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Issue 013  Koki Nakano

Capturing Humanity and World through Dance

Photograph by Lucille Reyboz

 It was mid-March when we scheduled our interview to Paris-based Japanese pianist, Koki Nakano. It did not take long before COVID-19 affected our plan to meet Nakano at Tokyo during his concert tour in Japan (which was eventually postponed), due to his new album Pre-Choreographed.

 Evoking the strong “saudade” for the era when the music and the dance were very close to each other, this album explores piano music beyond listener’s expectations. Although the concept and music pieces were completed before the worldwide pandemic, our conversations via video connecting Paris and Tokyo revealed authentic hints on capturing humanity and world through dance, at this very moment amid the exceptional paradigm shift.

From a predecessors’ interpreter to pursuer of own art


 Born in 1988 at Fukuoka, Tokyo, Nakano realized his musical devotion at a very young age. Perhaps it was just the beginning of what has become his present creative attitude.


 “I remember asking my parents that I wanted to play music because my teacher at kindergarten, which was prominent for its musical education, told me I had talent. That was when I was only three. My parents did not have any professional musical background, so they thought ‘If he was going to play music, then piano would do’. That’s how I started taking piano lessons at a local music class. I was tend to take piano as a tool to express myself, so I would usually ignore what was written on the score and play it in my style.”


 Later on, I found Nakano play a Bach piece on Instagram stories. Having played piano as a child myself, it was such a delight to see someone play (and slightly hum) a repetitive, almost mechanic-feeling piece in an emotional way, clearing what he said.


 “But after I entered music high school and went through pre-professional education, I realized classical music performers ‘should have in mind of the composer’s purpose, study and interpret it through performance’. The uncomfortableness worsened after I graduated, resulting me to cancel my overseas study and even made me almost quit classic piano. That was just two weeks, but those two weeks changed my life forever.

Back then I was living with my older brother at Tokyo, who was studying film and drama, art philosophy in general. Being influenced by his interests, I considered being a director in film or stage. Eventually, I have been playing music all my life, so I decided to get involved into pursuing my own art through music first. This is why I entered Department of Composition at Tokyo University of the Arts.”


 After entering university, He joined music band GAS LAW formed by his brother Yuta Nakano, Daiki Tsuneta (present member of rock band King Gnu) and French cellist Robin Dupuy where he strenuously composed pieces for them. Participating in the band’s Paris tour thanks to Dupuy’s connections, Nakano also had several solo concert opportunities in France. This is how the member of French independent label Nø Førmat encountered the piano prodigy as one of the audiences. Having composed numerous cello-piano repertoires yet to be performed as a duet with Dupuy, Nakano made his debut album Lift  from Nø Førmat with his friend and world-renowned cellist Vincent Segal.

Koki Nakano & Vincent Segal - Introduction I (Official Video)

 Nakano now resides in Paris where he immerses himself into various forms of art. Dance is not an exception, which may have connection with his longtime “habit” while composing.


 “I always have had various images of body movements when I compose – Someone turning around, taking some steps, not fully what you might call ‘dance’ or ‘choreography’. But it greatly helps visualizing the natural flow of the energy we could experience through daily life. Like Lift, which became the album title, was developed from my image of a dancer gently lifting up his partner with trembling arms.

I got involved into dance seriously after meeting dancer Mariko Kakizaki, member of L-E-V Dance Company. In autumn 2018 I met her while her Paris visit for the performance at Dior fashion show. About a month later, I saw her dancing L-E-V’s Sara at Musée de l'Orangerie as one of the programs for FIAC.”


 At this moment, Nakano had some new music pieces coming up but was at the state of indecision on how to bundle it as an album. Struggling the limitations of conventional ways, Sara brought up a new door for his creative approaches.


 “The dance piece made me imagine an ambiguous situation before humans gained individualities – A very primitive situation that every human being experiences before birth, when they are floating inside the womb and is connected to a great universe through the umbilical cord. This image made me reexamine the relationship between music and dance, which used to be very close artforms.”

Performance of Sara from FIAC official Instagram

Creating dynamic situation maintaining authentic artistry


 Having seen all of L-E-V’s Love Cycle series (OCD Love, Love Chapter 2, Chapter 3: Brutal Journey of the Heart) which has been performed at notable theaters all over the world in recent years, Nakano still reminisces Sara as the most inspirational piece which helped him give structure to Pre-Choreographed.

 “There are several things I thought about this piece as an idealistic form of art. To begin with, every dancers moved in freedom as if they were not under control of the choreographer Sharon Eyal. Keeping their individualities, there is still precise composition with natural sense of unity rising on stage. I heard from Mariko that Sharon Eyal sometimes refers L-E-V to a music band. It is obvious she is creating something inevitable from each characters and contexts – True, irreplaceable collaboration happening in company scale, that totally surprised me. Their approach to create a piece with strong message by withdrawing each dancer’s utmost personality and composing its harmony is similar to what I learned from contemporary artist Kohei Nawa, who I previously collaborated. I learned from his Mono-ha-like point of view, how he respects the existing features and material’s voice and makes the most of it. I found connection with Sharon Eyal’s style, which seemed very intriguing and rich to me.”

