It was a remarkable evening we shared last week. Sitting in the dinner theater audience at Michael Feinstein’s 54 Below with you and Bjorn watching Ben Vereen seemed almost dreamlike at the time and certainly more so with the steady stream of events, personalities and places we live through every day.
Your and my email conversation continues in this blog post and it will frame the entire entry. Why? I am not quite sure. Perhaps the general themes of our exchange: time, place, memory, racial and ethnic identity always present, are even more pressing in this winter season, this election season…
What about Ben Vereen? As I mentioned to you some writer back in the 1980’s (was it for the Soho News? A dance publication?…) described me as “a cross between Trisha Brown and Ben Vereen”. I was flattered to be compared to Trisha, whom many of us love for her silky spontaneous movement and her agile systems-devising mind. Ben Vereen, on the other hand, the triple-threat, break out star of Pippin, Hair and many other popular theater works was more difficult at first. His over-generous presentational style projecting warmth, humor and good times was for me – a young, Black, male dance artist, deeply hazardous in the downtown scene of that time (has it changed?). Seeing the introductory clip, a survey of his dancing, singing and acting career, drew attention to what I love about the comparison to him in his prime. He was also silky, though athletic, sexy, strong, yet unafraid of vulnerability. Never threatening, he was young, gifted and black in that way that has fed and informed American pop culture since the days of Master Jubilation dancing in New York’s notorious Five Points District or for Queen Victoria in the Nineteenth Century.
He is still strutting, smiling and giving the people what they want (and what they need?). I enjoyed sharing the fan ritual of going back stage to see a bona fide Broadway star. I enjoyed watching you listen with your intense expression and your whole body. And I enjoyed too finding out your love for Nina Simone who Ben Vereen’s performance seemed to evoke for you!
Attending Ben’s performance with you, rehearsing daily at the Apollo on 125th Street, brought some of the themes of our conversation back to me. Composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph and I have been rehearsing our Opera of Philadelphia premiere of We Shall Not Be Moved, an experimental opera in which we use spoken word, opera and dance to weave the story of fictitious family of runaways squatting in shabby housing built on the site of the 1985 devastating firebombing of the radical Move Collective. It’s a work about how the education system has failed these runaways and how they turn instead to the OG’s, the ghosts of the seven children who died along with many of their parents at 62nd and Osage Ave., a Black working class community.
Leaving the rehearsal on the Apollo’s sound-stage, stepping into the cultural stew of the traditional heart of Black America, now rapidly gentrifying (or simply evolving?), before heading downtown to join you for an evening of popular entertainment, was a thrill and a curious one as you are not Black, not white, but Japanese!
Continuing our conversation, you wrote to me:
On Sat, Oct 3, 2015 at 1:47 AM, Eiko Otake wrote:
I noticed for the first time that I did not mention History Professor William Johnston who is a photographer collaborator of my project, A Body in Fukushima, is a white person. I have introduced him many times before as our photo exhibition travels with my solo tour, but I never wrote that he is white and did not notice that until I was writing to you. I failed to fully recognize and thus address that ours is an interracial collaboration… He speaks better Japanese than I do English, is a Buddhist and I am not… He behaves in some ways more respectfully of what little remains of Japanese culture, much of which I am critical of as an insider. So we do not carry a normal role-play of two races. Just by having the experience of living far from where one grows up physically and metaphorically, one might develop imagination and a curiosity for the other. This in turn could encourage one to invest ones body and time in being among others.
But perhaps I did not mention his being white because I might have unconsciously assumed that people would think he is white unless I specify otherwise. That assumption is clearly a product of white people’s majority rule in the US for a long time (though it is in the process of changing in response to the growth rate of different populations and the influx of new immigrants. This rate of change is not even throughout America). As the downtown dance world is a part of t his America and I am a member of that community, do I add ethnicity or color only when someone is not from white America?
You asked how did/do I feel about being an Asian couple in the mostly white downtown dance world. My answer to that is: I was and still am a foreigner, not only nationality-wise but also from the point of view of dance style and dance vocabulary. Koma and I have stayed and worked here and made a living as artists (by doing so I, perhaps, began to see myself as an artist). Because of our desire to not use the same language/aesthetic as the American modern and post-modern, however, Koma and I did not dress in international dancewear. We danced naked or wore strange Japanese fabric. So to a degree we continued to look a bit different perhaps which is important to me.
I do notice however that those I became friends with are often those who have travelled far and have slept in strange places. They speak in a way that acknowledges a listener who is not a native English speaker. I could appreciate that we humans could now somewhat (I need often to insert that word) communicate. That did not happen in the Japan I grew up in. In that Japan racism lingered. It was often aimed at Chinese and Korean people as well as other minority groups such as the Ainu – native people of northern Japan. So I grew up in that majority Japanese society sensing “wrongs.”
