Unlike the top-billing dancers at past Singapore Flamenco Festivals, the highlight of Hiroki Sato’s performance wasn’t a dazzling piece of rapid-fire footwork. Instead, it was when he stopped his dance to talk.
As the music came to a stop, Sato introduced himself in halting English, slipping occasionally into vosotros instead of we–he’s fluent only in Spanish and Japanese. Remarkably, armed only with outsized arm gestures and an infectious smile, he managed to get the seated audience warmed up, and to learn how to clap in time. By the time he gets back to his dance, the audience is already a boisterous sea of cheers and “Ole!”
Sato did this same warm-up routine on both days of his performances at Versatility / Flamencasia double bill, which took place at the Goodman Arts Centre’s Black Box in the evening. We thought it was a rather good gimmick for engaging an audience tired after an hour of sitting down.
But when we interviewed Sato on the final morning of his stay in Singapore, we learned this wasn’t just a routine. It’s part of what he learned in his previous career as a caregiver.
The path to a career in dance
Seated across us and dressed down in a t-shirt and track pants, Sato looks freshened up as best as he could after two days of non-stop stage work. His energy level, however, was comparable to when we saw him on stage.
Sato began by telling us his two inspirations as a teenager. His creative muse: Antonio Gades in the 1981 dance film Blood Wedding; His worldview: John Lennon’s Imagine. While in senior high school, he started a volunteer to help special-needs children of low-income families and single mothers transit from nursery to full-time school. Together with a likeminded senior, Hisayo Kamiya, whom he met at an event, he networked with volunteer clubs all over Japan.
When they graduated, Kamiya went on to start a non-profit organisation. As for Sato, he embarked on a dual career: as a flamenco student and performer, and as a certified caregiver to seniors and persons with disabilities.
Eventually, Sato chose the path of a professional dancer. He went on to win the Grand Prize at the 2004 Cultural Affairs Arts Festival, and became co-director of the Arte y Solera dance company with his mentor and partner Mayumi Kagita.
A return to the disabilities community
But Sato never forgot his experiences as a caregiver: The deep, heartfelt songs of the flamenco cante was a constant reminder of the primal human need for communication and expression, as well as the spontaneous sounds by some special needs children.
The opportunity to reconnect with the disability community came in 2006 when Mr. Kamiya invited him to stage a production involving people with various disabilities at the Te o Tsunagu Oyakokai (self-help centre) in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka.
Despite his experience with caregiving and teaching dance, the project presented an unexpected challenge. On his first day, faced with performers who had a diverse set of disabilities such as Down Syndrome, autism, upper- as well as lower-body immobility, he did not know how to even begin teaching them the basic flamenco arm movements and timed clapping.
“I was utterly beaten,” admitted Sato.
“Feel. Don’t think.”
Sato eventually found an answer in the fundamentals of flamenco: The compas (or rhythm), in which he immerses himself in Jerez, Spain, every year, where he has made his second home for the last decade.
The Bulerias is a folk dance born in Jerez, Spain, where it is performed at weddings, festivals, parties and in the streets. The dance is difficult for non-Spanish learners because of its highly improvisional nature and its reliance on a complex 12-beat rhythm. But among the natives of Jerez, even children learn and perform the Bulerias, guided by parents and grandparents and neighbours.
“The difference—or the secret—of teaching Bulerias [among people in Jerez] lies in foregoing the explanation and getting straight to the rhythm. They chant it as a song. Tomas ay, tomas ay, toma toma to.”
Once he let go of conventional, studio-bound ideas about how dance should be taught, things changed quickly. Members of the cast began responding to the song in a coordinated fashion, yet in individual unique ways: those who stood tapped their feet and moved their bodies; those in wheelchairs rocked their heads and tapped their armrests. Suddenly, the idea of a performance by people with disabilities coalescenced into reality.
“The world changed before my eyes,” said Sato, his face lighting up as he recalled the scene.
With progress finally showing, Sato continued to train the dancers for six months, shuttling between Shizuoka and his dance company in Tokyo. The performance was staged on March 2006.
Asked about what the disabled performers learned from this project, Sato demurred. “I can’t generalise about how they benefited from the experience. Some kids were visibly moved to tears as they danced. Others simply moved as they were told.” He then laughed. “But actually, it was often the parents and adult caregivers who couldn’t get into it!”
In art, a common humanity
This experience with disabled performers has become one that he recreates for audiences five years later.
“What was special about that project was the way dance seemed to transform the relationships of caregivers and care receivers. For a moment, while the music played, the adults ceased to be parents, and children ceased to be disabled. Their social roles as caregivers simply dissolved.”
Today, Sato thinks of flamenco dance as a transformative ritual that applies across cultures and abilities. It was the able-bodied participants, not the one with disabilities, who gained most from the experience— himself included. Art has the power to level social roles and asymmetries in relationships. “It is a tool to unite and make people simply become equals,” he said. “I also reaffirmed that social work isn’t about serving, but about mutual learning.”
“The flamenco cante is similar to the cry of life. It is different from traditional singing as a performance. It is naked. There’s not ornamentation. The cante is a part of daily life. There’s no escape from it.”
Hiroki Sato is a flamenco dancer and choreographer based in Tokyo, Japan. Winner of the Grand Prize at the 2004 Cultural Affairs Arts Festival (as well as other domestic and international awards), Hiroki shuttles between Tokyo, where he is co-director of the flamenco theatre company ‘Arte y Solera’, and Jerez, Spain, his adopted second home. Prior to his career as a professional dancer, Sato worked as a certified caregiver and nursery teacher, working with people with disabilities.
Sato was in Singapore in June 2016 to perform and conduct workshops at the 2016 Singapore Flamenco Festival (21 May – 12 June 2016).