Discovering your own movement style or vocabulary is never an easy task. It cannot be just a mixture of the subjects you have been influenced by. When I apply the artistic elements I have learned on my movement experiments, I try to grasp the core essence of the subject and adapt that philosophy to create my own dance.
Awareness Learned and Challenged
I have been trying to establish the density of being in the space through the body. To dance and create movements, I use anatomical images as scientific guidance, as well as my own free images relating to nature, history, memory, and emotions. I have found that if the image is based on knowledge, actual experiences, or any long-term study and practice, it becomes a more powerful tool to initiate with and let movements arise from. The movements thus have more depth, width, and dimension. They even have the potential to evoke various surroundings for the viewer.
My approach derives from my history of practice in Noh theater dance. A performer of Japanese traditional Noh theater dance conveys his feet with very heavy, low gravity and a halfway sliding manner, imagining and feeling a thousand miles of distance on his right and left. This way of walking draws the audience members’ attention toward him and his moving path and standing points. For example, the performer expresses going over mountains and arriving at the seashore by moving halfway around the stage, accompanied by a song with lyrics describing his action in a guttural drone. He uses a fan effectively, suggesting the existence of mountains in the distance and the ripples on the sea.
I have been influenced by the philosophy of Zen Buddhism and related Japanese traditional arts. One of my adoptions is the essence of Noh theater dance. I have been exploring how to abstract and embody this essence of “being” in my own dance without having the background lyrics (describing the story and performer’s actions) and also without the help of the fan as in traditional Noh theater. My challenge has been how to express the quality of being by sensing and establishing invisible space in and around me.
Ideokinesis—idea (ideo) and movement (kinesis)—is a body training method that uses imagery to change neuromuscular patterns and achieve better posture and movement skills. I began studying ideokinesis as a tool to work on posture and to improve my physical ability to dance better, yet it is now interrelated with my approach to choreography and expression in dance.
My idea about conveying clearer images comes from studying with Irene Dowd. I encountered her book Taking Root to Fly sixteen years ago. Since then, I became a pursuer of ideokinesis. In 2007 I began to study with Irene, starting to understand one of the key learning concepts of ideokinesis—that the image to focus on is based on concrete knowledge of anatomy. In my case, I realized that learning detailed anatomy also helps me gain clearer images of the way breath can circulate like wind; and blood, or other liquid substances in the body, can flow like water.
When people ask me what kind of dance do I do, I answer, “As if wind enters from the fingertips and goes through the body,” pointing to the center of gravity and energy located in the abdomen which is called dantian in Tai chi. I also focus on connecting my energy pathways based on what is called the “meridian” in Chinese medicine study. Meridians are energy pathways associated with the theory of yin/yang and the five elements in nature. The actual existence of meridians is still under discussion, yet recent research by Dr. Kenji Matsunaga (“Anatomical Structure that shows similar paths with meridians,” The Japan Society of Acupuncture and Moxibusion Magazine, Feb, 1, 2006), finds that meridian pathways overlap with nerves, arteries, and veins. This finding suggests that something intangible called energy must be running through certain pathways of our anatomical structure. Metaphorically speaking, and influenced by the allegory of Taoist Chuang-tzu, breath can be “wind,” and blood and other liquid can be “water.” Though, wind is not included in the five elements in nature of yin/yang theory, I've found that transforming the knowledge of meridians and anatomy into refined images helps me establish an energetic connection with the body and physical relationships with other dancers in the space.
To Dance Beyond Your Skin and Sphere
The movement created in the space is the result of how the body is structured and how and where energy is released from it. Therefore, connecting the energy through the body and establishing a clear orientation of the body in the space becomes very important.
In order to work on my internal physical structure and heighten proprioceptive awareness, I do exercises I learned from Irene to wake up certain muscle groups and exercises I’ve been developing to be aware of alignment. After establishing the anatomical and energy pathways throughout the body, I imagine a gyroscopic sphere around myself to get a sense of my physical orientation in the space. I imagine the sphere expanding from the center of gravity, dantian, which I consider to be the core of my physical and mental self, and rings in layers radiating circularly around the core along with the anatomic planes of median, coronal, transverse.
Choreographing Energy: The Butterfly Effect
By accumulating the practices above, I became interested in choreographing energy. In other words, I would like to move based on the idea that even one slight movement of the fingertip in the moment may influence the world tomorrow.
Onstage, movement functions as kinetic phenomena and symbolic metaphor. My current goal is to unite these two and to present a movement work as metaphorical phenomena. In Noh theater, together with the lyrics/story, performers can represent varieties of phenomena beyond the set space on stage through refined and minimal expression. Yet in my dance works, I pursue movements focusing on physicality and a state of being in the space so that viewers imagine "whole" from micro to macro, witnessing a part of the live activity happening in the universe.
I developed this idea by overlapping movements in nature with the function of the human body and activities of human movements. Thus, I am more conscious about how presenting energy onstage can change the next moment or relate with facts outside of the piece. This recalls the Butterfly Effect in chaos theory. (“One flap of a butterfly's wings could change the course of weather forever.”)
Dealing with Dualism: Reality and Furyu (wind flow/as it is)
When we describe our movement poetically—“like upper-stream river water”—the body can represent the entity of the movement, simultaneously conveying interrelated elements such as size, weight, density, texture, shape, position, and speed. My experiment originates from working on the value of “being” through dance, and I am noticing that the essential components truly reside in the art of dance itself and in each of our lives.
Since my arrival in Chicago, generous support by individuals and institutions in the city, and the Chicago dance community in general, has made my dance activities possible. I cannot express my appreciation enough. Since fall 2008, Epiphany Dance Experiment at Epiphany Episcopal Chicago has added another layer of support, as has Dance Union, currently at Menomonee Club for Boys and Girls and this summer at Hamlin Park Fieldhouse Theater. The current series presents a mixed group of artists performing under a common theme with post-show dialogues. It provides dance artists, their collaborators, and viewers with the opportunity to gather to experience, experiment, and further discuss dance. In January, the theme was “Politics and Dance,” and from that I learned that our daily activities can be political when we are trying to overcome obstacles to create better living conditions and environment for others and ourselves.
As possibly most dancers do, I love to simply move along with the music I love. Yet, since I am allowed this platform through dance, I want to create and do something meaningful and constructive. Therefore, I must keep searching, being poetic, scientific, political, and realistic, and occasionally silent and still. I hope someday I can truly dance “as it is,” as wind flows in nature.
Ayako Kato is a dancer and choreographer originally from Japan. Since 1998, her company, Art Union Humanscape, has presented more than 100 music and dance shows in the U.S., Japan, and Europe. She organizes a dance series, Dance Union.
This story includes editorial support by CAR Dance Researcher Meida McNeal.