Laugh and the World Smiles: c(h)ord premieres at YBCA

By Rita Felciano


Humor is perhaps is the most unrecognized aspect in Shinichi Iova-Koga’s existential explorations of human oddities. Ame to Ame‘s immaculately timed encounters between Iova-Koga and long-time partner Yuko Kaseki—and three pieces of furniture—could have come out of silent film comedy. There may be an element of Kafka in Cockroach but the antics of the three “witches” certainly have something funny about them. In Onion, the mad scientist drops pieces of non-sequitur information from the top, while trap doors spit out mechanical monkeys and singers from the bottom. In the meantime two interlocked performers cavort and fight in the best clown tradition. Yet we don’t laugh. Or at least not very much. Why not? Are we not sure whether what we are watching is animal, vegetable or mineral? Maybe what might have looked absurd at one time, no longer does? Or does Iova-Koga so intricately mingle the dark with the light that we don’t know what’s what?

The California native who works in the Bay Area—and as of late California’s Lost Coast—and Berlin, is aware of differences in the way audiences react to his work. Talking during a break from rehearsing c(H)ord, which premieres at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, April 24-26, he says that “in Berlin people laugh more than they do here.” Questioned about a possible reason, he ventures a tentative explanation. “It’s possible that they are more experienced in seeing experimental work, so it’s not so exotic to them. So they can relax in it and laugh.”

Non-traditional work for small and mid-sized companies, he comments, still gets more support in Germany despite the inevitable belt-tightening that is going on there. It has created substantial audiences open to what he does, not just in Berlin—but “in small pockets” around Germany.

There are other distinctions. “I get less critical feedback in this country. In Berlin people almost take pride in giving their honest opinion. If they hated it, they’ll tell you and give you the reason why. Here if they hated it, they just go away, and I never hear from them. The people here who love it will say something nice to me but it’s also hard to get true feedback.”

Not that he is complaining. At a recent fundraiser, he noticed with gratitude that it was the Bay Area artists who came out to support him and his inkBoat company. And YBCA has been generous. “They gave us commissioning money and rehearsal time.” Pointing to the tape on the floor of YBCA’s Forum marking the performing space, he acknowledges the luxury of creating a piece where it will be actually performed. Artists much more commonly have to contend themselves with some small studio. In March he had a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts, which offered him rehearsal facilities, plus “room and board for four people.” That’s not a negligible contribution to a company as international as Iova-Koga’s.

Looking at the performers on this rainy February afternoon, you can’t help but be impressed by the individual strengths that these artists bring to Iova-Koga’s newest project. Even a cursory glance shows the wisdom of his decision that “these days when I choose somebody to work with, they are very good at what they are doing.”

Local audiences may be familiar with repeat collaborators Dohee Lee, Sten Rudstrom and particularly the Berlin-based Kaseki Yuko. New to the company are Bay Area dancer Sherwood Chen and Dana Iova-Koga, the choreographer’s wife and former dancer with Min Tanaka. Also from Berlin, where parts of c(H)ord were developed last September, come the extraordinary Heini Nukari and Ishide Takuya, a former student of Butoh founder Tatsumi Hijikata.

For Nukari, a baby-faced, compact Finnish performer, this is her first American engagement. In the rehearsal this afternoon, she is standing behind Rudstrom who towers over her. His eyes are covered, his mouth is open. Nukari’s arms reach from behind to knead his limbs and squeeze out of this stiff body the most awesome deep-throated wails. Think of Noh theater. It takes a while before you realize that this torrent off sound is coming out of Nukari’s little body. (In a Q&A session a few days later, Nukari explains that she trained at the School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam which takes an integrated approach to dance/theater/music training.)

In this c(H)ord rehearsal, the company’s oldest member, the 50-year old Takuya, performs with the febrile fractiousness of the first-generation of Butoh artists that is Iova-Koga’s direct line to Butoh. It is a connection that he came by almost accidentally when he encountered it as a student in film and theater at San Francisco State University and had enrolled in Tadashi Suzuki’s method of training for actors. “That’s when I thought for the first time that I would like to do something based on my Japanese ancestry.” (Iova-Koga’s mother is Caucasian, his father is Japanese.) It was at State that he also met and became a student of Ashiko Akeno’s and then of Hiroko Tamano’s, the two women whom he claims as having shaped him most as an artist. Both of them are Hijikata-trained.

In his solo works, particularly Tasting an Ocean, based on his father’s memory survival of the bombing of Nagasaki, and to a lesser extent the more recent Milk Traces, in which he looked closely at his new-born daughter, Iova-Koga draws most closely on his Butoh training. Yet though he is a mesmerizing dancer, he doesn’t have Takuya or Kaseki’s nuanced brilliance as a Butoh performer. More important to his ability to create work which his website describes as a “hybrid of traditional and experimental dance and theater forms weaved with Physical Theater and Butoh Dance” is Iova-Koga involvement with Butoh as an intellectual discipline.

“Basic theater,” he says, “was hard for me to perform. I had difficulties speaking text that felt very genuine to me, and the Tadashi Suzuki method also felt a little too regimented for me. I had a lot of strong concepts but then, when I made the piece, the concepts had flattened out everything. It was just the result of a guy thinking, but for me the body experience has so much story, so much depth. When I began with Butoh I was very much involved with the image and how the image changes the body. But then I became interested in another line of investigation, in paying attention to my body. In Butoh I could get away from my ideas. In some ways, I was trying to take meaning out of something rather than put in the meaning.”

For c(H)ord, as he does almost always, Iova-Koga works collaboratively. “I am interested in this particular group because of their very different strengths and backgrounds. But, of course, I have to give them frames, I have to give them structures. I knew I wanted to mix the music and the dance in each person. Everyone has a musical role though they are not primarily musicians, but I want to develop that sensibility with them.”

Prominently displayed during rehearsals are the names of seven tentative sections. Among them are ‘Grind the Sky,’ ‘Rattle Vertrebrae,’ and ‘Now Is Missing.’ None of the material developed so far is guaranteed to make it into the final piece. Iova-Koga compares the process to the strips of film that hang in the lab after a day’s shooting. They’ll be cut, edited and reassembled. Dancers in two feel out each other’s space; Rudstrom creeps lizard-like along a pyramidal structure; Lee’s soft chants sound like hiccups; Takuya tears through the room like a rabbit being pursued by a coyote. Frankly, he looks hilarious. Two people chuckled; I didn’t.

Even though the material looks quite disjointed at this point, Iova-Koga is clear about the work’s original impetus. “I have been interested in the DNA inside our bodies that goes far back in our history before we became human,” he explains. “Our pre-human existence is contained in our DNA. So I am thinking that we were much more similar to each other at one time. Now that we have become these kinds of humans, we identify ourselves so differently from each other. A kind of isolation comes with this. At the same time we have such a wish to join with others. And yet there is also this is awe that we are so different, and that becomes an attraction point as well.”

c(H)ord sounds like it might become a very old-fashioned story. “The old-fashioned stories sometimes are the best,” Iova-Koga smiles.

Born in Switzerland and educated there and at UC Berkeley, Rita Felciano wrote on dance for the San Francisco Bay Guardian for over two decades and Dance View Magazine not quite as long. She still is a Contributing Editor to Dance Magazine and writes for the danceviewtimes website.