Kokoro Dance: a life in dance
Every October for the past 18 years, readers of The Georgia Straight have voted Kokoro Dance Vancouver’s best dance company. Not bad for a small company that has always determinedly played by its own rules, flaunting convention at every turn. The company’s brand of butoh, a form of dance with its roots in post-war Japan, was initially a tough sell to the government agencies that professional dancers in Canada depend on for funding. Dance critics also dismissed Kokoro’s form of dance, at least in the early years.
Formed in 1986 by Jay Hirabayashi and his wife Barbara Bourget, Kokoro Dance has persevered to become one of the city’s longest-running dance companies, with a loyal following among arts audiences. One of their first major productions was Rage, a piece that combined butoh and taiko to address the Japanese Canadian (and American) Internment during and after World War Two.
From their annual performances at Wreck Beach and the Powell Street Festival to their production of the (almost) annual Vancouver International Dance Festival, the company continues to plow their own path, creating new works as time and funding allows.
From October 9 to 12, Kokoro Dance presents the world premiere of Life, a major new work choreographed by Jay and Barbara. Taking place at the Roundhouse Arts Centre, Life features a commissioned score for string quartet by Toronto-based composer, Lee Pui Ming, a set by fibre artist Kai Chan, and costumes by Tsuneko Kokubo.
On the eve of the premiere I talked to Jay about butoh and Life.
I interviewed you in 2003 for the October issue of The Bulletin – my inaugural issue as editor. Your company, Kokoro Dance, was only seven years old at the time, and had just started to receive government funding for the first time. You mentioned the Euro-centricity of funding agencies when it came to supporting the arts. At the time it was starting to change. Do you think the playing field has levelled out or is there still a bias towards western art forms when it comes to funding?
Cultural funding agencies including the City of Vancouver, British Columbia Arts Council, and the Canada Council for the Arts, have made great strides toward inclusiveness in their funding practices. That being said, there are many other factors that challenge artists practicing non-mainstream art forms. Systemically, these factors favour mainstream dance company from English and French cultural streams.
I’ve followed your work over the years and I know you’ve had to fight tooth and claw to keep your company going and to keep doing the work you do – what has kept you going over the years?
While artists like ourselves have to spend an inordinate amount of time doing stuff that has nothing to do with art making, i.e., grant writing, marketing, fund raising, we are driven by some crazy madness, some kind of addiction to the possibility of revolution, of waking people up to the incredible joy of creativity, of discovery of what is most important in life. And that is not power, money, fame. It is the discovery of what is humanity. Who are we? Why are we here? What is life? What is death? These are the important questions that we seek to answer.
As an artist you’re always looking forward to your next project, but you must stop sometimes and look back. What are you most proud of?
I am proud that we continue to grow, that we don’t repeat ourselves. We are proud of everything we have created whether successful or not. Each piece has been a stepping stone to the next.
Your company doesn’t fit the usual mould of modern dance companies, which are generally populated with young dancers who fit a rather narrow physical template. The dancers you work with, at least in some of your shows, come in all shapes, sizes and age ranges . . . . is it easier to teach butoh to dancers who aren’t necessarily trained in modern dance techniques?
I don’t think we can teach butoh. You have to want to go to a strange place, an uneasy place, a place where you don’t know if you will survive. We embrace difference and resist conformity. We are not interested in regurgitation or imitation of how we move. Kazuo Ohno, when I took his classes, said, “Don’t dance like me” and “Don’t use any technique.” Of course, we learn from the time we are babies through imitation, but we forget that we are each still unique. We all move in different ways and that is what makes us who we are. I am not you and you are not me although we both walk and talk. Butoh is about expressing who you are. We attract the wild ones, the crazy non-conformists. We don’t care if they are tall or short or thin or stout or young or old. We only care that they have a desire to express themselves honestly.
When you started out doing butoh yourself did you have to unlearn what you had been taught as a dancer?
Perhaps fortunately, I don’t think I have ever been a very good dancer. I never mastered anything I was taught so unlearning was not an issue. I still know nothing about butoh. I am still learning. I don’t have to unlearn anything although I have to be careful not to be lazy and just do what I know I can do. I think that is what Ohno meant when he said “Don’t use any technique.” He did not want you to just do what you could already do. He wanted you to find something else, something new.
You and Barbara travelled to Japan this past summer to take a workshop with Dairakudakan, Japan’s oldest butoh company, under the artistic direction of Akaji Maro. Tell me about that experience and what it meant to you.
