By Ozaki Tetsuya (Publisher/editor-in-chief, REALTOKYO/REALKYOTO)
The “handover” (Tokyo Olympics presentation) section of the closing ceremony for the Rio Olympics was held on August 21 local time. My viewing was limited to the live TV broadcast, but I was impressed by the sophistication of the AR (augmented reality) and projection mapping technology. Yet some elements struck me as a bit odd: the emphasis on the so-called “Cool Japan” concept for example, and Prime Minister “I will not make it to Rio in time” Shinzo Abe morphing into Super Mario and blasting through the earth to the other side in a clay pipe made by Doraemon – an idea rather similar to the opening ceremony for the London Olympics, which had James Bond escorting Queen Elizabeth. What I want to discuss here however, is not all this, but the performance one might call the main event, if we consider the Prime Minister’s appearance the curtain-raiser.
After the appearance and departure of “Mario Abe” (from about 5’30” on the YouTube footage), there was an AR-facilitated performance that began with animated versions of the 33 events to be run at the Tokyo Olympics. After about 30 seconds, 50 dancers appeared, and in the words of the NHK announcer, gave “an acrobatic performance inspired by the 33 events” inside and outside “light-emitting frames.” The frames in question were cubic and cuboid structures, 45 in total in three sizes, apparently, and looked to be made of metal. Each was large enough to fit a person inside pushing, pulling and rolling around. Dancing by people and frames continued at some length, and according to the NHK announcer, “transformed the venue into a futuristic space, immediately drawing in the audience.”
Now this may be all well and good, however there was one big problem: the actual concept of a dance involving people and frames closely resembles that of another, earlier work: Babel (words) jointly choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet, with set design by Antony Gormley. One hardly needs to add that Cherkaoui and Jalet are choreographers of international standing. (Sir) Antony Gormley meanwhile, is a world-famous sculptor who has taken part in events such as the Venice Biennale and Documenta, was a Turner Prize winner in 1994, and in 2013, received a Praemium Imperiale in Honor of Prince Takamatsu (Sculpture).
● Similarities to the brilliant Babel
Babel may be summarized as a work that celebrates the diversity of verbal and physical language, that is, the diversity of peoples and cultures, and encourages proper communication, rather than conflict. It debuted in 2010 in London, and since then has toured several countries, including Japan. This summer it was invited to Festival d’Avignon, the world’s premier performing arts festival, where it was staged in the courtyard of the Palais des Papes, the main festival venue. In 2011 Babel received an Olivier Award, Britain’s most respected performing arts prize, for Best New Dance Production. Gormley worked with the two choreographers to come up with the revolutionary idea of incorporating box-shaped metal frames in dance, his efforts earning him another Olivier, for Outstanding Achievement in Dance. Allow me to present here extracts from just a handful of reviews of the production on its opening night.
“The work takes its title and tone from the apocalyptic Bible story…. Then there is Antony Gormley’s set. This installation of light-catching steel cubes [sic] is transformed into a series of towers and rooms, in which the cast alternately herd and isolate themselves. The choreography elaborates the dynamic of connection and withdrawal: when a dancer slips out of the warm, slithery embrace of a pas de deux to be enclosed by one of the cubes [sic], the fact of his isolation delivers a cold shock.” (Judith Mackrell, “Babel,” The Guardian, May 19, 2010.)
“If only they would just move Antony Gormley’s giant silver rectangular frames over the stage for 20 minutes, life (and going to Sadler’s Wells) would be the happiest thing. Gormley’s six [sic] skeletal boxes, differing in shape (square or elongated or like something from a geometry textbook), are placed or moved busily over the stage by the cast, against a dark backdrop with beige panels at the side of the stage. The effects are eye-ravishing and stimulating. The frames become an apartment block, a prison, a city and the Tower of Babel. […] I longed to tell the performers: ‘Just let the set do the work!’”
(Clement Crisp, ”Babel, Sadler’s Wells, London,” Financial Times, May 21, 2010.)
“Gormley’s contribution to these works is immense. […] [H]e has moved on into an even more overtly architectural context for Babel with five rectangular, lightweight aluminium structures of varying proportions. These are effortlessly manipulated by the performers into rooms, boxes, spinning tops, a time warp, passport control and countless other unmistakeable set designs. When assembled together, the shapes constructed an extraordinary art deco building. I spotted some architects in the audience whose eyes were virtually out on stalk…. Gormley’s contribution to this work has established a unique brand of sculptural-architectural dance theatre.” (Graham Watts, ”Review: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui / Damien Jalet / Antony Gormley in Babel (words) at Sadler’s Wells,” londondance.com , May 19, 2010.)
