Ukiyo (Moveable Worlds)

Inspired by the landscape designs of Hiroshige and the evanescent, fleeting beauty portrayed in the Japanese Ukiyo-e artworks the team wanted to experiment with transmuting the inner dreams, beliefs and conflicts of the performers into surreal visual representations. The Leaf Woman, like a child of nature on an attempt to break the concrete cell of her industrial prison, forms a safe haven in her mind. Just like digital technology, the characters are broken down into code and reassembled in a virtual form, filtered through the colors, the textures and the visions portrayed in the art of Hiroshige and early 19th century Ukiyo-e artists.

                     Fig. 1 Autumn Moon on Ishiyama Temple from the work The Eight Views of Omni. Hiroshige, 1818.

Conceptual Scene Design

We have a dancer appearing on stage looking for an escape from a corrupted industrial world, a place where she can find rest, peace and tranquility. Just like a shaman, she begins her dance, imagining the concrete world around her to crack, slowly revealing the nature she longed to see for so long. She does not want to immediately form an image of a nature scene in her head; she would rather take her time in doing it. Or even better create a playground for herself, one that she could use to repeat the process of creation. She wants this so much, that she does not want it to finish. This playground is her safety, as long as it exists; she can come back to it as many times as she wishes, eternally repeating the process. She knows that once the creation finishes, it is over. She would have to return back to her own world, the one that exists outside her own mind.

The place starts to emerge from her imagination. It is like an extension of her wishes flowing onto her dress, and then the dress extends all around her, creating a fortress of solitude. This world has nothing to do with the outside world. It has its own time, its own physical rules. In there she is the creator, she dictates what happens. She can invoke trees, she can make the grass grow, she can call for the sun or she can call for rain. Every single object in the world is connected with each other, it is aware of its own existence and of the existence of the others. It is constantly changing and constantly shifting. She has formed it, only she has the power to destroy it. The life span of the space depends entirely on her.  The world itself is an embodiment of its creator. It has its own intelligence, because that is what the creator wanted out of it. In order to create a playground, the creator knew that the world must behave unpredictably. She would not want her creation to become repetitive.  Therefore the space has developed intelligence, or rather has inherited enough intelligence from its creator, in order to perform the tasks at hand.  There is a totality in her world.

The Leaf Woman though is just a person. Just like everyone, she is not perfect. Therefore neither can her creation be perfect. She has tried to replicate the work of nature, a task which is close to impossible. The knowledge she has passed to her world is merely how nature acts in her imagination. She has no idea how long it takes for a leaf to fall from a tree or how long it takes for a tree to grow from the ground.  It takes as long as she wants it to take. And that is exactly what is reflected in her world.

Fig. 2 Composite of real world and virtual world 2010 © DAP-Lab

The concept of “ukiyo,” in the Japanese traditional sense refers to an impermanent, evanescent world of fading natural landscapes, a realm divorced of responsibilities of the mundane everyday world. The world as viewed through the eyes of Hiroshige is dynamic, constantly changing, constantly evolving. As the virtual world is formed the creator of the space (the Leaf Woman) is faced with a concrete floor in the midst of an empty island, her feet touching the cold semi fragmented surface, the last connection to her real world. The space feels static, foggy, and the moody lighting makes most of the world undefined. She looks around the empty space, the dark and cloudy sky, and falls on the floor touching and feeling the familiar texture. She slowly realizes this is her world, the digital code is part of her and she has the ability to mold the space. She slowly gets up on her feet, gaining confidence, and with a jump cracks the cement. As she is struggling to understand how to handle this externalization of her embodied state, she realizes that the environment is no longer static. She notices a slight shift in the clouds, a slight movement of the wind. She jumps again, and this time her landing cracks the cement even more. She can feel the space moving and with a final jump the concrete is shuttered. The clouds are now moving, the wind is blazing, she has just kick started her world.

The Leaf Woman looks up in the sky extending her arms, willing the clouds to slowly subside. She can feel for the first time the sunlight on her skin. The colors of the world around her become brighter, she falls to the ground again, pushing the floor with strength from deep within her and as if by magic her code is erupting in the shape of mountains and rocks.  The landscape takes shape just like a woodcut painting, carved by the momentum of the dancer moving in space. Lakes are formed, their crystal water reflecting the digital clouds soaring the sky.

The world, behaving like nature, is randomizing the Leaf Woman's creations. Rocks are generated in random locations, the landscape molds following gravitational forces, water flows in random directions. The space has physical properties, the rocks will slide down mountains, the sky will pour down rain. Vegetation seems to develop by itself. The world is evolving, with or without the contribution of its creator.

As the Leaf Woman extends her arms once more to the sky she invokes her summoning powers. Grass is now appearing all over the island. At will, she can mash up the code from the ground which rises and recombines, forming trees which seem to tear up the ground and climb out, taking their stance magnificently on the surface while they heal the ground. Embodied with their own will power, like a code created from a code, these trees possess their own intelligence. They can walk around the space and possess spatial awareness. Leaves from the branches are gracefully falling to the ground, bending to the autumn desires of their creator.

Fig. 3  Katsura Isobe dancing during the creation scene in UKIYO,  Sadler's Wells  2010 © DAP-Lab


The Leaf Woman is now playing with the space, her bare feet touching the grass while she moves elegantly around her trees. She invokes rain and she magically makes the leaves from the ground follow her will and shoot high up in the air, directing them into shapes as they glide back down. As she changes the physical properties of the space, the rocks, the trees, the water flow upwards and as she switches the centripetal gravitational force to a centrifugal she watches the digital world decomposing into an outwards spiral, only to return back to normal state whenever she wills it.

The virtual environment, just like the Leaf Woman’s imaginary world, has come into existence and lingers and floats in space. The synoptic flow, the theme and the mood of the “creation scene” had been placed into context by taking under consideration the architect’s interpretation of the narrative, the artistic concepts of the ukiyo-e’s evanescence worlds, the colors and compositions of Hiroshige’s woodcuts, the vision of Danjoux’s garment designs, Isobe’s character development of the Leaf Woman and the fragmented immersive theme of the UKIYO (Moevable Worlds) production.  

Fig. 4  Katsura Isobe,  Sadler's Wells  2010 © DAP-Lab

Videos of the Performance.

From Kibla Media Art center:


Ukiyo (Moveable Worlds)

From Sadlers wells: