amount of input.

The second stage is 'moving' in harmony with the natural force. In Kinetic Force Method, all kinetic movements are engendered by adapting the body to the natural forces existing in the environment, such as gravity, repulsion and centrifugal force. In other words, the mover does not adopt active movements in order to command the environment, but rather develops passive movements by channeling to the natural force. 'It's easy to understand when you imagine the movement of swings,' says Umeda, 'since the fulcrum point of a swing is so solid, it naturally creates a beautiful trajectory with minimum input to the moving point, that is, the seat.' As is demonstrated by this simple principle of dynamics, when the mover once masters the Neutral Position of first stage, they will be able to realize a kinetic movement, which 'embodies the transmission of natural force running through their bodies.'

Lastly, the third stage is to develop a 'flow' by applying, again, the surrounding natural force. Kinetic Force Method differs from, for instance, forms of classical ballet since it does not attempt to generate a 'pose, or pause' by defying and controlling the gravity, but rather strives to develop a 'flow' by falling into chime with the surrounding environment. According to Umeda, in order to create a beautiful 'flow,' that is devoid of any redundant noise (such as tension and ego), it is necessary for the movers to temporarily unlock the 'limiter of the consciousness' regulated by human logic. This is because it is significantly important for the mover 'to remove all prejudice which readily assumes the limit of human movements.' When one assumes that humans are capable of taking full control of the body, the movement becomes rigid and thus cannot transcend the existing physical formats. Rather, in order to generate unknown movements, it is important for the mover to once let go of reason and physically communicate with the natural surroundings.

One may wonder if people could actually achieve this state of mind, but this statement is born out by Umeda's own kinetic movements which at times seem like an unknown creature, or 'inhuman form.' Humans are by no means hermetic to the environment and the very possibility of innovative movements, transcending the existing postulations, starts from communicating attentively with the external world.

Artist Thoughts - Composing Holistic Sensations

3. Choreographic Project 'Superkinesis'

Superorganism is a concept in biology where a collection of agents, either insects, plants or animals, acts in concert to produce a single phenomenon governed by the collective. Exemplary case can be seen in, for instance, a colony of ants and flock of migrant birds. Inspired by this biological concept, Umeda commenced his ten-year choreographic project 'Superkinesis' in 2009. In this project, Umeda attempts 'to compose all kinetic movements on stage, that is, not only bodies but also, for example, lights, sounds and imageries,' and by harmonizing all the kinetic movements on a transcendental (super) level, 'a spatiotemporal artifact that is analogous to a gigantic living organism comes into being.' And in order to materialize this organism, Umeda basically choreographs all movements on stage.

The underlying reason for the ambition to choreograph all movements, lies in Umeda's conviction that humans are part and parcel of the natural order, and by extension, the bodies are just one element constituting the stage. Put differently, the existing dichotomy of nature and artifacts does not chart the world persuasively for him, since Umeda's theory run counter to it and consider all artifacts as a gift of nature. In the line of thinking, the artist claims that the highly civilized beings called humans could also be considered as natural objects. Based on this hypothesis, Umeda suggests that even in an advanced art form like contemporary dance, the mover should not command the environment but should rather obey to the surroundings. It is worth repeating this methodological tenet since this is precisely the underlying philosophy of Superkinesis. 'When you look at a cat,' Umeda explains, 'You could see that the animal has achieved a superbly sophisticated and functional movement by chiming perfectly with the surroundings. In the same manner, I believe, that if people fully harmonize with the environment, a human movement per se should emerge.' In other words, in Umeda's thoughts, nature induces animate kinesis and the environment precedes human movements. For this cause, it is absolutely natural for the artist to choreograph all elements on stage to create an integral holistic experience.

This choreographic experiment can be divided into three phases. The first phase focuses on the research of 'kinetic movements.' By collaborating with dancers from different background—contemporary dancers, hip-hop dancers and ballet dancers—and by adapting Kinetic Force Method to their respective physicality, the choreographer strives to seek a diverse range of kinetic vocabulary that should derive from separate experiments.

The second phase is committed to the invention of the 'system.' At this stage, the choreographer attempts to discover a common ground, or a system, which could be shared by multiple movers existing on stage. This unity could be reached by, for example, coordinating the breath, the rhythm, the velocity of movements or the specific parts of movements of the dancers. Put otherwise, the second phase is devoted to the 'choreography of time', which could be shared by distinct movers.

The last phase is devoted to the development of the 'order.' On top of the physical system realized by multiple dancers in the previous stage, other choreographic materials such as light, sound and image will be added as the final layer of the craft and the total order of the space will be pursued.

