Interview: Denise Fujiwara
There seems to be this great gaping chasm between the west coast and central Canada, at least in the Canadian Nikkei community—we so rarely hear what’s happening on your side of the country, and I imagine that it works the other way around as well. So it’s always great to talk to someone, anyone, from the mysterious east . . .
Most Canadian Nikkei families have pre-war roots on the west coast, is that the case with your family? Can you share some of your family background with us?
My father’s family is from Vancouver. They owned real estate around Japan Town. During the war, he was sent to work camps in northern BC. My mother’s family, Toyota, lived near Duncan on Vancouver Island. They were interned at Lemon Creek in the Slocan Valley. My parents met there when my father was allowed to visit his family there.
You helped found Toronto Independent Dance Enterprise but when you founded Fujiwara Dance Inventions, it was as a solo repertory dance company. I imagine it must be incredibly challenging to work as a solo dancer. What pushed you in that direction?
I trained and competed intensively as a gymnast since childhood. It’s an individual sport and I think that conditioned me to the discipline and mindset of working as a soloist.
You moved from gymnastics to modern dance and then to butoh. Was that a natural evolution for you and what attracted you to butoh?
After many years as an elite athlete I came to realize that one of the thing I loved about gymnastics was the dance. When I retired from competition, I decided to pursue dance because of its potential as a medium where ideas could be expressed artistically. I pursued butoh because of what I saw in Natsu Nakajima’s work: sophisticated dance theatre that was complex, mature, emotionally moving and life affirming.
You commissioned Nakajima to create Sumida River for you, the piece you’ll be performing here in Vancouver. What was it like working with her, and what was the most important thing you took away from the experience?
Working with Natsu Nakajima changed my life. Because butoh is a different paradigm from western forms of contemporary dance, I really had to start over from zero. I had to go to a ‘beginner mind’ and body. This was a terrifying and wonderful process. Butoh uses concepts like ma, a term for which there is no satisfactory English-language equivalent. There is no easy translation because the concept is complex and not acknowledged within a Eurocentric dance paradigm. Developing an understanding of the term, and then learning to apply and embody it in the creation and performance of the dance was a difficult and rewarding process. It broke me down and then taught me the most amazing things about performance, choreography, art and life.
You’re on tour at the moment, what show are you touring and what cities are you hitting?
I just premiered a new solo, Lost and Found. It was commissioned by four Canadian presenters: Toronto’s DanceWorks, Live Arts in Halifax, Public Energy in Peterborough and Neighbourhood Dance Works in St John’s and I’m touring it to those centres now. We’re also touring NO EXIT, inspired by the play by Jean Paul Sartre.
We’ll have the opportunity to see you perform Sumidagawa back to back with Britten’s Curlew River. What does Sumidagawa mean to you?
The story of the Sumida River is the universal tale of the loss of loved one. I have had the privilege of performing this work on four continents and people have understood it and been moved by it everywhere it has toured. It is portrayed through the body, through visual metaphors and I believe that anyone who has loved someone can relate to it.
Have you visited the Sumida River?
Natsu-san took me to the banks of the Sumida River and to the shrine where it is said the boy in the story was buried.
Do you have plans for the future? Any new ideas you’re exploring?
I am planning a new ensemble work inspired by Christan Bok’s Gryphon Award-winning epic poem, Eunoia. It contains five chapters, each based on one vowel each, and each consisting solely of words that use that one vowel. It is incredibly rigorous,obsessive and witty.
We’re developing touring of the new solo, Lost & Found and for NO EXIT. Hope we can bring them to Vancouver soon!