The ability to improvise is key to the development and growth of the performing arts. And while it may seem like a simple task, improvisation takes a mastery of technique, discipline to adhere to the parameters that guide the process and the confidence and patience to take risks and analyze their outcomes. In dance, this tool is especially invaluable as it gives artists and dance makers the opportunity to explore and deepen their creative process, ultimately leading to a more profound performance experience for both dancer and audience. But what happens when improvisation is at the heart of a performance? What does this mean for both artist and audience?
Chicago audiences will soon have the chance to find out in the upcoming performances of Bridge Dance Festival, which takes place at Links Hall November 14-16. Presented by Links Hall and Asian Improv aRts Midwest (AIRMW) and curated by Rika Lin (aka Yoshinojo Fujima), the festival presents four artists whose work explores their Asian American heritage. The festival serves as a hub for global connection through the art of dance, specifically through the eyes and movements of the artists who have a cultural connection to Japan. Each of the performers will present a structured, improvised work; works are anchored in exploring a specific idea with a central base of movement, but the artists will continue to develop and change their work with each performance.
As difficult as it can be to perform set choreography, there is something inherently more difficult in presenting work that continues to shift and grow. The safety net of a set plan is abandoned, requiring the artists to be simultaneously confident and vulnerable. This creates an invitation for the audience to experience the inner workings of a dance maker’s mind firsthand, and for the those that can attend the festival for more than one performance, a chance to witness how the the tool of improvisation creates room for the growth of new ideas.
In collaboration with Bridge Dance Festival Curator Rika Lin, DancerMusic Dance Editor Kristi Licera had the opportunity to get insights from each of the participating Bridge Dance Festival artists on the concepts and ideas they are exploring. Here is what Alexander Hayashi, Mitsu Salmon, Ayako Kato and Ayaka Nakama told us:
How do culture and ideology shape the value of being on the floor?
When these differing norms are brought into the same space, it is often felt that something must be cast aside in favor of something else.
“International dialogue inevitably surfaces areas of difference. Cultural norms lead to judgements on the value of ideas and actions. When these differing norms are brought into the same space, it is often felt that something must be cast aside in favor of something else.
The title of my work in Bridge Dance Festival is Low, which I created in collaboration with Takashi Shallow. We would like to question this impulse and see what is lost in this zero-sum game. How can differing value systems exist in shared space? How can they resolve themselves within the identities of individuals and groups?” –Alexander Hayashi
Photographed by Kiam Marcelo Junio at Chicago Butoh Festival 2015 for the work Tsuchi
Drawing from Shintoism and contemporary cultural phenomenons, the piece looks at the relationship of the animate and inanimate, wildness and tidying.
“From 2008-2011, I lived in Kyoto, Japan to get in touch with my familial roots and create work. During that time, I studied Butoh (contemporary Japanese dance) and collaborated with Ryotaro Sudo (accordion and electronics musician), making original sound/movement works. His playing profoundly resonates with my work and lays the emotional landscape for the stories I seek to share.
The work Ryotaro and I are creating for Bridge is a new performance and sound work, Island, which interweaves our past collaborations with current inquiries. Island explores loneliness, self-help and animism. Drawing from Shintoism and contemporary cultural phenomenons, the piece looks at the relationship of the animate and inanimate, wildness and tidying. I blend movement, non-linear storytelling, objects and voice. Ryotaro builds a sonic landscape for these worlds through accordion and midi-electronics.
Ryotaro and I began to develop Island in 2010, investigating my loneliness of being between cultures. His music evoked the longing of this experience. Since coming to the states, my practice has been exploring family history and popular culture. Ryotaro plays the accordion–a European instrument, yet mixes it with Japanese noise, concepts of MA (emptiness) and American rock and roll. This interweaving of various influences and artistic senses mirrors my blending of multiple artistic mediums and cultural influences.
The work also looks at Shintoism influence on the cultural phenomena of Marie Kondo and how we seek to order the natural world. In the piece, we intend to challenge certain stereotypes of Japanese culture, such as “submissive” and “reserved.” We will add new elements to Island such as wildness and humor by exploring the power dynamics with the audience, the embodiment of desire and uninhibited movements and playing.
Since moving to Chicago in 2012, I have dreamed of inviting Ryotaro to collaborate with me. Now through the Bridge Dance Festival, I finally have the chance. The festival’s mission of fostering international exchange is great for our collaboration, and nourishes our artistic growth through reuniting and sharing discoveries.” –Mitsu Salmon
Dance Beyond Space/Time
My mission for dance as a Japanese artist is to introduce the possibility of the state of mind which is more flexible, open and free…
“I haven’t been dancing as ‘Japanese’. I have been dancing and creating as a human; as you can see, my company name is Ayako Kato/Art Union Humanscape. Though, I admit the Japanese traditional philosophy of fūryū (風流-literally “wind flow”) described by well-known haiku poet and artist Bashō who cleaved the way of life by following (his) nature, really saved me. It made me notice who I am and guided me to pursue the path of dancing that I follow now.
My style of dance is not based entirely on Japanese traditional dance. I practiced classical ballet, various styles of modern dance such as Humphrey, Graham, Cunningham technique, to name a few, Tai Chi, Noh theater dance and butoh from one of the founders, Kazuo Ohno. My way of movement or dance is supported by the idea of “following nature” or “being as it is,” influenced by Bashō and also Taoist Zhuangzi, who influenced Bashō. This “being as it is” or ” following nature” takes the whole life to achieve. We need to keep asking these questions: why I am born, why I am here, who am I and what I should be doing in this moment as a part of nature, which is constantly moving. This process of searching happens constantly as we cope with nature, others, other living things and everything around us moment by moment.
When it comes to our society and daily lives, this profound feeling of the cosmic ephemera, like the intangible fūryū-wind flow and the fact of everyone and everything being “one and only one being” or “one and only one moment,” tends to sound, look or be considered crazy or unrealistic. However, our current state of humanity is the result of humans being money-crazy and decision-making based on how we survive, mostly relying on the man-made system of society. This gap between the two–“reality” as the society and “ethereal” teachings like fūryū for us to recognize and follow nature–needs to be narrowed down. Human minds should be learning more flexibility in order to go back and forth between the two–literally as wind flows.
My mission for dance as a Japanese artist is to introduce the possibility of the state of mind which is more flexible, open and free; in other words, “the heart of letting go,” to help our existence and create more balanced choices and actions in our lives.” –Ayako Kato
Solo Dance for Someone, (perhaps him)
I stack multiple choreographies in my body without replacing them.
“I have worked on the stage with countless choreographers, believing that it is the dancer’s job to launch choreography as a dance and let the choreographed body dance. My body is not able to dance without choreography, and furthermore, it has the property that it wants to dance a lot, so it needs much more choreography (like food).
Choreography exists in various forms anytime and anywhere. I have long wanted to dance to all the choreography that exists in this world. In this project, I asked people who are not specialists in dance or performing arts about “a memory of when they danced for the first time in their lives”, and I treated those memories as choreography. I stack multiple choreographies in my body without replacing them.
Let’s dance with a plump and luxurious body that has stored a lot of foods.” –Ayaka Nakama
Bridge Dance Festival takes place November 14-16, 2019 at Links Hall (3111 N Western Ave, Chicago, IL 60618). All performances take place at 7pm.- Tickets are available at airmw.org.