Hiromoto Ida & Tsuneko Kokubo
Creating Dance Theatre KESSA in the Kootenays
Hiromoto Ida looks out the window of a dance studio on Nelson’s Baker Street. On the street below, young people gather on the corner and chat idly while tourists browse the shops. He turns away from the window and slips a CD into a player. As music fills the studio, he begins to dance, while ten feet away, Tsuneko Kokubo, dressed in white, walks a pattern on the floor, tracing an invisible blueprint. As he moves around her, the dynamic between her measured pacing and his more frenetic movements create a hypnotic counterpoint. After a few minutes, Koko—as she is known to her friends—stops to clarify a point, and then they carry on to the end of the movement.
The two are rehearsing a section from a new work by Ida titled Kessa. Although Ida and Kokubo are working on a duet section today, the piece includes four other women, all seniors, from the local community. A few months earlier, Ida took out ads in the local papers, looking for female dancers, over the age of 60, some dance or theatre experience preferred. Four women auditioned and got parts. Dagmar Galt, Celesttina Hart, Heather Hutchinson and Stephanie Judy are all between the ages of 60 and 65. Hailing from as far away as Germany, Kansas, Colorado and Ontario, they bring with them from diverse backgrounds in the arts and remain active in the local arts scene. Ida has been training them all as dancers and the six have been rehearsing for months in preparation for the show’s opening on June 13 at Nelson’s Capitol Theatre.
Hiromoto Ida was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, where he studied drama and performance at the Tama Art College before moving to Vancouver, where joined the Karen Jamieson Dance Company. Over the next dozen years he worked with a number of dance companies and choreographers as well as starring in the movie Tokyo Cowboy. He was nominated for a Jessie award as best supporting actor in the play Serpent Kills in 1997.
Ida moved to the Kootenays in 2000 and lives in Nelson with his wife Carla Hutchinson, a physiotherapist, and their two children, Shota, 12, and Maya, 8. Since moving to Nelson, he has begun choreographing his own work, both on his own and in collaboration with Thomas Loh. Several of his works have been shown in Vancouver at the Dancing on the Edge Festival and the Vancouver International Dance Festival. Last spring, Ida established his own company, Ichigo-Ichieh. The first piece he choreographed for the company, Sentaku, premiered in Nelson last March.
For her part, Kokubo relocated to the Kootenays from Steveston. As her website says, “I was born in the Year of the Ox in Steveston BC, eldest daughter of a fisherman and a cannery worker. Fraser River was at low tide. My mother gave birth to me in the local Nikkei Fisherman’s Hospital. My childhood years were spent in Japan, stranded by the vagaries of war. I was raised there by my grandma. I always knew I wanted to be a painter – I painted everything I saw. Returning to Canada in my late teens, I studied Fine Arts for four years at Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr College).”
Kokubo met her long-time partner Paul Gibbons, “a prince disguised as a clown,” and together they formed Snake in the Grass Moving Theatre, a fixture on the Vancouver theatre scene for many years until they moved to Silverton in 1994.
Since moving to the Kootenays, Kokubo has focused on her painting, working mainly in oils and acrylics. She draws much of her inspiration from her forest garden and mountain home. She has had numerous exhibitions, and has paintings in private collections in Canada, Europe, Japan, Mexico and the US.
Ichigo-Ichieh presents Kessa
Jun 13, 14. (8pm)
Jun 21 (2pm and 8pm)
Capitol Theatre, Nelson, BC
Adults $20, Students $16.
With support from the Canada Council for
the Arts, British Columbia Arts Council
and Columbia Basin Trust
INTERVIEW by John Endo Greenaway
You’re both refugees from the Lower Mainland, living an hour away from each other in the Kootenays now. What drew you to this area?
Hiromoto I visited this area with the Karen Jamieson Dance Company in 1991. Actually, I was reading my diary that it was 17 years ago today. We did school shows and performances in Nakusp and New Denver. I was quite excited to discover New Denver. In my diary I wrote, “I don’t want to go back to Vancouver. I could see living here by the water, I could see I paddling in this lake.” And later on, after the school show in New Denver’s small school I even wrote “For the first time in my life I think I could have kids…” Whoa . . . I was 26 years old!! So it did happen, everything I read my future.
Koko I first came to this area in the ’60s. I was curious about where my mother and sister were interned. Then I fell in love with the magical Slocan Lake and even lived up here for a few months at that time. It stayed with me. Later, around 1990, when the big city started to invade the Steveston cow fields, Paul and I decided to move out of range, and ended up here in the mountains.
