Gray Zones: Ko Muroboshi’s Hand in the Development of inkBoat’s Crazy Cloud

By Sherwood Chen


Once again I’m roaming East Mountain hungry.

When you are starving, a bowl of rice is worth a thousand pieces of gold.

An ancient worthy swapped his wisdom for a few lichee nuts,

Yet I still cannot refrain from singing odes to the wind and moon.
— Ikkyu, Poem Exchanged for Food

Besides, I am so accustomed to physical discomfort; I know so well how to put two shirts under a torn coat and trousers so threadbare that the wind cuts through them; I know so well how to put straw or even paper soles in worn-out shoes that I hardly feel anything except moral suffering. Nevertheless, I must confess that I have reached the point of being afraid to make brusque movements or to walk very much, for fear of tearing my clothes even more.
— Charles Baudelaire, letter to his mother

Hesitation is a dance because it is about the distance which is created, the non-arriving.
— Ko Muroboshi

Located six hours north of San Francisco along California’s Lost Coast, Petrolia (population 500) is the home of inkGround, which since its development in 2008, has served host to artist residencies, outdoor dance workshops and new performance developments by Shinichi Iova-Koga and the diverse artistic contributors who shape his company inkBoat. I arrived at inkGround for the first time in September 2008 to join inkBoat’s weeklong residency to develop The Crazy Cloud Collection, a new assembly of dance fragments directed by acclaimed dancer and director Ko Murobushi, one of today’s most important Butoh exponents.

Co-produced by the San Francisco International Arts Festival, US/Japan Cultural Trade Network and inkBoat, The Crazy Cloud Collection premieres in San Francisco in May 2010 and is an homage to the renegade life and œuvre of vagabond Rinzai Zen Buddhist priest and poet Ikkyu (1394–1481). The weeklong residency at inkGround, sandwiched between Ko’s demanding international teaching and performing travel schedule, constituted the initial research between Shinichi and Ko in developing the piece’s first iteration, resulting in public showings both at inkGround and at San Francisco’s intimate nohSpace Theatre, with further development of the piece at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography this spring.

Arriving at a mid-point in the initial residency, I entered the converted barn which housed the inkGround studio, surrounded by shop tools and sundry items indicative of the history that octogenarian couple Rex and Ruth Rathbun had built on the 60-acre property with their children, who include Sleepytime Gorilla Museum lead musician and longtime inkBoat contributor Dan Rathbun. When I first entered the studio, I witnessed Ko and Shinichi’s still, listening bodies filled with presence, as irregular wind met the metal roof. An occasional whimper punctuated the strong wind, which I realized only days later came from a creaky joint in the roof and not the performers…or was it a ghost? inkGround’s distinct character as a studio built within an old barn—tucked between the King Range Mountains, the wild Pacific Coast and the Mattole River—served as a remote, immersive container for the delicate and demanding work during the residency.

Working closely with US/Japan Cultural Trade Network’s director Kyoko Yoshida, Shinichi proposed the creation of The Crazy Cloud Collection as a ripe collaboration with Ko, turning to him as a revered elder artist directly linked to radical dance legend Tastumi Hijikata who would bring his vision to inkBoat and simultaneously offer inkBoat and Shinichi and the company members valuable artistic development as performers.

Acclaimed as a soloist and as the director of his Tokyo-based performing group Edge Company, Ko’s work frequently is described at once as elegant, raw and minimal. With Crazy Cloud, he takes an artistic leap, approaching his first collaboration with inkBoat with an inquisitive sensibility paired with his own pointed research and reflections upon Ikkyu and Ikkyu’s legacy. Ko will work with an aesthetically diverse group of inkBoat contributors whom Shinichi has assembled for this project whom Ko was not familiar with, including musicians Shahzad Ismaily, Carla Kihlstedt and Mattias Bossi and dancers Dana Iova-Koga and myself. That this residency also constituted the first time that Shinichi and Ko have ever worked together, the initial time spent at inkGround was set as an ambitious blind date. During the course of the residency which directly involved Shinichi, Dana, myself and Kyoko—who served as interpreter, documenter and project coordinator—Ko demonstrated an openness to share and exchange ideas, showing his mettle as a contemplative thinker, performer and director.

