The Real Story: “Beyond the Box III: Suji – Lines of Tradition” with Choreographer Rika Lin
Something as simple as a parent enrolling their child in a dance class could very well lead to the next prima ballerina, or in the case of Rika Lin, an inventive, accomplished choreographer and Grandmaster of classical Japanese dance.
In pivotal moments in our lives, we may take time to look into the past, if only make some sense of how we got to where we are. We look for important decisions we have made and their ripple effect, as well as at the decisions that were made on our behalf. Those choices that were out of our hands can often have the largest impact on the present and future, and it is up to each of us to decide whether or not to embrace them. Something as simple as a parent enrolling their child in a dance class could very well lead to the next prima ballerina, or in the case of Rika Lin, an inventive, accomplished choreographer and Grandmaster of classical Japanese dance.
Japanese classical dance is rooted in a strict Kabuki foundation, meaning the student must never ask “why”; rather, the student’s task is to become a carbon copy of the master.
In her dance making, Rika seeks to evolve the art of classical Japanese dance — an art form steeped in tradition, dating back to the Edo period (1600’s) which saw the creation of Kabuki. In its heyday, Kabuki theatre was a cultural phenomenon that embraced a unique blend of dancing and acting, and in 2008 it was inscribed in UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage to Humanity. This recognized the art form as an element of Japanese heritage with outstanding universal value, but it begs the question: how do we continue to make it relevant today, especially for modern American audiences? Japanese classical dance is rooted in a strict Kabuki foundation, meaning the student must never ask “why”; rather, the student’s task is to become as much like the master as possible. This fact is what makes Rika’s approach to her art form bold: her approach stems from her 30-plus years of experience and training with recognized masters, mixed with the American mentality of curiosity and forward-thinking. On stage, this approach manifests by mixing traditional elements with new performance techniques, new approaches to time-honored traditions and modern ideas of identity.
In Beyond the Box III: Suji – Lines of Tradition, the characters and premise are based on the core and root of what traditional Japanese classical dance exudes and exists from. Those traditions are then taken and reshaped by Rika’s choreographic aesthetic to create a collaborative work that challenges those foundations while still paying them respect (which is no easy feat!). Collaborators Tom Lee, a leading Chicago puppeteer with traditional and contemporary training, and accomplished musician Tatsu Aoki help complete the vision by experimenting with breaking traditional boundaries in their own art forms. With an abundance of different elements at play, DancerMusic Dance Editor Kristi Licera had to ask Rika Lin more about her upcoming performances at Links Hall. Here’s what she told us:
There was something about performance that connected with me. Perhaps it was how I could identify myself with my looks, my culture and my heritage in the middle of the suburban Midwest.
Kristi Licera: We each have our own way of discovering who we are and nurturing our personal evolution. The days of our youth tend to leave a lasting impression on the paths we choose to walk later in life, and for an artist, this can have an impact not only the concepts behind work, but also on their method of creation. Being born and raised in Chicago to postwar immigrant parents, the traditions of Japanese culture surely clashed with assimilating into everyday America. Can you tell us more about your journey to becoming a Grandmaster of Japanese classical dance and an innovative choreographer? How do the dichotomies of your life, past and present, affect the process of making dance?
Rika Lin: I have been fortunate to have ‘trained traditionally’ in Japanese classical dance, although this description may be challenged by the hardcore conservatives of the traditional arts living in Japan. I was initially drafted into “trying it out.” My sister had been visiting with our mother and started lessons in Japan. Upon their return, my mother was delighted to find out that there was a Japanese teacher here in Chicago, also from the same style/school, the Fujima School of Japanese classical dance. I was told to attend with my younger sister, and it was immediately decided that we would both debut at the annual recital in a few months. It was assumed that my sister would continue, and I (who was given the male role) would quit soon after. I am not what you would expect a classical female Japanese dancer to look like, but I would be lying if I sometimes just wanted to be able to have that look. But I would also be lying if I didn’t find some pleasure in the fact that I can incite a stronger reaction because of this.
After four or five years however, my sister was the one who quit, and I continued on. There was something about performance that connected with me. Perhaps it was how I could identify myself with my looks, my culture and my heritage in the middle of the suburban Midwest. As I trained with my teacher, I slowly learned about the various guidelines (barriers, depending on how one looks at it) that defined the pedagogy.
…there is not always enough consideration given to acknowledging where one has come from, who your influences are and giving credence to the various experiences that may not have necessarily been given directly to you from your mentors…
The traditions that I learned can sometimes feel like an “unwanted gift.” This has a very direct connection to Suji. One can feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to be a representative of one’s culture, one’s gender, one’s ethnicity, one’s art form, etc. I have chosen to accept those responsibilities, even though I am not in a direct bloodline to continue the Fujima school’s name (that is a whole other issue!). Being in America (and more specifically the Midwest/Chicago), one can never assume that anyone EVER understands what you are doing, who you are, where you came from and the effect and affect that one gives and takes. And this goes for ANYONE. In presenting a piece, one is left with a decision on how much you are going to ‘spoon feed’ the audience and how much you are willing to trust that people will take the time to have an open mind, reflect, observe, absorb and then hopefully make their contributive sonar ‘ping’ to the work that you are presenting, which is the conceptual manifestation at the moment of the work.
