One masked figure stands out from the rest. She glides effortlessly across the stage as if she’s weightless and being ushered by a delicate yet decisive breeze. She commands everyone’s attention; the other masked silhouettes are now merely peripheral. The music morphs seamlessly into a contemporary Asian blend, an Okinawan sanshin provides melody and a hypnotic rhythm for our heroine to move to. And move she does, without boundaries, rules or adhering to some fastidious dogma. Balinese influences are evident in the way she moves her arms and fingers, right down to every single sculpted nail. As she removes her mask her expression flashes with inspiration from Indian Bhangra and Garba dances, her body is seemingly possessed by sub-Saharan spirits, moving her fervently to the beat of Agbekor one moment and Nmane the next, returning her to her female form: sensual and serene.
She’s a master of her craft this creature with hair as black as onyx and Asian features accentuated dramatically by make-up that borders on war paint. Her face is edgy and sharp one moment and warm and extremely fetching the next–depending on how she wants you to perceive her and certainly not the other way around. She coquettishly twirls a Chinese parasol as her moves take on more conventional forms borrowed and interpreted from ballet and Jazz and then and only then does she approach the pole…
Lu Nagata is something of an enigma. On stage she is the embodiment of power, ferocity, beauty, fluidity and uncompromising composure. Her performances are ingeniously choreographed; traversing a number of known and lesser-known dance forms. Her aerial feats on the pole defy gravity, yet are precise, controlled and in perfect harmony with the other aspects of her show: music, time, light, space and avant-garde ensembles. As she suspends herself inverted on the pole, with the only point of contact being a single leg, and rotates her body so gracefully yet at dizzying speed, she consistently leaves her audiences dumfounded, awe-inspired and in their own suspended state of animation.
In person 30 year-old Lu, a native of Fukuoka prefecture, is equally as compelling: chatty, sincere, brutally honest and open, as well as worldly, savvy and basically, really cool. This artist was most definitely born and not made. There is simply nothing contrived about who she is, what she does and her beliefs behind it.
Returning to Japan 3 years ago, having studied and traveled in the US and Europe, Lu pioneered Japan’s first pole dance studio which currently operates under the name Studio Art Flow Tokyo in the up-market Akasaka district of Tokyo and boast more than 600 regular students of which 20 per cent or so are western. Her vision was met with a media storm that led to instant notoriety and celebrity, interestingly however a younger Lu had a different course charted for her future self. “I saw the Cirque du Soleil about seven eight years ago and had always enjoyed local circuses, especially performances that used lots of rope, silk and poles,” explains Lu. “The circus always used to fascinate me. When I was a child my dream was to join the circus. I asked my mom to let me do more acrobatic things instead of just focusing on learning and playing the piano and dance, but by the time I realized the circus was actually for me, it was already too late.”
Indeed for Lu it was and is never too late. The level of artistry, flair and outright acrobatics she brings to her own performances are on a par with not just some of the feats you’d expect to see at world-famous performances at the Cirque du Soleil, for example, but she fuses this with the ability to act and, most strikingly, to dance. In fact, it would come as no surprise if prestigious dance schools, the likes of Julliard, Martha Graham or London Contemporary Dance School, for example one day adopted Lu’s methodologies into their own curriculums, as she simply is that good. However, her humble side is quick to reminisce about her travelling days (which led to her finding a niche in the Japanese market), her love of the stage and the unfailing support she’s had from friends and families on her path to answering her true calling.
“To be on the stage and in the limelight is completely natural for me,” she says. “I’ve studied and performed all over the world, particularly in Europe and the US, it’s second nature for me. My love of the stage perhaps comes from my rocker days. I used to be in a rock band, singing and playing instruments, but mostly I loved being on a stage and performing, the stage brings out my real character. Also, all of my friends are performers or artists and I’ve met so many inspirational people on my travels around the world. I studied dance, fitness and photography as I travelled with my backpack around New York, London, Greece and Brussels. I was constantly surrounded by art and beauty. I bought piping from hardware stores and rented studios in New York and Brussels. But when I returned to Japan three years ago there were no pole dance studios, unlike London where there are so many, so I decided to bring pole dance classes to Japan, which at the time was revolutionary, but a little controversial. But my family and friends have been really supportive. They see me in magazines and on TV and they’re really happy I’m surviving doing what I love most. In fact, my sister actually works for me now and my mom’s even been to the studio to try the poles.”