Years ago, Kokoro Dance’s Jay Hirabayashi told me about this crazy dancer fellow from Japan that he had met. He said he was working at a sushi restaurant but was a very good dancer. I think you had just arrived from Japan recently, Hiromoto. How did you end up here?
Hiromoto I was working at Kibune Sushi by the beach in Kits. They were nice to me. Sometimes I had a performance night so I couldn’t work but they understood that . . . they didn’t fire me, anyway! I was here on a working holiday visa. I like mountains. I hiked a lot in Japan—Yatsugatake and the Kita Alps. So I arrived in Vancouver with my big back pack and hiking boots. I still remember my thoughts . . . where are all the people? Did they disappear? I could find parking spots in downtown, no problem! So I said to myself, this Canada, it is one big countryside, not like Tokyo!
Did you train as a dancer in Japan? Where you planning on pursuing a dance career in Canada?
Hiromoto I was trained as an actor, actually. I studied theatre in Tama Geijutsu Gakuin, a contemporary theatre school. But we also learned basic movement of noh theatre as well as modern dance class and theatre movement class. I remember I liked those movement classes a lot, as well as the acting classes. My passion for acting came from the movies I watched in Japan. I think movies at that time were more serious. It was art! Not so much entertainment. I know there are always guns and action movies. But at least for me I was watching the screen very seriously, trying to learn about life and death and the way you live. When I read books, when I looked at paintings in the gallery, it was the same way, always: Why am I here? What am I suppose to do this life? Where will I end up after my body is gone? All those centuries-old questions. Anyway somehow these days, when I watch movies, they remind me of fast food. But no, I wasn’t planning to become a dancer, I planned to become a mountain guide! I want to climb all those big mountains and paddle down all those big river etc . . .
Speaking of mountains . . . Koko, you were immersed for so many years in the theatre world, working with Paul in Snake in the Grass Moving Theatre. And you lived in Steveston, which is so flat. Since moving to the mountains, to Silverton, you have really shifted your focus to creating your new home on the land, and to your painting. What are your days like? How do you spend your time?
Koko It depends on the season. In the spring, mornings are spent painting in the studio. After lunch, gardening—growing vegetables and flowers. As summer comes in, swimming time is allocated every day, usually in the late afternoon. There are also volunteer duties at the Nikkei Centre in New Denver, and usually an influx of summer guests. If we’re lucky we can swim into October. When the first snow comes, the garden sleeps so I have more time to paint. Apart from this there are the daily nitty-gritty necessities of life to deal with. Nowadays, of course, I spend a lot of time in Nelson rehearsing for Kessa.
Hiromoto, you have worked with a number of local dance companies and choreographers including Susan Mackenzie, Grant Strate, Kokoro Dance, Kinesis Dance, Holly Body Tattoo, EDAM, Astrid, Jump Start and Battery Opera. Working with so many different choreographers must have given you a broad taste of various choreographic styles. What did you learn from the experience?
Hiromoto Working with so many directors taught me one thing: how to listen. And not just listen to the words. I learned people can explain very little with words only, especially when they are trying to transfer their own images or their own emotions onto other people. To understand them (the director/choreographer) you have to be with them like you are beside somebody who is having baby. You know what I am talking about, John. Working with all those people was a wonderful experience. I remember every one of them, I could almost imitate their movement and the way they talk or feel. I feel like I was there with them while they delivered their babies. And each delivery was special. If you had the time, I could go on and on about each of them. But people usually don’t talk about their delivery room experience! In this new piece of mine I am actually using names: Karen, Lee, Susan, Barbara . . . those are the female choreographers I worked with (sorry Su-fee, I needed Canadian names).
Nelson is pretty far removed from the vibrant dance scene in the Lower Mainland, is this why you are making your own dance now, out of necessity?
Hiromoto Yes. Nobody was hiring me as a professional dancer or actor. And I didn’t want retire deep in the Kootenays, not yet!
You have produced a number of pieces while living in Nelson and have formed your own company, Ichigo-Ichieh. What does the name mean, and what plans do you have for the company?
Hiromoto Finally somebody asks me the meaning of Ichigo-Ichie! Many of this magazine’s readers probably know that ichigo-ichie comes from the tea ceremony tradition. The meaning is something like this: “Every occasion of extending hospitality to another person is a particular occasion never to recur in one’s lifetime, so one should try to make the occasion perfect.” I really think each performance is like this for me. Every night is different even when it’s the same show: different audience, different time. Maybe people will laugh at this, but I feel every time I perform, some part of me is dying every night, but I also gain something. Sometimes I think God gave me 98 years of lifetime, but every time I perform it shortens my life time by 16 minutes. And that attitude affects the show. Audiences have to feel some kind of urgency from the performer; I think that is what makes a good performance.