Sakamoto Ryuichi, director of the 2014 Sapporo International Art Festival, who invited Babel to the Festival, offered the following comment.
“Unfortunately I had never seen Babel live, but extended an invitation for the production to appear at SIAF 2014, for which I served as director. Watching Babel on YouTube had a profound impact on me, so I was keen for as many people as possible in today’s Japan to see it.
I know of no other example of a work that takes this – needless to say – biblical theme, and elevates it with this much power to a piece of artistic expression in which abstract and concrete are virtually inseparable. In this instance, by abstract and concrete I refer to the inevitable pursuit of the figurative in the art of dance, and its reliance on the human body; and at the same time, the perfectly realized sculptural set by Antony Gormley, to which nothing further could possibly be added, and from which nothing could be taken away. It would be fair to say that Gormley’s structures are more than mere elements of the set: they are very much an innate part of the piece, to the extent that Babel would not work without them. The diverse images spun from these inorganic, abstract frames seem to me to lay bare how homogeneous we humans are, and yet how limitless in the diversity arising out of that homogeneity. In that sense also, as well as dance performed by flesh and blood, Babel is a dance of abstract objects, in this case, Gormley’s steel volumes.” (E-mail comment from Sakamoto, reproduced in its entirety)
● Choreographing both people and frames
In short, in the long history of dance, Babel was the first to introduce multiple three-dimensional frames to the stage as organic stage devices, and to choreograph both people and frames. The frames are not simply props. They are choreographed objects, just like the dancers, and the original work of Cherkaoui, Jalet and Gormley, a superstar trio whose names will doubtless live on in arts history; the end result of exhaustive discussion, sharing of knowledge, and trial and error. Facile imitation of a new “brand” such as this, that has taken time and effort to establish, has to be ethically dubious.
Yet the performance at the Rio handover ceremony was strikingly similar to Babel, in that it used frames in the same manner, and that without those frames, the choreography would not have worked. To my knowledge, there are no similar instances of this. Of course there have been other cases of three-dimensional frames being used in dance, but without exception, the frames were only employed as props, or spaces to regulate the positions and movements of the performers, and I suspect there are no other examples where frame and frame, frame and performers, associate organically to generate new meanings and layers.
Though it must be said, the frames in the handover ceremony generated very little in the way of meaning, or layers. As far as I could tell from the live TV broadcast, and later confirmed on YouTube, they simply formed the Tokyo Olympics emblem, and Tokyo skyline, the former which without prior knowledge would have been unrecognizable, and the latter, aided by the projected silhouettes of buildings. There is no comparison with the frames of Babel, which coupled with the actions of the performers, were transformed into rooms and prison cells and immigration control, and even into a time tunnel and the Tower of Babel. Seven frames were also used at the closing ceremony for the Paralympics on September 18, but this time they appeared to be employed simply as a backdrop (if I might add, the dance featuring a jumble of disabled and non-disabled performers was incredible).
The September 15 edition of NHK’s Closeup Gendai was titled “Lowdown on the Rio closing ceremony’s ‘miraculous eight minutes’ as told by the one who made it happen!,” and when handover ceremony director and choreographer MIKIKO was asked about being unable to use more than 50 performers due to budget constraints, and how she “came up with the idea” of frames as a set, she replied as follows.
“I had to find a way to make each performer appear larger, to avoid 50 performers appearing too few on the field. Plus they needed to be able to carry the set out by themselves and roll out the performance in rapid sequence by themselves, and in the end, it came out quite Japanese, I suppose one could say: being forced to use some ingenuity gave it a ‘Japanese’ look, which I think worked well.”
● Reuse “difficult to see”
However Damien Jalet, co-choreographer of Babel, was less than impressed:
“It seems nowadays that that the internet has become a sea of ‘inspiration’ and that it seems totally natural for some to reproduce literally things they have seen there…
Comparing pictures of the architecture scene of Babel (words) and those of the Olympic ceremony is like playing a game of ‘find seven differences’…
It seems in both cases though, it’s all about the choreography of the frames, while dancing in the inner space they propose, the dancers are also making the frame move in synchronicity…
I sometimes believe artists can have the same idea without any of them knowing about it. (But) Babel has been touring all over the world for more than six years, including five shows in large-scale venues in Sapporo (where it took part in one of the most important art events in Japan) and in Tokyo, on the invitation of Ryuichi Sakamoto in August 2014. The performances were accompanied by a large diffusion of trailers and images in the media…
It s also important to mention that many of the artists involved in the Olympic ceremony are involved in the same artistic community as those who organized Babel’s performances in Japan. In other words it seems pretty impossible to talk about a coincidence in this case.” (Extract from Jalet’s original comment by e-mail)
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui also offered his thoughts by e-mail, reproduced here in their entirety:
“My feeling is that it is difficult at times to see artistic ideas you worked on in a specific environment, with limited financial means and through collective reflection and care reused in big mass media events like this by other commercial artists without any connection to the original intentions.
