Jill Togawa’s Dreams and Driveways

By Patricia Bullit

October 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

On July 28 Jill Togawa, Director of Purple Moon Dance Company, and I held a conversation in my Berkeley home regarding her upcoming site specific performance work, When Dreams Are Interrupted. Although I’ve never been audience to Purple Moon Dance Company, Jill and I were mutually interested in each other’s work and began a friendship while serving on the Bay Area Dance Award Committee, the Izzies.

In our preliminary phone conversation, I asked you to name three areas you hope might be covered in this interview.

The first element that is important is the aspect of interconnection in this piece. My vision for the work is how the experience of community actually connects us. Ecology interests me, too. It would be interesting for me to discuss what I have learned, especially from the aspect of collecting stories. There are more people involved in making this piece than I! The last element is with my interest, my deep interest, in the theme of difference that can affect us all.

The title, When Dreams are Interrupted, makes me curious about your dreams. Tell me some of your dreams.

My dreams have to do with my family, my daughter, her life, and how will I be part of her life. One dream is that I will get to be part of her life for a long time.

My dream is to continue to do work that is stimulating to me.

The word dream was always in the title because that is something we all share. We all have dreams. In my mind, people love to dream. We can relate to dreams as something that transcends our every day experience.

The title did not come up only from me. When I started to hear other people’s ideas based on how I described the piece, I started to think about dreams in ways I do not usually think. I’m speaking in relationship now to the people whose stories I listened to, the dreams they have: to raise a family, to keep safe, to have a comfortable home.

Many Japanese came here to dream of another way of life. For the first time, I am at the age (56) of some of these people who would have been considered Elders. For instance, if I had to now, at this point in my life, uproot my family, it gives me a very visceral reaction. The thought of having to start again would be overwhelming.

Please speak about the movement and the choreographic process.

I was working with a new group of dancers. We started off with eight and ended up with a group of five. The dancers were contracted for a process over one year. Initially I needed to learn about how these dancers would work with me. I lead the dancers in exercises that would lead to improvisations. At some point, I asked dancers to read stories, and interview people (from the community from which this project was honoring). I asked dancers to come up with three or four lines of spoken text with movement. Words that were really moving to them, and then, to create movement. That seemed to be a break through because as I saw what the dancers could do with this exercise and the direction we could go in.

Rather than giving the dancers movement phrases, you had them take the raw material—the stories—and generate movement. What did this do to the work?

Most importantly, it gave me the idea of structure, and of using text in this way. Up to this point I was unclear how to incorporate the stories.

I asked the dancers to incorporate spoken words with improvisational movement. Here are examples of spoken text by a dancer. Theses are words from a written story of the internment experience by Japanese, rather than from an interview we recorded: “His dad had already been gone for a long time,” or “He made sure to pack his dad’s shoes; four days later, he was dead,” or “Mama says we have to leave her ashes in this place where they are looting the Japanese graves.”

After viewing their movement with text, what was the next process?

My process seems to be different each time. In this case, once I saw what the dancers were doing, I got the idea to develop sections of the dance with each of them because I thought it was very interesting to see what they were doing. It was a good way to work with their very different backgrounds—I had been grappling with how to work with that.

Then, I began incorporating movement into phrases from the dancers that I thought would work for the whole group. It actually changed quite a lot. The one image I had from the beginning was of coming up the long driveway to my house, and possibly leaving down the driveway. However, when presenting this as a work in progress, this beginning actually became the ending of the piece.

The context of the work has its own mystery, momentum, and exploration. I remember when you moved to Berkeley, and I drove you home from a meeting. You told me your ideas for a new piece. We spoke of your new home, and a tree in your back yard. I told you of my site-specific work, especially honoring trees.

Yes. You are the first person that put this seed in my head of doing the work at my home. The possibility to consider the performance actually at my home! I knew I wanted the tree in my backyard involved somehow. I knew I could not bring the tree on stage. I would have thought that we’d dance under the tree, which it turns out we are not doing. I do not really know what kept me moving in that direction, since this is my first time creating a site-specific piece.

How did you go from moving into a new home, to realizing your home would be something to explore as an artist? How did you make the leap to the oral histories?

