Teaching Tokyo’s homeless to dance

Choreographer Yuki Aoki explains how dance can help men living on the streets overcome fear and hopelessness

When I started working with homeless people in 2007, many people assumed I was trying to rescue them from the streets by including them in my performance projects, as if it was an attempt to ‘correct’ them or right some injustice. But this was not the case. My interest was in the arts, not in social welfare programmes. I wanted to work with these men because I saw they had great artistic potential.

My first task was to find the dancers. The first six months of scouting were unfruitful, then I got a break thanks to The Big Issue Japan. I was invited to participate in some of the magazine distributors’ meetings and share my ideas about dancing. The real breakthrough happened when I danced in front of the people who turned up. At that moment, it was not about technique, I just wanted to show them the enjoyment of moving freely through everyday movements, such as jumping, rolling and tripping. As I kept ‘dancing’ in front of them, I began to make more progress. Every time I finished my dance, I concluded with this: ‘I’ve just moved freely. Show me your freedom.’

Read: Tero Saarinen’s Morphed aims to question masculinity 

It took me two years to find six willing participants. That’s when SOKERISSA! was formed. Dancers join and leave. Currently we have five members. The average age is 48. There is a former actor, a barman, a security guard, a fashion industry worker and a construction guy. Their backgrounds vary. For example, one man lost his parents when he was young, and missed out on an education. When we perform together, my fellow dancers publicly expose their homelessness. Their presence on the stage broadcasts to the world that they live on the streets. This is not easy for them.

Towada Arts Centre
SOKERISSA! performing at Towada Arts Centre

The overwhelming majority of Tokyo’s homeless are men. While I have met a few women living on the streets, I’ve found it much more difficult to communicate with them. Living on the street is a frightening experience. The homeless tend to congregate in busy places in order to avoid being attacked. They have developed resilient survival techniques, but it’s a harsh existence.

In our modern society, what is the definition of being a man? I am looking for my own answer by investigating the simplicity of the living body – the SOKERISSA! project is a part of this process. I am inspired by primitive bodies that lived by hunting. In many ways they were highly sophisticated, with muscles shaped by purpose. They were tenacious and focussed on survival. Modern man inherited his DNA from them. But in a society where there is no need to hunt, this DNA seems to have lost its purpose. Instead, frustrated aggression is now aimed at different targets, whether that’s attacking the socially weak or destroying the environment. I believe it creates a dislocation between body and soul, and a numbing of the senses.

Read: The arts offer a safe haven to discover gender identity 

Most of our dancers are men who have lived on the streets only for a short while. However when the SOKERISSA! project becomes more accepted as an artistic company and there is broader demand for our performances, it would be wonderful if more of the long-term homeless are inspired to join us. Our dancers will become advocates and could help encourage those who currently prefer to stay hidden to come and perform with us. I believe this will have a significant impact on our society.

Yuki Aoki at Yokohama Triennale Kazuo Ohno Festival
Yuki Aoki at Yokohama’s Kazuo Ohno Festival

Since 2007 we’ve held more than 40 street performances and produced five stage shows, including the 2011 dance event at the Towada Art Center in Aomori and at the Kazuo Ohno Festival in 2011 and 2013 (a fringe event of the Yokohama Triennale). One of our dreams is to perform abroad, especially at the Edinburgh Festival. It must be exciting to mingle with people from all over the world. I am very interested in how non-Japanese people would interpret our movements – is it artistic?

I also want the company to visit some developing countries. Dancing in front of, or among, other less-privileged people could have a dramatic affect on our dancers’ lives. If we filmed our journey we might be able to touch many of the privileged people around the world. For myself, I think this kind of experience will help me understand why I chose to work with the homeless in the first place.