inReview: Identity – Ancestral Memory
Identity – Ancestral Memory is a powerful multimedia production, spearheaded by renowned mask & mime artist, Yayoi Hirano, and collaboratively envisioned through the talents of Butoh dancer Jay Hirabayashi, dancers Tomoko Hanawa and Carolyn Chan and musicians Kozue Matsumoto and Minoru Yamamoto with video integration by Sebnem Ozpeta. The piece, which emerged from a lengthy workshopping process and which first saw the stage in 2010 at Centre A in Vancouver, has become a complex and moving meditation on a variety of perceptions of Japanese racial identity, the place of memory, ancestral wisdom, the ruptures of war and the role that art plays in enabling renewal.
Structured as a tribute to the multimedia artist Roy Kiyooka (1926-1994), a man who fearlessly re-created his world through the honesty of his imagination, Identity pays homage to Kiyooka most obviously through its largesse, its richness of visuals, sounds and movements. Beginning and ending with a humorous but pointed series of clips that reveal the contrast between assumptions of racialized heritage in Japan versus Vancouver, the piece, unfolding over its tightly-packed hour, offers the viewer an at times overwhelming array of facts, archival photos, mini-interviews and snippets of poems. It’s always a challenge when dealing with historical material to know how much information to include without rendering the work too didactic, to let art tell the story rather than rote knowledge from a history book. The audience for Identity is likely to be fully aware of the details surrounding the Japanese internment camps during WW II and, while a refresher of the essential nature of the tragedy is necessary, Identity becomes most potent when it rises above those facts and enacts an art more open to interpretation.
Through a range of fragmented scenarios that flow forward in time and perception, the pace of the piece remains compelling. The most evocative moments are those where the gorgeous koto and shakuhachi swell with exquisite notes and the dancers move in pared down steps, precise and vital, the screen behind them showing snow or inked characters or the ocean becoming a field. The scene that replicates the repetitive, mechanical motions of post-war racial fingerprinting is also disruptive and yet hypnotic. Hirano is an always fascinating performer to watch as she transforms rapidly between male and female, old and young, sometimes with a half-mask or clothing but more often merely through the dramatic possibilities her highly trained physique possesses. As Hirabayshi notes in his discussion of their collaborative process: “The mask changes the face, gender, and age, but [Hirano’s] body transforms as well. She becomes her characters.” He elaborates further on the distinction between their styles of movement, saying: “Butoh artists also aim to transform, to become the images that motivate their movements. The difference is that butoh is less concerned with literally conveying the imagery that motivates the movement. It is more abstract than mask work which is more akin to mime. In our collaboration together, we endeavoured to push ourselves into integrating each other`s artistic practice.” This aim is evident as the other dancers each provide a respectful counterpoint to Hirano’s entrancing dances through their maleness or youth or muscularity. Each adds a necessary element to the production.
The same cannot always be said for the interview clips or poems as on occasion there are simply too many to absorb quickly or they are insufficiently contextualized with an introduction. However, allowing some of these fragments to cohere and some to fall away may also be part of the intention of this production. For instance, while the inclusion of Kiyooka’s wonderful archival recitation of a poem gave no indication as to where it was shot or what the poem was called onscreen, this lacuna may have been deliberate, a statement on how much of history goes missing with time. Identity – Ancestral Memory is an ambitious creation, a mostly triumphant vision of rupture, confusion, and the beautiful transformations art can wrench from the tragic.
By Catherine Owen, BA, MFA
author of eight books of poems and essays