The philosophical timbre of conversations throughout our rehearsals, meals and breaks together contrasted with and enriched the raw, highly physical dance direction which Ko offered. As we examined Ikkyu’s life and his distilled, profound poetry, Ko introduced associative links to infamous poet and critic Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) and the dandyism that Baudelaire epitomized. Ikkyu’s character, characterized in Japanese by Ko as fukyo and hankotsu (trans. “crazy/eccentric style” and “rebel spirit”) along with the expression muyou no you (trans. “something that seems totally unproductive, good for nothing, but is actually good for something”) evoked Baudelaire’s spirit and works including his celebrated Les Fleurs du Mal, making tenuous, ambitious and evocative links between Zen, Taoism and dandyism. These links echo the very nature of Crazy Cloud’s artistic leads themselves: Shinichi’s bicultural hapa identity and professional transnational trajectory to date, and Ko’s extensive artistic life in Paris, Tokyo and Vienna and his training in the past as a yamabushi (mountain ascetic hermit/monk) in Japan. With each of their complex life references informing their respective œuvres, combined with two distinct generational and cultural sensibilities, such freewheeling connections between Muromachi-era Ikkyu (and by association Lao Tzu’s Taoist influence on Ikkyu over a millennium) and 19th century Parisian Baudelaire offered rich artistic fuel which was at once unstable and brusque, compressing and bricolaging hundreds of years, cultural mindsets and geographic placement together in the effort to pursue an unfettered, rebellious and reflective spirit in the formation of inkBoat’s The Crazy Cloud Collection.

Ko discussed how, in Baudelaire’s case, any artistic and/or philosophical commitment to a movement—even as decadent as dandyism—can become politicized, asking incisive questions about society’s constructs and power bases, what constitutes the invisible or marginalized, and the dominant values which oppress them. Ikkyu’s fukyo and hankotsu provocations and his infamy as a womanizer, drunkard and good-for-nothing was perhaps equally impactful, resonant and in part, deliberate. Ikkyu’s lineage and origins are complicated. As Ko elegantly articulated, “No family tree is straight or direct.” This fact became a direct thematic examination during the residency, exploring the tension and borders between societally defined acceptable behavior and that which is illegitimate, invisible, gauche. The fabricated fictions of black and white—or, respectively, the invisible and the mainstream, the illegitimate and the legitimate—and its complicit societal upkeep was a core thematic thread to the residency and rehearsals. “All is actually gray. A gray zone,” Ko commented. The Crazy Cloud Collection delves headfirst into this gray zone, inspired by the legacies of Ikkyu and Baudelaire, equally charged by butoh’s rebellious genesis, and its intent and form.

What did this look like in studio?

Shinichi‘s shattering of a tense silence with an even more awkward and plaintive cry, at once naked pathos and unintended humor captured within a single moment. Crazed stupidity of a maddened canine trio licking at air and dust (“The stranger the better,” Ko directed. “A little cute, even.”). The very real gag reflex and trembling that Dana and I imposed upon our bodies through amplifying and constricting visceral breathing patterns.

Ko did not shy away from ambiguity, awkwardness, ugliness and absurdity in the dance material we developed, welcoming these qualities as real and substantive. The uncomfortable folly that he pushed us towards in some of these scenes for me begged the question of whose discomfort was being evoked—namely my own performative (and by extent social) conditioning had to shift beyond composure and propriety to strive for a corporal honesty. Through our bodies and actions rendered at once vulnerable, ravaged and defiant, The Crazy Cloud Collection summons mirrors that Ikkyu progressively sought to hold up to society which still resonate today. As performers, Ko’s direction demanded us to doff self-importance and aesthetic polish to commit to raw, absurd and ever-fleeting existences.

Ko drew upon a combination of images, specific physical techniques, improvisation, developing awareness of our central axis, and strong orientation on breath through the soles and through the pores. Voice and breath embodied the total atmosphere in the space, infectious. At every stage of development, Ko strongly encouraged us to enjoy our dancing. Dance imagery included evoking the centered and fluid yurei (ghost) movement, inarticulate thirst in the body, transforming from Ikkyu himself to his blind musician lover Shinjo who was decades his junior, tracking the crow’s caw which legend says instantaneously induced in him satori, and embodying a mercurial mirage-memory of Shinjo.

The latter image heavily informed Dana’s dancing, which initially prepared as a brief role respective to Shinichi’s and Ko’s dances, developed into a fearless and unbridled solo that became a critical fulcrum to the work-in-progress and a key to the soul of the piece.

The rural locale, paired with Kyoko’s careful, committed monitoring of the residency’s process and Dan Rathbun’s swift, on-the-spot engineering and unwavering technical and moral support, resulted in a potent residency at inkGround which combined a homespun, rootsy environment with thought-provoking process driven by world-class leading artists. The residency at inkGround ultimately enabled Ko and Shinichi to initiate artistic, philosophical and personal exchange to craft The Crazy Cloud Collection and to discover the many ghosts contained therein.

The Crazy Cloud Collection by inkBoat & Ko Murobushi
World Premiere at San Francisco International Arts Festival
Thu-Sat May 27-29, 8pm; Sun, May 30, 5pm
Z Space/Theater Artaud, 450 Alabama St,

This article appeared in the May 2010 issue of In Dance.

Sherwood Chen is Associate Director of Alliance for California Traditional Arts and was a resident member of Min Tanaka’s international performance collective Maijuku in rural Japan. He is an artistic contributor to Shinichi Iova-Koga’s inkBoat, and serves as board member for Intersection for the Arts (San Francisco) and Khmer Arts Academy (Phnom Penh/Long Beach).