Identity – Ancestral Memory, a new work by Yayoi Theatre Movement, explores the impact of ancestral memory by looking at the life of Japanese Canadian artist Roy Kiyooka who passed away in 1994 at the age of 67.
The multi-media production, which runs April 22 to 24 at Centre A, combines dance, music and video to depict the struggle of the artist grappling with dual Japanese and Canadian identities against the backdrop of racism in wartime Vancouver.
Roy Kiyooka was one of Canada’s premier abstract painters. He went on to become an innovative explorer of photography, performance, poetry and music. A leader figure in Canada’s thriving art scene of the 1960s and 1970s, he was also a great teacher, whose influence continues to be felt many years after his untimely death.
Conceived and directed by company founder Yayoi Hirano, with choreography by Jay Hirabayashi, Identity – Ancestral Memory is performed by Hirano, Hirabayshi, Carolyne Chan and Tomoko Hanawa. Live music is provided by Kozue Matsumoto and Minoru Yamamoto with video participation by Harry Aoki, Roy Miki, Linda Ohama, Judy Nakagawa, Takeo Yamashiro, and John Endo Greenaway.
In Her Own Words: Yayoi Hirano
Your new piece is inspired by the life and art of Roy Kiyooka. What was the impetus behind this work?
Soon after moving to Vancouver in 2002, I started to wonder why the Japanese community looked so separated. Then I began to learn of the hardships Japanese Canadians faced before, during and after WWII. My own parents were born in China. Of course all Japanese nationals had to return to war-torn Japan. My father’s family came back from China in 1946 and my mother’s family came back in 1947. There were restrictions on the possessions and money they could bring with them. In Japan they were not exactly welcomed. People said to them, “You spent wonderful days in China, and now, because of you, we don’t have enough food.” My mother told me stories of how difficult it was for Japanese families being in China when the war ended. My grandfather was a kind and generous man so her family survived without severe persecution. My father’s family was wealthy before the war but in the post war reforms in Japan they lost land and financial resources. So some stories are related my parents’ experience during and after the war.
When I think of starting a new work, I usually think a few themes at the same time: what should I do now? My basic training is as a mime and theatre actor. To gain extensive understanding of movement, mime and theatre, I studied noh theatre dance and chant, Japanese traditional dance (Nihon-buyo), folk dance and kagura with one of the best teachers in Japan. When I began touring Europe, North America and Asia as a mime artist, my theme has always been to introduce Japanese stories and culture. I created Four Seasons, Mothers and Shinju after I moved here, which had more Japanese themes, Japanese stories.
But after living in Vancouver for a while and working with different cultures, I started to think it is not necessary to always do a Japanese theme. I lived in Japan until I was 50 years old, so my behavior, my way of thinking already express Japaneseness, whatever I do.
And I started thinking: what about my Identity? I wanted to explore how other artists struggled and established their being as an artist. Because I knew Roy, I started with him.
When did you meet Roy?
I met Roy in 1992 during one of my performance tours in Canada. I was introduced to him by the Fringe Festival organizer and stayed at Roy’s home for two weeks. He introduced me to his circle of friends. He took me to Granville Island, and to see the rehearsal of Kokoro Dance with Koichi & Hiroko Tamano, butoh dancers based in San Francisco. That was the first time I met Jay Hirabayashi as well. At that time, my English was so limited. So, Roy talked to me in Japanese with a strong old Tosa dialect (with an English accent) which you rarely hear in Japan these days. I appreciated his hospitality a lot. He was quiet and often went to see his friends. At that time, he was in the process of writing Mother Talk. He went to Denman Island to see Mastuki Masutani who collaborated with Roy as a translator. The organizer of the festival said, “You are so lucky to stay with him. He is a one of the greatest Japanese Canadian artists in Vancouver.” But for me, coming from out of town, he was just the same as anybody, he didn’t have an air of importance or anything like that. Thinking back to those days, I really admire him as a real artist.
Your piece brings together a number of well-known Japanese Canadian artists including Jay Hirabayashi, Roy Miki, Linda Ohama, Harry Aoki and others—either in the piece itself or via video. Do you think there is a common thread running through the works of Canadian Nikkei artists, even though they work in different disciplines?
First of all I really appreciate all the artists who are participating in this project and sharing their thoughts on “identity”. Has the wartime experience affected their identity as artists? Perhaps they all carry some inner burden unique to themselves and other Nikkei wartime survivors. As to a common thread, it is more of a “sense” of their Japaneseness than actually defining it in words.
Identity is something Roy often addressed in his work, or perhaps it’s common to all artists. How does the theme of identity play out in your piece?
When Roy was young, he didn’t feel either Japanese or Japanese Canadian. But because of the war, racial discrimination changed his self perception and made him think of himself as more Japanese. Given wartime history, we have created scenes where Roy struggled to find his “identity” both during and after the war.
You went to Japan as part of your research for this piece. Tell me about that.
In October last year we did some research in Japan, visiting Kochi, Mio in Wakayama, and did some street interviews in Tokyo. In Kochi, I wanted to see where Roy’s parents lived before immigrating to Canada and also to visit Miyo where so many early Nikkei Canadians came from. We had been introduced to Roy’s niece, Kana Kiyooka—she and her friends very generously took us to Roy’s father’s family’s hometown, and to his grave site. We also visited the grave and monument to Roy’s maternal grandfather, one of the founders of iai-do, a Japanese martial arts discipline. I was certainly impressed by the courage of those who immigrated from Japan. Perhaps living by the sea fueled their curiosity about what was across the ocean. Ryoma Sakamoto is from Kochi. For those who don’t know, he is a very famous man who was one of the people who pushed Japan to open its doors to the world from its self-imposed isolation. We visited Katsurahama beach south of Kochi where Ryoma’s statue overlooks the sea and I could see how people who live by the sea, by the Pacific Ocean, could wonder what is on the other side. It was the same when we visited Mio, there was almost the same feeling, and that’s maybe what they felt as well. People there told me that from Mio to South Wakayama prefecture to Shikoku Island to South Kyushu Island there is a similar cultural background.
It was a lot of fun doing the street interview in Shibuya and Harajuku in Tokyo, asking “fashionable & exocentric” young people their feelings about identity. You will see it in the performance.
Identity – Ancestral Memory
Inspired by the life & art of Roy Kiyooka
Performances: Thursday, April 22, Friday April 23,
Saturday, April 24, 8:00 pm
Centre A, 2 West Hastings Street
Symposium: April 24, 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm, at Centre A.
Coordinated by Grace Eiko Thomson
A film by Jesse Nishihata, Watari Dori/Bird of Passage will be screened at 1pm. Panel Discussion: Connections: Continuity and /or Departure? 3pm-5pm
The panel members: Roy Miki, Michael Fukushima and other TBC
Moderator: Kirsten Emiko McAllister.