It may be a hard concept for those of us who embrace the laid back Kootenay lifestyle to understand, but in the 1980s the Japanese government started tracking cases of karōshi, the term they use to describe death by overwork.
In Tokyo it became common for high ranking business executives to die suddenly, either by suicide or a stress-induced heart attack or stroke, after putting in excessively long hours at the office.
Vancouver choreographer Shay Kuebler learned about this topic while reading a New York Times article about sarin attacks on Tokyo subways in 1995. The publication cited karōshi and the salary man lifestyle as context for the attacks, and the image stuck with Kuebler.
“Here’s this culture of people who are supremely dedicated and have these positive and honourable values that, in a modernistic society, were becoming very damaging to themselves,” said Kuebler. “I found something really powerful in that. It’s beautiful in a way, but also extremely dark.”
Three years ago, Kuebler started developing a full-length dance performance on the topic. He went to Tokyo for research and, though karōshi isn’t as wide spread as it once was, he still saw people working at computers late into the night and business men sleeping in their suits at bars. It was rich material to base a show on.
Kuebler brought together an all-male ensemble of six dancers who debuted the show, fittingly titled KAROSHI, at the 2011 Dance in Vancouver festival to critical acclaim.
Vancouver Weekly described the performance as, “fully embodied entertainment and artistry at such high levels,” while Industry Dance Magazine called it “an impressive display of explosive athleticism.”
The show is very multidisciplinary, combining several dance styles alongside martial arts and theatrical elements. There’s light manipulation and video projections happening around the dancers and live taiko drumming on stage.
Kuebler said the main message in the show is a need for balance, which certainly in Japan would mean working less. Though he admits that some Canadian audiences don’t struggle with that.
“In North American culture, maybe we sometimes need more dedication and more drive and honour in how we do things, while the Japanese maybe need a little bit more of our ability to let go,” he said
On April 16 Kuebler’s KAROSHI will come to the Capitol Theatre, as part of the theatre’s season presentation series. The show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30 for adults or $24 for students or season subscribers. Buy tickets online at capitoltheatre.bc.ca or charge by phone at 250-352-6363.