Light dissolves into dark, sounds scatter, and fabrics dance—everything on stage is a one-off, collaborative improvisation.
It’s hard to explain exactly what it is that goes on in a Circo de Sastre (circus of tailors) production. Spectators express the scene unfolding before their eyes variously as a magnanimous setting, a spiritual festival, and a device that sends you flying to another world.
The cast features Daiho Soga improvising melodies on the flute, the cavaquinho, a tape recorder, and toy instruments; until his recent death Gandhi was a regular on a his milky way sounding double base; and Takayuki Suzuki taking swathes of fabric, cutting them with a large pair of shears, tying the strips in knots, and stitching them on a sewing machine. The three central members are joined by guests from different genres according to the performance.
“When we started Circo de Sastre, we wanted to try and make an art form that didn’t have a name yet,” says Daiho, the mastermind behind the troupe’s performance style.
“Everything has a birthday, right? Jazz or reggae, for example, came into being at a certain point in time. At that moment, it was still a nameless phenomenon that could only be described as ‘The music that sounds like so-and-so.’ Eventually, the phenomenon got a name, then its founding fathers passed away, and a hundred or a thousand years later, those of us living today enjoy playing or listening to their music. I wanted to do something similar—try my hand at making a performing art so fundamental that it would be handed down to posterity.”
Daiho’s ideas are deeply influenced by a hitchhiking trip he took after graduating from high school. He experienced a Kagura performance in the Tohoku region of northern Japan, and discovered contemporary circus on the way there. Each had a liberal and permissive atmosphere, and neither forced the conventions of time or choreography on the audience. Daiho found that captivating.
“I visited a village in the Tohoku region to watch a traditional Kagura dance. When the showtime came, no one entered the court, and there was no sign that a ceremony was about to take place. Then, something resembling a performance began. It appeared to gain momentum, but soon lost it. The next thing I knew, a man in the audience put on his mask, leaped out dancing, and seemed to lead the Kagura. The children watched on, climbed up and down the tree, and left without warning. Everything was so fuzzy and ambiguous. Or should I say the borderlines were fuzzy. To me, the whole experience felt perfectly comfortable.”
Afterward, Daiho didn’t remember much about the Kagura itself, although it was the object of his journey, but instead, he remembered the scene that unfolded before his eyes—the distant forest beyond the Kagura, the interaction between the performers and the spectators, and the hazy passage of time, with no clear beginning or ending. It was the pole opposite of a deliberate, intentional stage production, and it was Daiho’s long sought relationship between the stage and the house.
“A typical live concert or performance is designed to tell you where to pay attention because ‘This is the highlight,’ or ‘This is the funny part,’ or ‘This is where you’re supposed to be moved to tears.’ That controlled presentation always made me feel uncomfortable. What I saw and felt during the Kagura stage in Tohoku showed me how to overcome that discomfort.”
The freedom to step outside the boundaries of someone else’s convention is carried over into Circo de Sastre.
To start with, a member is free to leave the stage when he’s satisfied, even if the show is still going on. Daiho actually tried this once, to the surprise of the other members and the spectators. He has also given a reading on a whim (readings are a standard element of the show today), and begun inspecting and repairing the lighting fixtures before a full house.
Also, a member may refuse to perform on stage if he doesn’t feel up to it. “Your family would forgive you for canceling at the last minute. In the same way, society should forgive you too.” Daiho goes on innocently:
“Our lives are defined by all kinds of invisible lines, from teamwork to social norms. I wanted to blur those lines. I believe the vague blur will give many people a sense of relief and calmness.”
Daiho says his role is to smudge the lines. He has been experimenting with different ways to do this.
To give a simple example, ages 18 and under are admitted to a Circo de Sastre performance free of charge. Except 18 isn’t a strict rule. Anyone in the forties or even fifties is welcome to request a complimentary ticket if they’re short on cash or just feel like getting a freebie.
Spectators are also free to move seats midway through a performance, take pictures and videos, eat and drink, and let their kids be loud. (A market always pops up next to the Circo de Sastre stage selling everything from pastries, coffee, curry, and pepper to hats, books, and musical instruments.)
Circo de Sastre offers a public space without any constraints, where everyone present is respected, tolerant of everyone else, and welcome to be himself or herself.
“I went solo backpacking as a student, and it made me really happy. At the time, I thought I was a nuisance by just being me, and others hated it when I talked for too long. Being solo meant there was no one to give me a scolding or get fed up if I forgot something.”
A crowd where Daiho in his youth can blend in, and other kids and youths like him can too—”That just might be my ideal Circo de Sastre,” says Daiho.
All kinds of ideas rush through his head. But first and foremost, Circo de Sastre must grow into a strong performing art that will be around a hundred or a thousand years from now.
“Each production needs to be amazing. That much goes without saying. Beyond that, to make an art form that doesn’t have a name yet, I’d also like to smudge the lines around the workings of society and the conventions unique to Japan that no one upholds anymore. I will need to do a lot more experimenting.”
Come and experience a Circo de Sastre show. Watch and listen, and let the light and sounds roll around inside your body.