BELLA GAIA Brought Japanese Traditions, NASA Images to NYU

On Easter Sunday NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts hosted BELLA GAIA, a spectacular multimedia performance conceived by classically trained violinist and award-winning filmmaker, music producer, and theater director Kenji Williams.

BELLA GAIA, which means “Beautiful Earth,” was a visual and aural feast, and the performance showed how truly magnificent our planet is. Williams, who is half Japanese and half Welsh, sets contemporary music and traditional Japanese art forms against the backdrop of stunning images of Earth provided by NASA.

The production has toured worldwide, but this version of BELLA GAIA, which was presented in collaboration with social network organization J-Collabo, was customized for New York audiences, focusing on Japan’s unique culture, tradition, scenery, aesthetics, and spirituality. J-Collabo is an arts collaboration group that promotes the ancient traditional arts of Japan while bringing those disciplines into the present context. That’s also what this performance of BELLA GAIA did.

BELLA GAIA, Kenji Williams, J-Collabo, NYC, NASA, Japanese traditions, Japanese traditional arts, Japanese culture, DJ Spooky
Kenji Williams, Kristin Hoffman, Deep Singh, and Yumi Kurosawa. Photo by J-Collabo.

For this tour of the world from outer space, Williams brought together New York-based musicians Kaoru Watanabe (taiko drums), Yumi Kurosawa (koto), Deep Singh (percussion), and Kristen Hoffman (keyboards/vocals) to create an otherworldly soundtrack.

Reverend T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki, the Vice President of the Interfaith Center of New York, added to that soundtrack with Buddhist chanting. Combined with ancient imperial court music by the Japanese Gagaku Ensemble and projected video of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines shot by Williams, the ethereal sounds emphasized the richness of Japanese arts and culture and the relationship to the natural world.

BELLA GAIA, Kenji Williams, J-Collabo, NYC, NASA, Japanese traditions, Japanese traditional arts, Japanese culture, DJ Spooky
T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki. Photo by J-Collabo.

It was interesting to see Mayo Yamaguchi’s performance of Noh theater, which has a 600-year history in Japan, performed with not only the traditional koto accompaniment, but with the percussive rhythms of India, the violin, and computer-generated beats.

The special elements of Japan’s past painted a picture of its current landscape. It’s a landscape altered by nature’s force and man’s carelessness. While showing the splendid beauty of our planet, BELLA GAIA also pointed out how fragile the world is. Images of the tsunami that ravaged Northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, and damage from fires that rage worldwide offered a sobering juxtaposition to the magnificent beauty and the theme of harmony from the previous pictures. The finale, highlighted by Läle-Sayoko’s belly dance, reminded us Earth is the only place where we can call home.

BELLA GAIA, Kenji Williams, J-Collabo, NYC, NASA, Japanese traditions, Japanese traditional arts, Japanese culture, DJ Spooky
Kenji Williams (left) with Paul Miller

After the performance, Williams joined Paul Miller (DJ Spooky), a composer, multimedia artist, author, and the executive editor of ORIGIN Magazine, onstage for a discussion of humanity, art, and nature. Williams and Miller, who has DJed extensively in Japan and introduced Japanese hip-hop producer DJ Krush to New York, discussed the combination of traditional forms and data visualization in the evolution of BELLA GAIA.

“I really approach gagaku more from the spiritual aspect, of how it is really speaking to the gods, speaking to the kami,” says Williams. “And I guess that’s how I approached this project in understanding this is really a kind of prayer . . . BELLA GAIA is really a kind of like a hounou [offering to the gods] for our planet earth, for GAIA. And so I wanted to use gagaku, to use these Japanese instrument traditions, to augment that into this context that we are in today to better understand the interconnection of the earth beyond cultural boundaries.”

Combining science with art brings Williams’s message of the earth and its people to audiences in a unique and entertaining way.

“It’s interesting that it’s sort of taken science to have us speaking and thinking like the indigenous people,” says Williams. “We’ve really come full circle.”