As for plans for the company . . . this company doesn’t have any members: it’s just me. But once I have finished this piece, I would like bring it different towns and countries. That is the business part of theatre and dance, and I am not good at that part. I want to bring it to Vancouver for sure, if somebody is interested, maybe Japan, England, France . . . .
Do you find yourself exploring a primarily Japanese aesthetic in your work, or is that too confining?
Hiromoto I don’t think I am purposely trying to explore where I came from. But these days…..since I left Japan 20 years ago….something is happening inside me. Now half of my life I have spent in Japan and the same amount of time I have spent in Canada. I am starting to make my own Japanese images. But maybe that Japan never existed. Furusato wa tookini arite omou mono . . . soshite kanashiku utau mono. Someday I have to face this subject and will make a piece.
Tell me about this new piece, Kessa. What was the inspiration behind it?
Hiromoto Kessa is my grandmother’s name. It means “this morning.” When I grew up in Japan, I lived with my parents and sister, my father’s parents, and my uncle. I have a lot of memories of them, especially my grandmother. When I was born, she was already my grandmother . . . this is kind of funny but it’s like furniture: there is a house, and a desk, and fridge, and there is grandmother! She was forever my grandmother. I only remember twice when she wasn’t just my grandmother. When I was around 15years old, I suddenly realized how lonely my grandmother was, and how sad getting old is (I don’t think that way now, but I did back then). Then I decided I would pretend to be my grandma, to spend the day like her. I was spying on her, trying be like her. Then something hit me deeply, something about the deep sadness of BEING. That was my first realization that we all going to disappear someday. That time my grandmother wasn’t just my grandmother, she was a person in front of me. The second time was her death—not just her death, but whole process of getting sick, getting smaller and smaller and quieter. And then the funeral, and cremating the body and going to the temple . . . all those things . . . that had a huge impact on my life. It’s still here right in my guts . . . I guess that why I am making this piece.
A few days ago I realized I still haven’t said goodbye to her and cried properly. I remember the process of her dying, but I don’t remember crying. Only once, when we put her body in the coffin, put the flowers around her face and hit the nails with a rock in a very ritualistic manner, ready to go to the place to be cremated, I was sitting in the garden surrounded by my grandmother’s little bonsai and flowers, and my throat got tight and I thought I cried . . .
Anyway, I also wanted the dance piece to be fun and funny. Seriousness and humour: they have to go together, so I have worked hard to make a combination of the two!
Koko, tell me about the part you’re playing. Who are you and what is your relationship to the rest of the performers?
Koko I am playing Hiromoto’s grandmother Kessa—a memory that only he can see. Kessa’s principal relationship is with him, the grandson. The other characters occupy a different realm—perhaps his everyday world, or maybe a representation of some other life force. Kessa interacts with them only obliquely.
When Hiromoto approached you for this part was it like going back to something familiar and comfortable, or was it hard to put yourself (mind and body!) back into this kind of role?
Koko When he first approached me, my brain said “yes” and I guess my body said “no.” I ignored both and said “sure, it’s a challenge.” Three months into rehearsals, my brain and body agree with me and I am working hard.
Dance is so often seen as an art form for the young—demanding young, supple bodies. It is like chorographers are allowed to age, but not dancers. I find this piece fascinating in that it doesn’t just deal with age metaphorically, but it is using dancers that aren’t young and flexible anymore. From what I have seen of the rehearsals, it still has lots of energy and power. Can you talk about that: the challenges, disadvantages and advantages of being an older dancer.
Koko For me the challenge is to listen to my 70-year-old body, but, at the same time move according to the imagery of the choreography. Of course I can’t do everything that I used to be able to do, like jumping, or splits, for instance (not that Kessa is going to jump up from praying or from her sick-bed and do the splits!). On the other hand, being old, I can understand Hiromoto’s direction and feelings very well, having experienced family relationships over time. I grew up in Japan during the war, with my own grandmother, and since then I am a mother and grandmother myself. The dance piece seems to incorporate all these aspects of life and emotion.
Koko, I have worked with you on and off for going on 30 years, and you are as vital and dynamic now as you were back then. When I see you rehearsing, it is as if time has stood still. What is your secret?
Koko Ah, my secret . . . It must be the 11 hard-boiled eggs, 9 parsnips and 1 umeboshi I eat every morning before breakfast. Actually, the secret is that you’re getting older too John! It’s all relative.