Due to practical reasons, the choreographic research is divided into three phases but experiments of movement, system and order are more or less conducted all through the three-step process. To recapitulate, it is a project, which seeks to choreograph all kinetic movements on stage—physical, temporal and spatial shift—in order to materialize an organic whole. As of February 2014, the Superkinesis project has fruitfully progressed to the second phase.

Artist Thoughts - Composing Holistic Sensations

4. Technology and Visual Installations

If all kinetic movements are equal aesthetic components of choreography, then there could be a 'choreographic piece,' which does not include any human beings. Moreover, if the major objective of the artist lies in providing the audience with the pre-linguistic and pre-emotional physical sensation, which alternatively could be called as the 'impulse,' that experience can be generated possibly without the medium of the moving body. Base on this hypothesis, Umeda started working on visual installations from around 2010.

Needless to say, the direct confrontation of the two bodies—the mover and the spectator—enables a multivalent experience specific to live performances and Umeda also believes in this fecundity of the art form. However, there also exist artistic weaknesses in performing arts and, for Umeda, the most crucial deficit is the interpretive approach, or to borrow the artist's words, 'a sluggish experience analogous to linguistic cognizance.' To explain concretely, when an audience member attends a dance performance, he or she will firstly integrate all the light particles into an image, then will recognize it as a movement of human bodies, and lastly will develop a theoretical concept by processing the piece through a critical framework. Conversely, in installations, 'we could bypass this sluggish process,' states Umeda, 'and directly provide optical and sonal stimuli to the audiences' bodies.' In order to make full use of this immediate impact, Umeda's cyber installations perplex the vision, challenge the limitations of hearings and undermine the sense of equilibrium in the audience. In short, his digital installations do not allow ample time for cerebral processing but rather speaks directly to the viewer's corporeality. Umeda states that, in the near future, he is considering on exploring haptic and other sensory apparatus for developing an intense artistic experiences.

Many consider Umeda as an interdisciplinary artist who skillfully merges technology with contemporary dance—and this is not a false assumption. However, according to the artist, deploying technological devices or digital software is not a sine qua non for his craft. Moreover, Umeda admits that he is not applying anything that could be called as the state-of-the-art technology. Then why, in Umeda's works, exists a technologically up-to-date-quality that is rarely observed in the realm of dance? The artist answers as follows: 'Simply, I think it is because my thoughts are updated together with the advancement of technology.'

Umeda does not indicate much interest in 'reproducing' the existing reality by using the latest technology. For instance, like regenerating the quasi-real sound of a classic concert through the most-advanced audio equipment run counter to his vision. If an unprecedented audio device has been developed, Umeda will strive to produce (and not, reproduce) a new sound that can only be generated by using that equipment. Similarly, if it is a visual device, he will explore to produce a world, which can only be visualized through that high-resolution appliance. To this effect, Umeda believes that the updating of artist's thoughts should go hand in hand with the updating of the technology. For Umeda, the fruitful future of the technology cannot take place only by the development of technology itself, but rather, more so by the renewal of the artist's thoughts triggered by the former's innovations. Put otherwise, it is not the technology but the artist who envisions and enables the latest artistic work. This is why Umeda does not commence his project unless he foresees the core vision of the project. And once that vision is clarified to a certain extent, he starts searching for minimal technological prescriptions required for achieving the goal.

Digital technologies in Umeda's dance pieces are adopted mainly for two objectives. First, in order to 'enhance the resolution of the world.' When digital technologies are applied, space, for example, can be depicted in the precision of a pixel and time can be commanded by the expansion and compression of the sound beyond the accuracy of human aural ability. 'I believe,' claims Umeda, 'that there exists another dimension of aesthetic world which can only be realized by the finesse of digitally controlled time and space.' Second, the artist applies digital apparatus for 'expanding and shrinking the human physical scale.' An easy example could be seen in the use of sensors in Holistic Strata (2011). The sensor captures the movement of the body in real time and reflects that on the background screen. Through this procedure, the mover can feel as though the circumference of his physical territory has macroscopically expanded. Or, on the contrary, if bodies are enfolded with infinite delicate lines, which can only be depicted by precision mechanical equipment, the mover can feel as though the measurement of the physical sphere has microscopically shrunk.

Umeda asserts that, 'The development of digital technologies is radically changing the physical human perception,' and indeed it is shifting the conception of us. Some may readily reject this physical transformation as it may jeopardize the given concept of a human body, but for Umeda, who swiftly 'updates his thoughts together with the advancement of technology,' this is the de facto standard of the present human physicality. Not only, by keeping pace with the up-to-date technology but also adapting one's minds and bodies to this technologically enhanced environment, Umeda creates an artwork that harmonizes beautifully the corporeal and the technological.

Interview and text by Eva Roche