For avant-garde performer Aoi Yamada, expression takes many forms, from dancing and modeling to cooking. She’s performed across the world in places as distant as Turkey and the US, modeled for the likes of Gucci and danced solo at the Olympics Closing Ceremony. During the pandemic, she set social media alight with her vegetable dance reels. In the series, she danced and twirled alongside vegetables like radishes and pumpkins, an activity that brought her to the attention of Stella McCartney. 

Even in her personal life, Yamada doesn’t stop, running a dedicated account for bento on Instagram and another for curry. The latter resulted in a collaboration with curry chef Emerada last year. 

We caught up with her after a guest spot on J-Wave radio. Fittingly, she came in wearing a turtleneck covered with images of vegetables under a bright yellow jumpsuit. 

Dancing to Communicate

A self-labeled expressionist, Yamada has been dancing since she was five, when her concerned mother enrolled a very quiet Yamada in a local dance class, to open her avenues of expression. This influences her dance practice to this day. “I think about communication while I dance,” she tells us, explaining that she aims to break down barriers and communicate more with her audience. 

At 15, she relocated to Tokyo for dance school, a rare move for a teenager in Japan where it remains common for young adults to stay in their parents’ home until they marry. Quiet and considered, she speaks with a maturity beyond her 22 years — which is perhaps to be expected of someone who moved away at such a young age.

Varieties of Dance

Her move to Tokyo was accompanied by a revelation inspired by her introduction to dance forms like butoh and dancers such as Sayoko Yamaguchi. “It is not so much a matter of just moving and refining the movement,” she explains of her realization, “but of thinking and connecting a theme or image with the body.” Rather than traditional forms of dance, she decided to work on expression. “It was a turning point,” she says.

This decision has since led to many opportunities to collaborate with a variety of people and brands. She dances with a diverse crowd and enthuses over Chibimoeko, a burlesque dancer with dwarfism, and Kenta Kambara, a wheelchair dancer who performed in the Paralympics. Yamada shows us a collaboration they did as part of their inclusive group, Tokyo QQQ (Tokyo Thank You), which hosted the Yoshiwara Enjoy event last year. She has her sights set on holding more events with the group. 

The World is a Stage

Yamada sees the world as her stage and her life as a host of performances. Rather than simply dancing on actual stages, however, she dances anywhere. She has traveled the world for her work, and in each place, she dances wherever she can.

“You can build a stage,” she says, “but I want to dance in places we can’t make — in organic surroundings.” This can range from a field or forest to a street or train full of people. She shows us a video of herself dancing with children in a street in Switzerland, getting them all to try her form of bodily expression. The children are laughing, fully engaged and attempting to copy her every move. 

Contrast this spontaneous open-air scene with another of Yamada’s performances, this one at a formal Coming of Age ceremony in her hometown of Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, to which she was invited to perform. She danced around the entire concert hall, passing seated, suited officials and injecting some avant-garde fun into the typically stiff proceedings. After utilizing the entire space, the performance — which went viral — ended with her running down through the audience and away, not to return.

Despite the confidence required to perform in such diverse — and sometimes rigid — situations, Yamada insists that she’s shy. “But,” she explains, “I want to create an environment where everyone can judge for themselves and form their own opinions.”

Culinary Passion

Finding ways to express herself without words is something that characterizes her output, and Yamada has a variety of outlets. After a stint in her dance school’s dormitory, she moved to live with a chef. “I’d always wanted to learn to cook,” she says. “I moved in with them to learn my way around the kitchen.” 

It’s clear the experience grounded her, as she shares that even now, the place she feels most comfortable is her kitchen. Her manager urges her to show us the kitchen itself, and she pulls up a video of making nukazuke, a type of fermented vegetable pickled in rice bran. “The chef was an expert in pickling and fermenting,” she says by way of explanation. 

Nowadays, her interest in cooking is focused on bento lunches. She sees bento as a form of painting and as a way to express her love for her husband. “Bento box is my canvas,” she says. Food, then, is her palette. And her bento creations have, quite literally, become art, as she began to collage them in 2022. “It felt a waste to have it finished there and then,” she says. 

This artistic venture led to a collaboration with popular Japanese fashion brand Enfold — the vegetable-print turtleneck she’s wearing is one of the resulting pieces. “I wanted to wear my bento paintings,” she says, laughing. In fact, she took such a liking to the bento collage that she turned it into another item of clothing on her own. “I found a website where you can custom-print swimsuits,” she says. “So now I can swim with my bento too.” 

Favorite Vegetable

Her passion for communication through food doesn’t stop there: Take the aforementioned vegetable dances, which she began as a way to show her grandmother that she was eating properly. “In the end, it wasn’t just my grandmother who was pleased. I got so many messages from different people,” she shares. 

With an array of avenues of expression at her fingertips, Yamada aims to be as versatile as a certain workhorse of the root vegetable world, one that she clearly has an affinity for: “It can be used in curry, soup, eaten raw… I’d want to be a carrot.”

Follow Aoi Yamada at @aoiyamada0624 on Instagram.