It will come as no surprise to hear that Lu’s career path has not been without its obstacles. A recurrent one being the somewhat ignorant assertion by certain conservative factions and blinkered individuals who insist on holding onto the notion that pole dancing and stripping are, even these days, inextricably linked. The truth of the matter is thus: pole dancing’s origins are indeed rooted deep in the history of strip culture and even prostitution if we’re going to be completely honest about it, but this couldn’t be further from what Lu’s selling–in fact such notions are poles apart from the truth of the matter, if you can forgive the pun.
However, far from being an activist and rallying her fellow dancers to stand united, poles in hand, against tired, age-old tyrannical bigotry, Lu’s happy to let those who want to try and understand what it is she’s doing do so.
As for those who might want to somehow interpret her and her art in ways that are salacious or less than positive, well that’s their prerogative and she has zero interest in changing it. “Although there’s no real history of pole dancing in Japan, not like the UK or the US, people do still tend to associate pole dancing and dancers with gentlemen’s clubs and stripping,” asserts Lu. “I don’t care at all about people’s stereotype of pole dancing and it’s association with stripping and strip clubs. For me personally when I’m on the pole I’m having so much fun and I’m sharing this enjoyment with my audiences and my students and nothing else matters. I can’t change people’s minds; I’m not even trying to. I’m simply expressing myself using the pole as a way to do that. I’m not fighting to change anything ’cause I don’t blame people for liking strippers—they serve a function. Of course guys watch my shows too and I try not to care too much about everyone’s reaction to my performances. I do hope that more guys will come to understand that what I do is an art form, but 98 percent of guys when I tell them I’m a professional pole dancer and instructor respond with something like: ‘Wow, that’s hot! Which gentlemen’s club do you work for?’ It used to piss me off but I don’t care at all these days, it’s not their fault it’s just their ignorance. If they have the capacity to understand that there are a variety of different styles of pole dancing then that’s great, if they’re not ready to see that yet, then that’s fine too. Like I said, it used to piss me off, but it’s up to them. That said, believe it or not, at most of the shows, parties and events I do the audiences are mostly women, seriously. The art of what I do really appeals to them as they understand perfectly that what I’m doing is about beauty, natural technique, body line and atmosphere.”
Indeed Lu isn’t just a performing artist she is a living, breathing piece of art. Her stunning looks, combined with the fact that her skin is a living canvass painted with a myriad of different all equally beautiful, kaleidoscopic tattoos–many of which feature winged images which join Lu as she too takes to flight on stage. Perhaps the most striking is a huge, radiant Phoenix that resides across the majority of one very toned upper thigh.
“I have about ten tattoos on my body and I simply feel they’re beautiful,” beams Lu. “I’m having this one finished on my leg [she says pointing] it’s a phoenix and it symbolizes eternity. I have many winged symbols and I also love traditional Japanese imagery. All my tattoos have been done here in Japan and I really like the contrast between my normal skin and my painted skin,” she explains exposing two thighs by way of comparison—one as white and bare as freshly laid snow, the other rich with color scarred deep into her skin and expounding a profound metaphor.
Lu Nagata neither follows rules nor creates them. She is neither subversive nor conformist. She is an artist. She is an artist in the truest, unadulterated sense of the word, a born leader who will continue to turn heads wherever she goes, amaze and inspire audiences the world over and whether she intends to or not through her dedication to her art and the fact that she’s in a league of her own when she’s spinning on that pole, perceptions of pole dancing will change and until then she’ll be pushing herself towards and beyond perfection.
“I think since my childhood I’ve been destined to be a leader, an innovator a pioneer, but you need education,” she concludes. “I’m still studying, pushing myself to be better all the time.
If I didn’t enjoy what I was doing there’d be no motivation for me to push myself so hard. If I don’t like something I don’t do it, it’s as simple as that. It’s about being honest with yourself, who you are and what you want. I’ve always wanted to be independent, to be able to feed and clothe myself by doing the things I like.”
Story by Jon Day
From J SELECT Magazine, July 2009