As you pointed out, the downtown dance community we arrived in and the presenters we worked with have been mainly white people. As a result, Koma and I do not have many African American friends, the kind of friends who gather for a meal and a long talk. I do have a handful…. Koma and I collaborated with our longtime friend, Sharon, on a piece titled TREE SONG. She told me the first thing she thinks of when seeing an image of a tree is lynching. I realized how our memories, real and culturally imbedded, are so different.
The only time I was surrounded by black people was when Koma and I worked on WHEN NIGHTS WERE DARK. This DARK was not about the skin of our collaborators; the title came long before the collaboration started. We wanted to remember the long time ago when nights were very different from daytime, filled with awe and fear, when people huddled together for stories and songs. We, different people of different skins and different languages were not that different as humans then. Our good friend/singer/composer Joseph Jennings, who grew up in South Carolina singing in church, composed music (with no words) for 5 gospel singers from Brooklyn. Without him we would not have met nor connected with these singers. So that is telling. It is through one’s friend of a different race or culture that one gains access to a different people. Once we meet, become curious about each other, getting to know takes its own course.
We were working on that piece with them on the 91st floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in 2000 for our BAM premiere and tour. We ate together and joked, though they often had to explain the context. Introducing all family members was a ritual of respect and warmth for them. Koma and I were strangers to them. I realize that when people cannot really communicate in details, due to the different we grow up, we get together around our commonalities. A good lesson, perhaps. In WHEN NIGHTS WERE DARK there was a sound “HENNNNNNNNN” in one section of the music. But the singers heard it as “HAAANNNNNG”. That possible interpretation, “HANG”, gave different layers to the music.
I have been a foreigner in the US and that has allowed me to be somewhat nonchalant. I feel this in reading your charged email. Travelling the world, I have slowly we discovered being (and becoming) an Asian. The more I thought about myself as being Asian, the more I had to realize that I happen to be Japanese. Japanese soldiers and power were aggressors until 1945. That recognition has taken a lot of energy for me to think about and behave with… How do you deal with being American knowing how America behaves and is seen abroad?
From the time of my involvement in Japanese students’ movement (1968-1971) I have been antagonistic to many of the realities of contemporary Japan (forgetfulness, lack of individuality) and to its corporate ways. LEAVING Japan was more important to me than becoming American.
Also because Koma and I wanted to be free from labels and teachers, we were shy of identifying ourselves as part of any group. Walking away was liberating, but now, after so many years, how do we keep walking away? It seems I am not walking away much any more…”
I know I have not quite anwered your question, but please know these are my immediate, unprocessed thoughts upon reading your email. I was a socialist-influenced Japanese youth who left the movement as it got violent and isolated from the general population. Knowing you and I were born in the same year and same month, I am curious about your experiences in the late 60’s and early 70’s politically and philosophically.
To be continued…
Live Arts’ News:
We here at New York Live Arts are overjoyed that after a significant period of interim-ship and exploration Kim Cullen has taken on the position of Executive Director. During this past year I have had the benefit of witnessing Kim’s tremendous strategic thinking, profoundly human managerial style and audacious positivity. These qualities have given me confidence that Kim is the right person for our organization at this time.
Ann Liv Young!
If I have grown complacent in my sense of the words “provocateur” and “iconoclast” the whirlwind that was Ann Liv Young’s two-week run of Elektra has made me sit up straight and pay attention. I am new to her work and knew only what I had read and been whispered to about it. She is everything I’ve heard and much more. She is maddening and, I am sure, has left some of our staff bruised, but I believe she is authentic in living her vision of a woman free of all constraints: social, sexual and the list goes on. This is not easy work and it certainly is polarizing for many, but as I thought to myself at the top of the second act while this ensemble of white folks were doing a raucous, driving, cover/appropriation of a Kanye West track, “you go sister! We here at New York Live Arts can take it. We’ve got your back!”
In a particularly robust Live Artery (January 6-30) we were greatly honored to host the third annual “The Gathering” of African-American Women Dancers and Choreographers. In meeting with Camille Brown after her astonishing debut at the TED Conference last February, she asked me if we would make our space available to them and I immediately said “yes”. New York Live Arts is a platform for any number of communities and a host of interlocking conversations both on and off its stage. The gathering brought together over 60 female choreographers, scholars, teachers, and administrators of color gathering to analyze current trends in the performing arts sector, determine new methods of support, and encourage each other in the spirit of sisterhood.
On February 6th, company members Talli Jackson, Rena Butler and I will participate in an event titled Empathy at the sparkling architectural gem, Grace Farm, in New Canaan, CT. Later that day, I shall be receiving the Human Rights Campaign Visibility Award at their annual gala with an introduction by the great Kathleen Turner. I am excited and honored to receive this award.
Coming up this month at Live Arts, we have Live Ideas: MENA/Future-Cultural Transformations in the Middle East North Africa Region. I just did an interview with Tommy Kriegsmann and Adham Hafez on WNYC. Please listen to hear more about this ambitious 3 week festival that starts on February 8th with a talk between Bassem Yousef and Rula Jabreal at CUNY.