Last spring, as Japan’s heavy travel restrictions for visitors persisted, thoughts about division and isolation weighed on Sophia Noel, a Bay Area native who currently lives in Tokyo. As the dancer was reviewing performing arts grants, she wondered, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to create a piece that showcases both San Francisco and Japan?”
She took that musing further, imagining the borderless exchange of ideas: “The person across the world from you is your neighbor, is someone you can reach out to and work with and collaborate with, as well as find joy and humanity with,” Noel elaborates.
Thus, Tonari, which translates to “neighbor” or “next to” in Japanese, came to be, evolving into a short film plus a live contemporary dance and jazz performance. After premiering in Tokyo on January 18, it will arrive at San Francisco's ODC Theater on January 27. The latter also entails a Q&A session with Noel and musician Akira Tana, moderated by New York Times best-selling author Shaka Senghor. A follow-up event, including a film screening and a Q&A, is slated for the Museum of the African Diaspora on February 2.
“At the core of this project,” says Noel, “we want to bring cultures together — to elevate our cultures by sharing them, by exploring them, by remixing them in new ways. We’re trying to create something that you’ll walk away from and think, ‘Wow, that is an experience I haven’t had before in a live performance.’”
Noel, Tonari’s choreographer and executive producer, identifies as Black and Jewish. Composer, jazz drummer and San Francisco Conservatory of Music professor Tana, who resides on the Peninsula, is Japanese American. A third Tonari collaborator, director and cinematographer Ben Tarquin, is French American and divides his time between the East Bay and Fukuoka, a city on the northern shore of Japan’s Kyushu Island.
Growing up in Silicon Valley, Noel considered dance a hobby. After graduating from Columbia University, she worked in marketing at Airbnb in San Francisco and served as director of the company’s internal dance program. “Dance has always been there,” says Noel. “I’ve always had a passion for it.”
Making it her livelihood was another story. Four years ago, she quit her job and arrived in Tokyo with the intention of staying three months and studying the Japanese language. Enrolling in dance classes proved a game-changer. “I got a lot of encouragement from the studio,” she recalls. “They said, ‘If you train and refine your technique, you can really do it full-time, professionally.’”
As she began developing Tonari, a mutual friend connected her with Tana, a Palo Alto native and founding member of Otonowa. “We play Japanese pop and folk melodies with a jazz twist,” says Tana of the ensemble, whose musicians are of Japanese descent. Otonowa was established in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan, and has held relief fundraisers locally and toured in Japan. Tonari will mark its first concert there since 2019; in the meantime, the group has continued to perform together, like at last year’s Monterey Jazz Festival.
Tana and Noel were soon joined in their multimedia endeavor by Tarquin, to whom Noel was introduced by a neighbor in Tokyo. Tarquin cofounded YouTube channel Yak Films, which features international urban dance groups. During the initial six months or so, the trio fine-tuned Tonari over Zoom. In September, they met in person for the first time to film in San Francisco — for example, capturing Otonowa live at Pier 7 and Noel dancing at the Palace of Fine Arts. The Tokyo scenes were primarily shot in the Shibuya neighborhood, including at the 900-year-old Konno Hachimangu Shrine. (Japan eased its pandemic border restrictions in October.)
Noel describes Tarquin’s film as “a story about identity and belonging, told through dance and jazz music. It takes you through this magical journey between Tokyo and San Francisco.” Immediately after its SFCM screening, she will take the stage with Tokyo-based dancer Sayuri Hirayama, who also co-choreographed the performance, as Otonowa accompanies them.
In addition to melding cultures, Tonari combines contemporary and traditional art forms. Otonowa’s work on the project, which involves iconic tracks along with original scoring, incorporates instruments such as the fan drum and shakuhachi flute. The dance piece has Eastern, Western and African influences, says Noel, whose hip-hop, salsa, swing and ballet training comes through, as do “the hyper-controlled and very Zen movements” of Japanese butoh dance theater.
“I want audiences to feel like a place as foreign and far as Japan is really just right next to you,” she says. “I hope it obviously delights people, but also makes them feel like the world is a little bit closer, smaller; a little bit more relatable, accessible. The idea that we can showcase these two beautiful cities that are so different, yet highlight a common humanity through the arts, through music, through dance, is so powerful.”