Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on August 2014

At the age of 15, a screening of Gregory Hines’ movie Tap inspired Kazunori Kumagai to track down the only tap teacher in Sendai. By the age of 20, he was in New York studying at Funk University, the training workshop for the hit Broadway show Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk.

“In ’90s New York, it was survival,” says Kumagai, who yearns for a return to the artistic crucible of the time. “It was a world where, when you got on the stage, it was always a question of whether you would cut it or get cut.”

Training with dancers from a musical review of black American history was an eye-opener for Kumagai, who says he’d never given a thought to racial tension. “I entered without prejudices and got along with everyone. They accepted me, calling me their ‘Sole Brother’—S-O-L-E.”

One day he arrived at the studio to find Gregory Hines himself practicing inside. “I watched him a little,” Kumagai says. “And he noticed me and said, ‘Practice with me.’”

This was no friendly invitation: “When someone says, ‘Let’s go,’ that means they’re challenging you,” Kumagai explains. “If you don’t go all-out, it’s like an insult. It becomes a true battle.” Searching for words to describe the man who inspired his life’s work, he says, “He was really ‘real,’ so… more than liking him, I found him challenging.”

Kumagai returned to Japan in 2002, burning to bring the aggressive energy of New York’s tap scene to his home country. But his in-your-face attitude immediately put him at odds with the existing Japanese dance scene. He ended up doing street performances and dancing at small jazz clubs until he caught the eye of jazz trumpeter Terumasa Hino. A successful tour with Hino led to more collaborations including free jazz stylist Yosuke Yamashita and Cuban pianist Omar Sosa. He built on his string of successes to open Kaz Tap Studio in Nakameguro in 2008, now complemented by a mobile studio in Sendai.

Like Hines, Kumagai’s tap style is improvisational, engaging his partners in impromptu musical conversations. “When you really focus, there are times when you won’t really ‘entertain,’ per se. And there are times where you’re almost like an instrument. It’s like… ” He pauses to reflect: “You are what you are. That’s what’s important.”

At Hear My Sole, his solo show scheduled at Bunkamura’s Orchard Hall September 12-13, Kumagai will partner not with a musician but with award-winning, Paris-based architect Tsuyoshi Tane. The two previously collaborated at Milan Design Week 2014, where Kumagai danced amid a dangling cylinder of 80,000 delicate reflecting discs, each made from the central plate of a Citizen watch.

Kumagai still seems far from any state of comfort, however. A Japanese tap dancer with an American style, he has come to accept that there may be no place in the world where he feels truly at home. “The place where I feel most comfortable is in my own show on my own stage,” he says. But even there, every dance is a battlefield—and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Bunkamura Orchard Hall, Sep 12-13.