 Still not having the chance to see L-E-V performances in person, what I found remarkable through observing online videos was, like Nakano said, that each dancers’ original personalities were emphasized throughout the performance. Being physically unique and unlike each other, you could feel the intangible “unison” in the atmosphere and their spirit – No wonder the company name means “heart” in Hebrew. It may be a natural result that Nakano, who has been expressing his personal emotions beyond the music score from early childhood, got hooked to their dance.

 “When seeing their creation, I even feel it is not a problem at all if somebody stumbles by mistake. If that’s the dancer’s condition for that day, that is the dancer’s true movement in that performance. It is up to the dancers how to move with their existing energy. A choreography entrusting the dancers’ activeness consists of vivid vision toward the creation. Again I was moved by their creative stance through studio rehearsal visits and conversations with the dancers.”

 Having been motivated from L-E-V, Nakano himself changed direction of his own artistic creation.

“Another great lesson taught from some excellent contemporary dance performances is of the importance of creating a dynamic state for the subject. Take a child for example. After birth, he/she may develop its ideology along with certain influence from parents, but from some point it becomes an independent existence evolving upon its own judgement and autonomy, its own action. A strong creation leaves space for performers to tell their stories in their own language. I started to become aware of making the ‘situation’ of maintaining authentic artistry and message a creation could hold even if it changes its form.”


 Another dancer Nakano named as one of inspirational dancers was Amala Dianor, who is featured in the music video for Near-Perfect Synchronization. Originally from Senegal with a hip-hop background, the French-based dancer / choreographer is gaining acclamation throughout Europe.


 “His work Quelque part au milieu de l’infini is applying the idea of sampling from hip-hop culture, where three dancers perform in turns with a sampler installed on stage. When the sampler stops playing music, the dancer walks up to it, switches it on again. You could feel the live presence of the performers because the length of pause and play is up to each of them. There is no pressure to strictly uniform, nor the composition too loose. He knows exactly how to cope with time and body’s energy in exquisite balance. It’s hard to explain in words, but it looks like he is scooping every inch of time and releasing it if necessary. If we could face time like his dance we could effortlessly bring abundance to the world. In his creation, I saw hints of sustainable ways of developing that everyone has been longing for.”

Koki Nakano – Near-Perfect Synchronization (Official Video)

Accepting, surrendering to the infinite fragility


 It is regrettable we could not present Nakano’s voice filled with pure excitement and respect to all the dancers he has witnessed. The interview session turned into a phone interview due to unstable network connection, which highlighted this even more. Nakano continued as he started talking of ex-artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company, Ohad Naharin. He too became one of the factors for Nakano to reexamine his creative process standards, but as an example of who not to be.

 “When I saw Naharin’s Decadance for the first time it touched me so deeply I could not stop crying. On the other hand, I felt crystalizing upon total control and betting its fineness is not the approach I should take as an artist.”

 Gaga, a movement method which Naharin developed, guides dancers’ movement through imagery described by words and let them discover their unique potential in physicality. Nevertheless, new generation choreographers like Sharon Eyal and Amala Dianor are transcending Naharin’s achievement. Nakano is not learning about dance creation how-to techniques, but moreover, how to interact with the world from now on.

 “Diversity and sustainability have been discussed for so long. Many people are awkwardly facing these topics upon conventional measures, which is evoking global distortion scientifically and socially. The worldwide tremor happening right now is inevitable because we need to break existing values for the next phase. This is something we should overcome with new ways.”

 Needless to say, rationality has neglected humans’ physicality and complexity and has created distortion regardless of fields. Indeed the crisis led by COVID-19 is an opportunity to unveil the negative aspects of systems we have been shackled by imperceptibly. Depending on how we comprehend dance, it holds the key for us humans to live in true prosperity.

 “Every matter is but a gradation. The half of half exists infinitely, the absolute core does not exist. I feel every human being should accept and embrace, or at times surrender to the fragility, the uncertainty happening inside. How we touch the world with definite life and body ­– Like Sharon Eyal and Amara Dianor, great dancers let me face the infinite possibility and beauty of it.”

Spontaneous collaboration with networks of minds alike

 On completing the album, another notable influence comes from Nakano’s friendship with Mariko Kakizaki, also a Japanese dancer about the same age as him.

 “I talk about things like these to Mariko a lot. She is very intuitive and quickly captures what she needs, so she agreed with me of the new creation standards I wanted to accomplish. When we did an improvisational piano-dance session together, I was astonished at her variety of movement combinations with dynamism, how her body is immersed in freedom. From this experience I started finishing the album.”

