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Challenging the Limit of the Human Body

——— Interview with Yasuaki Yoshikawa (Wheel Performer)

In a tent set up in the heart of Times Square, the inventive and daring performance company, Spiegelworld is premiering its new circus/burlesque show, Empire. Among the multi-national cast members, Japanese performer, Yasuaki Yoshikawa, who specializes in the Rhonrad apparatus, is entertaining audiences with his acrobatic and powerful talent.  Chopsticks NY sat and talked with Mr. Yoshikawa about the show and his career path.

First of all, what is this sport Rhonrad or the German Wheel?
It was originally made as a toy for kids in Germany about 70 years ago. Then, it became used in the Nazi training camps to train pilots. After the war, it was recognized as a sport.

What was your introduction to this sport?
As a young child, my favorite thing was to watch the Olympic gymnastics. I longed to be a gymnast, but where I lived there were no gymnastic training classes. So I gave up on that. But then, when I entered university, the University had a gymnastics team. I went to the team orientation one day, and this thing, a wheel, came rolling out into my sight.  “What on earth?”, I thought, and it was like love at first sight. That was the moment something clicked in my head and I thought, “this is my sport.”

Was there a coach at the University?
Yes, it was a man who was still doing gymnastics at the age of 60. He could make the wheel moves even at his age. The reason I am here now is largely because of him.

But you were not a gymnast yet at the time. You must have had all these muscles you had not even used before.
I had muscle pains every single day. But every time I thought I reached my limit, the coach would say, “I know you can do it.” Every time he said that, I would be like, “You really think so?” and it made me try harder. The coach was always looking a step ahead.

And you were undefeated for a while in Nationals while at the University…?
I had no intentions of entering into the competition, but that coach registered me in it without my knowledge. After he did so, he told me, and I was like “What? Let’s not be crazy,” but then I soon reconsidered and decided to give it my best and learned all these new tricks. Back then there were only video tapes, so I would watch videos of other athletes and consulted the coach when I found a move I wanted to incorporate into my training.  When I got to the competition, however, I was a bit confused because all the other athletes were not doing tricks that were that difficult. So after the competition, I asked him “Some other athletes told me I was doing too much.” He said, “I wanted for you to look towards the world, and compete at that level.” So I was like, “What? It was beyond the national level?” [laugh] The following year, I got a ticket, which I bought myself, to go to the World Championships just three years after I started training.

Rhonrad is not very common in Japan, but does it work well with the Japanese physique?
I think it’s a good sport for Japanese people because they are studious. When I first discovered this sport, I thought it was very interesting, but at the same time, I also felt it was not the most glamorous sport. So you have to have the determination and will to know everything about the sport, and I think Japanese people are good at pursuing something to the core.

What made you switch from competition Rhonrad to performance Rhonrad.
The first time I thought I wanted to perform the Rhonrad was right after the World Championships. At the world level, you do your act with music. And watching all the world leaders in this sport perform to music, I thought, “Wow, this is what I want to do”. Watching them up close, performing, and listening to their breath, watching their muscles move, I got goose bumps. From that day on, I decided to warm up to the idea of leading that life. At the time, I was learning agriculture at the University. I really wanted to continue with the studies so I was torn. But at the end, I could not let this path pass me by.

After that, you got involved in the Muscle Musical in Las Vegas.
Yes. I was there for two years, but I can say that those two years were probably the most challenging. Vegas is the mecca of entertainment. To have the chance to perform there alone was so special. And to perform for audiences who already have a good eye for performance was very challenging.

It’s also a very challenging industry with so many performers from all over the world.
Yes, the competition is fierce. To be able to stand out, you really have to have something that is yours. Many people do the same performance, but they do it with different emotions, and expressions, and within that you have to find your own “color”, your own “temperature”, if you will. That’s something I still think about everyday, and if someone asked me if I found it, I would say, I have ways ahead of me.