I was told that the tree was planted by a Japanese family that lived on our property before World War II. It’s a Redwood Tree, probably would have been 100 ft tall. The family that moved here after them chopped it.

As we were in the process of buying the house a city inpector heard my name. He said, “I hear your name as Japanese. Are you interested in knowing the history of this house?”

He used to live behind us. He knew the neighbors. The neighbors knew the history.

I think the first time I heard about this family, I already had a feeling that maybe I wanted to do some work with this. I started to tell everyone about the family’s story. Almost everyone I met added to my understanding about Berkeley, which was my new home. I had no idea that South Berkeley was home to many Japanese families. I stumbled onto that.

How did you collect these stories?

Through talking with Japanese people I knew. For instance, one person working with us also works with the organization, Preserving California’s Japantowns. When we moved to our home (two years ago), there had been change in the neighborhood with ethnic groups—more Europeans. I was intrigued with the idea to explore what the neighborhood might have been like. I got a copy of the 1941 Directory of Berkeley. I graphed the names by address of the early families. When Japanese were removed from Berkeley, many had the sense they were not missed; the removal was not noticed. In many cases, they came back—but they came back quietly.

Tell me about the other aesthetic elements of the piece, the ambiance, the music and costumes.

The musicians are Claudia Cuentas, Peruvian, and Laura Inserra, Italian, (Hang player). Hang reminded me of a large Tibetan bell! Right now, the dancers are not speaking in performance, but some of their recorded voices are being used in the piece.

Costume is dress from that period, the 1940s. The costume is from vintage clothing. I’m imagining colors: mustard, gold, plum. Partly because the dancers would come in with particular colors. My garden is the backdrop. There are a lot of green plants! Ellen Bepp is the set designer who I have worked with previously as a Taiko Artist. Ellen is a visual artist and it’s our first time to work together. Her grandfather was in a concentration camp, and Ellen has worked with that in her own work. Ellen and I wanted the visual elements to set the performance space as a sacred space. What that meant for us is to have the space safe, I did not see the dancers as real people, the dancers can be carrying the spirit of someone, but it does not need to be one person.

Ellen is creating poles with folded white paper, things you see at Shinto Shrines, which help to protect the shrine, called Haraigushi. These paper poles are going to border the fence. In addition, a three dimensional piece like a glass box in the performance space that has images of people who lived in this neighborhood. The dancers’ spiritual connection is really important to me. The first group of dancers were not all Japanese. Often I would use the term “window” or “door” that they’d go through to understand the context for this work, such as with the experience of loss. What are our common experiences around loss. I gave the dancers the image of grandparents’ shoes and grandparents’ steps. I wanted the dancers to feel the ancestors. I wanted them to see through something, like a crack in a window, to feel connected to an image so as to access something deeper.

I keep coming back to that layering of the landscape; how site-specific work engages landscape with imagination. Because we’re dancers, there is this element of the temporal. We leave some spirit behind that can be palpable to the audience.

The first thing is this experience of internment and removal of Japanese Americans from their home and communities. This has always been a very personal one for me and my family. This theme is easily just as touching to people who are not Japanese, which was actually a surprise to me and a good thing for me to learn. Early on I learned this from the dancers who are not Japanese. I asked them what drew them to this piece. Almost everyone I’ve spoken with has some connection. For instance, one dancer spoke to her mother. Her mother’s first ballet teacher’s family was sent to an internment camp.

Another dancer spoke of the Nazi concentration camps, as she related from her family’s experiences. I learned about our connection and our ability, all of us, to make those connections, very easily.

I hope the audience will get something from witnessing the way the stories are being told, in some cases, about individuals and about the community, 60 years ago.


Patricia Bullit is a solo dance artist and dance ethnologist. Her most recent site specific commission was from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. For many years, she danced in creeks, mountain tops, regional parks, and on Lake Merritt on a floating platform, honoring birds. As an interviewer for LEGACY Oral History Project and Our Neighbors Dance Their Dances: A Celebration of World dance, she collects field interviews with Eskimos in Alaska and Bay Area dancers. She serves on the Izzies Committee and resides in Berkeley, CA.

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