We had seen Dairakudakan perform in Tokyo in 2009 and really enjoyed the show. I thought we should see them again and noticed that they were performing this past July at the Montpellier Danse Festival. I also learned that they had an annual butoh performance intensive workshop in Hakuba, not far from Hotaka where my grandparents came from in the Nagano prefecture.I am grateful to Barbara because when I first suggested to her that we should go to France, she insisted that we would be far better off dancing with them instead of just watching them.
So we sent our c.v.’s to see if we could get into the workshop, and they accepted us. We stayed in a hostel with 20 Dairakudakan company members and 18 students, about half from Japan and the rest from other parts of the world. After about a five hour train ride from Tokyo, we arrived and were shown our room with a bunk bed. They kindly let Barbara and I stay together in the men’s dorm. We expected the first day to be just relaxing and hanging out, but they immediately divided us into six teams comprised of three company members and three students. Each team was assigned different days for kitchen and cleaning duties.
We then immediately started to rehearse for the piece we were to perform in seven days’ time. The days started at 6am and ended around 11pm. Each day we had to clean our rooms and the halls and bathrooms. Our kitchen duty day meant preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner for that day. Meals were family-style sitting on the floor in the dining room. Every meal had miso soup, rice, and different dishes that most often reflected the geographical origins of the lead company member in the team. The food was simple but tasty and we were always hungry because the work was so intensive. After breakfast, there was a short break and then a warmup and rehearsal. After lunch, it was the same with another short break and then rehearsal. After dinner, there was another short rehearsal followed by a lecture by Akaji Maro. Maro-san told us of his conception of butoh that developed from his work with Tatsumi Hijikata. He derives his butoh by observing ordinary movement, pedestrian activities, and catching that moment when something happens, some accident, when you are suddenly put in a displaced situation. You then take that moment and allow yourself to be moved. You don’t move yourself; you just watch yourself be moved. Obviously, this is not an easy exercise for normal people, nor did it appear to be easy for most of the students when we were asked to improvise.
Barbara and I loved it, however, as you cannot imagine how much a relief it is for us to be responsible only for learning and not for leading and teaching. I think that was what was so great about that workshop. We were pushed to do extraordinary things and we were happy to do that because we didn’t have to think about making anybody else do extraordinary things. We even had to make our own costumes, although they were only skimpy gold-coloured G-strings. The great thing about the experience was that the company members and students were all totally engaged with just making a great performance happen. Everything we did—cleaning, cooking, working, sewing, dancing—all of it was toward making a great performance.
In the performance we painted ourselves with gold paint and became these totally strange, wonderful, fascinating, other-worldly, surreal beings. What we learned was that art is not created just in a dance studio. It is a life orientation that includes everything.
Let’s talk about Life now . . . where did this piece come from, and what was the process you went through to create it?
In the fall of 2011, I went to Kitchener-Waterloo to participate in Impact 11, a festival celebrating cultural diversity. As it happened, one of the performances featured Lee Pui Ming, a jazz pianist that we had commissioned for Sheepman Dreams in 2003 and with whom we had performed Two Night Stand in 2009 with Tanya Tagaq, Cris Derksen, Tony Wilson, and Dylan van der Scyff. Pui Ming blew me away as she always does and I went up to her after her performance and we told each other that we had to do something together again. She told me that she had recently worked with another Toronto artist named Kai Chan who worked with recycled materials, primarily fabric, in his art making and thought we should all work together. Barbara and I are now in our sixties, Pui Ming is in her fifties, and Kai is in his seventies. We started to correspond through email to talk about what we might focus on. All of us had aging or passed parents. We were all very much aware of the passing of time. We now have grandchildren that are pure delights. Life seemed the natural subject of our collaboration. My parents passed away in January of 2012. Our oldest daughter, Bodhi, gave birth in May of 2012 to our fourth grandchild. Pui Ming’s mother passed away this year. We have had much to reflect on.
Barbara, Pui Ming, Kai and I met in Toronto in the summer of 2012 to talk about the piece. Pui Ming had decided that she wanted to write for a string quartet. We met in Kai’s garden for lunch and talked about life. Kai made a delicious lunch but sat quietly listening to us before he invited us to his basement workshop. He had already started on his contribution. He was halfway through his first of three curtains of unwoven recycled cloth. Each curtain was to be ten feet wide and eight feet tall with increasing less dense threads. The colours were carefully chosen. His work is exhaustingly exact and enormously impactful. We were astonished. Later we met at Pui Ming’s where she improvised on her grand piano and Barbara and I improvised to her music. That was enough to stimulate both Kai and Pui Ming and we left Toronto with motivation to come up with movement that would match their talents.