That’s where you met the guys from Spiegelworld from Empire?
Right. In Vegas, you have all these shows, there are these clowns. These clowns have workshops where they would showcase some new acts at a late night show called “

1230 Show”. I was interested in the clown act, so I jumped in and polished my act there. It so happened that during one of the shows, the Empire producer, Ross Mollison was watching. After the show a man came up to me, and he said to me, “Can you perform that in a 9 foot space”? I was thinking, “9 feet means 3 meters… that’s going to be tough.” Just as I was about to say “no” to him, the director of the 1230 Show

came out of nowhere and answered “Yes, yes. He can perform anywhere.” So that was that, and Ross left. After he left, the director of the show said, “Why didn’t you answer ‘yes’ right away? A guy with your talent should never say ‘no’.” That’s when I learned that even if I am feeling not quite ready, I have to put a lid on that feeling and just go for it. That’s the American way.

It’s very American, indeed.
After that, I looked for Ross on Facebook, and wrote him, “Yes I can! Please give me a chance.” Then he replied, “Come practice once.” So I started practicing there. He also requested me to do the double-ring wheel. But the double-ring requires more distance and space, so I was thinking it was impossible on that stage. Then, Ross said he was expanding the stage just for me. However, even then, the stage was too small, but since they believed in me so much, I wanted to make it work. So I said “ I can do it. I just have to customize a smaller wheel and change the bar position.” To that, Ross said, “Let’s do it.”

What would you say is the appeal of the show Empire?
I think the appeal of the show is the distance between performers and the crowd. It’s so close, that if performers lost even a little bit of their concentration, it shows. And that difference is a big difference. A little change you bring to the routine elicits a big reaction from the audience. It’s quite amazing.

You are working with a very diverse group of people from all over the world. What is that like?
It’s so much fun every day. Top notch performers from all over the world gather here and it’s wonderful. For example, everyone has their own way of warming up backstage, so I learn something new each day. And after work, hanging out outside of the tent is also a lot of fun. Every person brings a different culture to the table. Many don’t even speak English, like me, so we communicate with our hearts. I love that aspect the most.

Please tell me about the time you made a consolation tour with your friend to the 3.11 disaster zone.
When the 3/11 disaster struck, I was in Chicago. I could not fathom what was happening in Japan, or even imagine it. The internet information was vague, and finally watching TV, I began to grasp the situation. The disaster struck in March, and I was scheduled to go back in July. So until my return I thought about what I could do for Japan, so I went to the disaster zone and started volunteering. But I was not sure if I should perform there. While I was contemplating, I got an invitation from a volunteer organization to perform there.

We traveled the Oshika Peninsula and performed at a number of places, and everywhere we performed the people there were so happy. But wherever we went, people came to us and said, “Thank you for coming all this way. But there is another town over there that was hit hard. Please go there for them.” The people there were always thinking of others, and seeing that gave me a lot of motivation. I was thankful they let me perform for them.

Was this after you were a part of Empire?
No it was right before I joined. It was right after this experience when that offer came, and I still very much wanted to continue performing for people. I know that there is no connection between my experiences in the disaster area and the offer from Empire, yet I can’t help but feel that there is. The offer from Empire reassured my pursuit of continuing Rhonrad with the mindset of “performing for the people”.

NY is the mecca of theater. The audiences have a very fine-tuned eye, too. What sort of reception have you had here?
People are very honest here. If they think the show is boring, they show it in their faces. Sometimes, I would think I’ve done enough, but then I realize it wasn’t enough at all. I have had several instances where it felt like I was beaten on the head. They look at you with sharp eyes, making me think I did not do enough when that wasn’t the case, either. There is no question the NY audiences have high standards. I can feel it even from the stage.

Rhonrad, a sport so far only really known in Germany, Japan, and Holland, but it seems that it’s on the verge of becoming Internationally recognized, yes?
I would be really happy if more people became interested and took up Rhonrad after seeing the performance.

– Interview by Hideo Nakamura

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Spiegelworld’s Empire is scheduled to run until September 2nd.
The tent at located in 265 W. 45th St. (bet. Broadway and 8th Ave.)
http://www.spiegelworld.com/empirenewyork.html
Yoshikawa’s blog: ameblo.jp/wheelmaster