I’ve experienced this before, with a pop artist I actually like, Beyoncé, take ideas of our Sutra performance and reincorporate in her live concert.
When younger artists imitate older artists there’s a certain charm, a certain innocence that is flattering and beautiful even.
When commercial big budget organisations take ideas out of the under financed contemporary art world without acknowledging the sources it can be saddening and painful.”
● Reasons for the resemblance
There are, to my mind, four possible reasons for what has occurred here.
1. The handover ceremony staff had no knowledge of Babel, and coincidentally came up with the same idea.
2. The handover ceremony staff knew about Babel, and appropriated it out of respect, and a desire to pay homage.
3. The handover ceremony staff knew about Babel, and suspected that using the same idea was not really right, but plagiarized it, thinking it wouldn’t be detected.
4. The handover ceremony staff knew about Babel, and decided that it wouldn’t matter if they used the same idea.
1, as Jalet writes, is highly unlikely. Following its staging in Sapporo in August 2014, Babel was also performed in Tokyo. No one working in the creative industries could be unaware of the work of the two choreographers, let alone the world-famous sculptor Gormley. Word has it that among the handover ceremony production staff were some directly acquainted with the creators of Babel.
2 is possible. In saying that, “respect” originally has the meaning, from the Latin respectus, of “to look back,” and only later came to mean “rate highly” or “esteem.” “Homage” once referred to the ritual or act of pledging allegiance to one’s feudal lord. Appropriation is the act of taking an image from an existing representational system, and working it into a new context. In all cases, the original means something authoritative, of high quality, widely known, and the opposite never applies. In some cases, appropriation aims to critique the original, but the requisite contrasts of strength and weakness, high and low, famous and anonymous do not change. A similar idea would be secondary creativity of literature, or manga.
So how does this particular case stack up? In terms of quality, Babel is clearly the superior work. However in terms of profile (or rather dissemination) it cannot prevail over what Cherkaoui describes as the “big mass media event” that is the Olympics. The production cost of the handover ceremony must have been in a different order of magnitude as well. Most of all, there has been no admission that the performance was influenced by Babel: neither at the time, nor since. In other words, the handover ceremony performance with its illuminated frames can most certainly not be described as an homage to Babel, or appropriation of it.
3 is possible, but in reality, unlikely. It has indeed been detected, right here. Moreover, on Closeup Gendai, MIKIKO declared that it was her own idea. Yes, it is the NHK narration that states that she “came up with” the frames, but she makes no attempt to deny this, and says that it was down to “ingenuity” (her own, or that of the production team). I suppose it is not impossible that she may have been unaware of (or missed seeing) Babel, but as I wrote in 1, unimaginable that her production team colleagues were, and did not. All it would have taken is for someone to say, “there’s another work already like this” but it is possible that due to some circumstance, this did not happen.
4 is also possible. Setting aside the ethics, one might judge there to be no legal issues. Occasionally one spots something vaguely familiar in an advertisement, or other form of visual expression, and I suspect that in most cases, this is what has happened.
I personally do not know the legal ramifications, but believe that for those involved in making things, it goes without saying that 3 is not permissible. Neither is 4. Despite the problems with the new Olympic stadium, and the emblem, the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee failed to do its homework properly (likewise NHK). That alone is of huge concern, but even more questionable are the ethics of the creators of the handover ceremony themselves. Gutai founder Yoshihara Jiro drummed it into the group’s members that they should “never imitate others, but make things never made before.“ Surely the same goes for any self-respecting artist.
No matter how those concerned might respond at this point, or not respond, as the case may be; no matter the legality, or otherwise, in my view, this is a truly regrettable incident. The decent thing to do would be to apologize sincerely, and ask the Babel team to produce the opening ceremony for the Tokyo Olympics, or at least collaborate on it. Whether they would want to is anyone’s guess, but I will note that the next performance of Babel is at the Lincoln Center at the end of October. If any of the production team for the handover ceremony have yet to see Babel, I suggest they join with a few members of the JOC and/or Tokyo Olympics organizing committee, travel to New York, and acquaint themselves with it promptly.
(English translation: Pamela Miki Associates)