We began a year ago to choreograph on ourselves and five wonderful dancers: Carolyn Chan, Jennifer McKinley, Molly McDermott, Billy Marchenski, and Deanna Peters. We have worked with all, except Billy, for many years. Billy, an experienced actor and performer, has been taking my classes for over a year. In the spring of 2013, Pui Ming sent us an initial recording of her string quartet. It is wonderful music. Violin, viola, and cello are such emotional instruments and her composition works, it just works. Kai also sent us his finished walls of threads. We worked again in April and May and roughed out the choreographic structure for the piece. Then we stopped, created our 18th annual Wreck Beach Butoh performance and, six days later, went to Japan. Pui Ming sent us the final recording of the string quartet in July. It surpassed the initial draft in its consummate wrenching of every human emotion and the musicians had really mastered its technical difficulties. We resumed rehearsals this September.
Akaji Maro inspired us. Dairakudakan is butoh’s most theatrical company and manifests a Dadaist craziness and is not afraid to embrace humour as well as pathos. Dairakudan’s influence will be evident in this work and so expect something different when we premiere Life at the Roundhouse October 9 – 12.
Getting away from dance, your dad, Gordon, passed away last January and last April was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama for his stand against Japanese American Internment. You travelled to Washington to accept the award on his behalf. Talk a bit about your dad, what he meant to you and what it was like accepting the award on his behalf.
I can’t talk about my dad without talking about my mother. In one of those strange karmic circumstances, my mother and father, who had been divorced and estranged for over forty years, passed away on the same day within one geographical block from one another. My father is a hero to me and a national hero in the States, as well as also being remembered up here for his work toward getting Japanese Canadians redress. My mother is also a heroine but the world will not know or remember her. I never think of my father without thinking of my mother. Both are why I am who I am. If my father taught me the importance of integrity and the need to be diligent and resolved in standing by principles of decency and good will, my mother taught me to be a free spirit and to be curious and adventurous in life. I miss them both.
I have learned more about the impact that my father had on so many people in the past couple of years than I ever knew in the previous sixty-four years of my life. I have been invited to sit on panels at many conferences celebrating my father’s and Fred Korematsu’s and Min Yasui’s insistence that the U.S. Constitution be validated as a meaningful document, and have met the pro bono lawyers that worked on their cases and Judge Mary Schroeder, a wonderfully intelligent lady, who issued the final declaration that the U.S. Government had grievously erred in convicting my father. So many people have spoken to me about how my father inspired them. Judge Schroeder said that his case was the most important in her judicial career. But meeting President Barack Obama at the Medal of Freedom ceremony was a bit like meeting the Wizard of Oz. Presidents are not allowed to be people. They read from teleprompters, they say what they are supposed to say. I sat behind Hillary Clinton and National Security Advisor Susan Rice and it was as surreal as any butoh performance. Bob Dylan also received the Medal of Freedom that day. Bob Dylan has always been one of my heroes, but he acted like an asshole, disrespecting all the other distinguished recipients by wearing sunglasses, missing the rehearsal, taking a seat that wasn’t assigned to him, never clapping for anyone, and leaving like a skunk in the night as soon as it was over. Still I wished my dad had been there. I imagined him going up to Bob and introducing himself and asking who he was.
With Life completed and ready for the stage, what’s next for Jay and Barbara?
We want to tour Life to other cities. We are really happy with this work. It says what we want it to say about the fragility, the complexity, the richness of life.
We also are going to bring Dairakudakan to Vancouver for performances at the 2015 Vancouver International Dance Festival. This is really an extraordinary dance company. They are fantastic.
We also will be starting to create a new work with composer Jeffrey Ryan who will be creating a score for clarinet, bass clarinet, viola, and cello that will be performed live.
We are also happy to be grandparents. Our youngest daughter Kai just delivered our fifth grandchild, Frances Grace Mitsuko Ethier in Toronto on September 11th.
Anything you’d like to add?
Congratulations on keeping The Bulletin the voice of Japanese Canadians for the past 20 years! Omedeto!