Koki Nakano – Bloomer (Official Video)

 “Some pieces in this album is inspired from words Mariko (who is a Gaga teacher herself) uses when dancing her solo on stage. For instance, Genou Respirant was inspired from her words ‘breathing knee’. Her synesthetic vocabularies for guiding body movements are so imaginative.”


 The music video series for Pre-Choreographed was produced by French creative agency ArtBridge. The project was literally a process of creators with the sense of nowness connecting spontaneously. Recalling, Nakano describes the incidents as “miracle”.


 “Though I wanted to make music films to communicate the album concept, I did not know where and who to start with. When I shared my ideas to Olivier Bassuet, co-founder of ArtBridge who came to my previous concert, he understood right away. Later when I made presentation to him, first thing he said to me was ‘We should contact L-E-V’. Benjamin Seroussi, the Israeli-French film director who we chose also named L-E-V as his ideal collaborator, and he was friends with Sharon Eyal. People sensing new creation standards have already built a network of minds alike.”


 The collaborative casts were selected among “dancers I have actually seen through the album creation process, those who moved me from the bottom of my heart” (Nakano). After sharing the album concept, Nakano did not give strict directions to Seroussi, who he extremely trusted throughout the project.


 “What I dreamed of was to have people dance to my music; Inspiring people who embodies the sense of nowness, and shares it to the audience. I simply just wanted to share them through film with many as possible. Great dance conveys, embodies many hints on how to capture the world. I wanted to learn from them, or else creation is meaningless to me. Everyone whom I met through this project is now precious friends of mine.

I met choreographer Damien Jalet through Kohei Nawa, and we deepened exchange through music video for Train-Train. He inspired me on how to deal with the environment through creation, to have a large perspective. Considering his busy schedule, we waited more than a year to take this film so it means so much to me.”

Koki Nakano - Train-Train (Official video)

 Imre Van Opstal and Ben Green featured in Faire le Poirier are dancers from Batsheva Dance Company(as of May 2020). Benjamin has been wanting to collaborate with Imre, so it happened when I brought up this project.”

Koki Nakano - Faire le Poirier (Official video)

 You could actually feel great appreciation toward the project members from Nakano’s voice. Exactly what he has said previously, the project process was to make a dynamic state for creation to live on its own after the basis was shared.


 “The creative team including the director, production members, the label – Everyone told me ‘This is each members’ personal project’. Their patience and effort to gather dancers and bring quality to each video was impeccable. People with different backgrounds found space where they could overlap their common values and express themselves. Otherwise this project could not come true.”


 Diverse spontaneity converging into a single timeline – Hearing his story, a cinematic feel occurred. Speaking of cinema, does anything in present relate to back when he thought of being a film director?


 “I still love movies, especially ones with ensemble casts like Magnolia by Paul Thomas Anderson. I love the idea of multiple characters overlapping through a single storyline – I’m already experiencing that through my musical creation process, so I guess I don’t have to make films anymore (laughs).”


Music and dance could simply be two facets of a phenomenon


 Accepting inside/outside complexity and facing straight forward, creating one’s own art through involving others and entrusting their utmost personalities. This may sound adventurous for those who rely on categorization and controlment, but seeing how Nakano reveals the relationship of music and dance in Pre-Choreographed, it holds the potential to let us do so.


 “Music cannot exist without movement. Music and dance could simply be two facets of a phenomenon, born from the same energy. Rather than saying music encloses physicality, it exists simultaneously. There has been experiments questioning the relationship and distance between music and dance, but I love the quote ‘See the music, hear the dance’ by George Balanchine, who has been a lifetime collaborator of composer Igor Stravinsky. It conveys how the two artforms are potentially inseparable.”


 Written in the album statement is the following sentence;

Any personal perspective could work essentially for the upcoming art scenes, and it is strongly needed for artists, no matter who you are or where you are, to face their own authenticity and dig deep into it.


 Authenticity for human living in this age means indescribable coexistence of conflicting elements, available to change its form at any moment, to be irreplaceable. The corruption of the musical cliché for “major cord = positive / minor cord=negative” may be a correspondent movement for the upcoming world capable for complexity. Dance is indeed the genuine guide to let us touch the infinite power and beauty of authentic humanity, accelerating each individual’s courage to do so.

 Interview & Translate:  Ayae Takise

Nori Edamatsu .jpg
Photograph by Nori Edamatsu 

Koki Nakano


Born in Fukuoka in 1988, Nakano began playing the piano from age 3. Graduated Piano Course at Toho Gakuen Music High School. After entering Department of Composition at Tokyo University of the Arts, he moves his base to Paris. He has played at Lincoln Center (New York), Cadogan Hall (London), Louvre Museum, Maison de la Culture du Japon, Théâtre du Châtelet (Paris). His music has been played through Europian radio stations such as France Musique, RFI, NPO Radio 4, and BBC. In 2016 he released his first album Lift from French label Nø Førmat. He has collaborated with artist Kohei Nawa, choreographer Damien Jalet, and cellist Vincent Segal.




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