In America, I was always told to speak your mind, defend your actions and make sure to speak up and speak out. In contrast, there is not always enough consideration given to acknowledging where one has come from, who your influences are and giving credence to the various experiences that may not have necessarily been given directly to you from your mentors; it’s the build up to that point, whether it is crafting your ability to see certain perspectives, coloring your opinion on issues and therefore silently providing the ‘air around the framework’. These are just as important as learning the epic musical piece and the masterful choreography that fits in place with it. I feel this perpetuation is essential for the lineage to have a firm aesthetic core and although it may not be visible, without it, the work/art/dance will die. I have to give special thanks to Grandmaster Shunojo Fujima and Tastu Aoki for being my mentors/teachers!
The main melody is passed on to each drummer and winds its way in a seemingly indirect route; the rhythms transfer between the drummers without a direct focus, yet there is a distinct phrase.
Kristi: Beyond the Box III: Suji – Lines of Tradition is a continuation of your quest to find creative ways to push the boundaries of traditional Japanese classical dance. This work follows the main character Suji, who is born from the cultural idea that we must adhere strictly to tradition. The evening also features leading Chicago puppeteer Tom Lee, who continues his studies of cart puppetry with 5th generation masters. In addition, live music will be incorporated, performed by prolific musician Tatsu Aoki on shamisen. How did you choreograph and unify each these elements to Beyond the Box III: Suji – Lines of Tradition?
Rika: We’ll start with Suji’s story. Now, out in “front” Suji would not be saying that being an apprentice sucks, but it is difficult, and usually not a ‘fun’ thing. But this is because of the culture of how and why an apprentice was an apprentice. The modern view is most definitely going to lean towards “why would anyone want to be treated this way? And to what end?” This thought is what the metaphor is relying on. Sometimes, in order to follow tradition – to do things in the manner they should be done – it takes effort. And depending on who is observing these actions, it may seem like a wasted or useless effort. Why bother?
Elements of the taiko music also bring forth this concept, performed by the group Tsukasa Taiko led by Tatsu Aoki. The musical line in the title song “Suji” is not crafted to have a blatant showcasing of a taiko player’s prowess. The main melody is passed on to each drummer and winds its way in a seemingly indirect route; the rhythms transfer between the drummers without a direct focus, yet there is a distinct phrase. This is the literal representation of how one ‘follows the line’, or the ‘suji’.
I hope to provide a pathway for one to think about tradition and preservation, and hopefully provoke a reaction towards what one may or may not have regarding the legacy of lineage and the practicality of pedagogy.
There is an aspect of metacognition to the whole thing – a metaconceptual performance where you don’t even know what you are seeing, but it turns into a multi-arts performance. You switch it up and play with your variables. The pieces need some semblance of a narrative. Yes, the kabuki stage has some generalities such as the representation of the past and future. The physical kabuki stage has a projection/runway called a hanamichi where characters can make their entrance, so stage right generally represents the past. Therefore, stage left represents the future. By drawing upon these setpoints, I hope to provide a pathway for one to think about tradition and preservation, and hopefully provoke a reaction towards what one may or may not have regarding the legacy of lineage and the practicality of pedagogy.
My process is quite organic, and although the concept may have a firm anchor, the process of congealing can at times be difficult.
In working with puppeteer Tom Lee, the thing I found most interesting was his challenge of being present, since in traditional puppeteering the soul is transferred to the puppet itself. Indeed, I think this concept is also indicative of the culture; one is supposed to think about others in the ring (of society), versus oneself. This can be extrapolated to the puppeteer and the absence of recognition (of the puppeteer) that is convention. I have talked to traditional musicians in Japan and they would say they wanted perform in America because their individual name is listed (and acknowledged) versus in Japan where the name of the group is listed, but not the individual members (times have changed though, this is not always the case).
Tatsu’s music is very raw, and this can be very conducive during the creative process.
Tatsu’s music is very raw, and this can be very conducive during the creative process. My process is quite organic, and although the concept may have a firm anchor, the process of congealing can at times be difficult. So, it usually is the case that each performance is a one-time event since the work is able to adapt to variables as well (whether it be venue, time constraints, weather, mood, etc.).
The choice of color, materials, or movements are all decided with regard to tradition, then a judgement is made on whether the work is served better with it being presented one way or another. In this production, I chose a non colorful palette, so that other differences in material: silk, cotton, the pattern, could be contrasted.
Beyond the Box III: Suji – Lines of Tradition takes the stage at Links Hall Friday, May 3 – Saturday, May 5, each evening at 7pm. Tickets are available online via Eventbrite.
To learn more about Rika, visit www.yoshinojo.org.