Living and Moving in a Way that Grows: A Look at Sustainability

By Emmaly Wiederholt

December 1, 2011, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Shop locally. Eat regionally. These are two adages that get thrown around often in the culture that permeates the Bay Area. It is a hallmark of where we live, a place that aims for sustainability and regional diversity through creating parks and open spaces, increasing air quality, and supporting farmers markets and local businesses. But what if we built upon this idea of sustainability and applied it to dance? So often I find dance to be unsustainable. Beyond the economic obstacles inherent in pursuing an art, dance is incredibly youth-centric, dancers are often easily replaceable and dispensable, and dance itself is rarely rooted in the space around it. As a dance artist myself, I crave sustainability. Just as in a larger sense the term entails a reckoning of communal, economic, and environmental interests in order to endure and thrive, so in dance I seek a path that is community oriented, economically viable, environmentally integrated, and can last me my lifetime. My first exposure to dance in this vein came in 2009 when I attended Dance on Land, a workshop led by inkBoat’s Shinichi and Dana Iova-Koga.

Dance on Land takes place at a countryside retreat six hours north of the Bay Area dubbed inkground. Participants bring camping gear, resign themselves to using a composting toilet, and embark on a weeklong journey immersed in dance and nature. Days begin in a barn converted to a dance studio but quickly move outside.

We dance in the fields, in the woods, in water, and on rocks: essentially, wherever and however the land teaches us. We test our understandings of stability and instability on the slippery rocks in a river current. We camouflage ourselves into a dark moonlit pasture. We root ourselves quite physically into the sand on a beach, playing with how wind influences movement. Fellow workshopper Juliette Crump said of the experience: “When you are on a beach or in a river you are constantly aware of the sounds of birds, the waves, the wind and the light. You are impelled to connect with these outside sensations as they heighten every moment in your dance.”

This past July I was glad to return to inkground for Dance without Sight, a workshop led by Mana Hashimoto, a blind friend of Shinichi and Dana. This workshop was perhaps even more sensory based, as we amplified our other senses through being blindfolded. Once again I was thrilled to find myself among the trees and in the river, relishing in combining my love of dance with my adoration of nature. For a few short days I fell back into that world I had become so enamored with in 2009; a world where the lines between everyday life and dance life are blurred through shared meals and dancing on the same land we sleep on.

Workshop attendees range from early twenties to mid-sixties and come from an array of performance backgrounds and occupations. I came to know my fellow inkgrounders not only through dance but also through mealtime conversations; sumptuous and filling meals are prepared by Shinichi and Dana’s friend Nieves Rathbun and are eaten communally along long wooden tables set out in the open air. The community that develops through the common experience of sharing food, dance space, and tent space is as much a part of the workshop as dancing or being in the countryside. For the duration of these workshops, food, the earth, the workshop community, and dance are all interwoven to the point where it becomes difficult to decipher where one ends and another begins. This was the first time I remember being cognizant of dance being completely integrated into the community and environment around it.

Dana and Shinichi’s personal dance histories each have roots in this idea of integrating dance in environment and community. Both come from a Butoh background: Dana spent time dancing with Min Tanaka in Japan as part of his dancing/farming company Tokason, where dancers are expected to farm with enough presence and consciousness that it can inform their dancing. Similarly, Shinichi danced with Yumiko Yoshioka’s company TEN PEN CHii in the German countryside. Dana and Shinichi met while attending a workshop in Montana, and dreamed of together creating a place in nature where they could practice their dance. Through family friends who own land near Petrolia, CA, they were able to find such a place.

The practical demands of making art often necessitate living in an urban environment; these days Dana and Shinichi are based in the Bay Area. Shinichi currently teaches at Mills College in Oakland, while inkboat is an artist in residence at ODC Theater and is currently rehearsing for Line Between, a piece directed by Dana and conceived and performed by Shinichi with long-term collaborator Dohee Lee. While recently observing a rehearsal, I could see the same community orientation that had been so relevant on inkground applied in the choreographic process: the piece is built upon the group of collaborators coming together to create a work through trial and error, dispute and resolution.

I was curious how dancing in a river or on a sandy beach translates to working in a dance studio. For Dana and Shinichi, the emphasis is on building sensitivity. I could see the applicability of dancing in a pasture or on a beach manifested in the intention and sensitivity of the dancers’ movement. Shinichi stood on a rickety ladder, his body resonating with the receptiveness to balance I had seen demonstrated on inkground as he danced on slippery rocks. Perhaps it is not so much a question of dancing in a specific environment but adapting the tools that environment can teach us to the studio or stage.

My experience completely immersing myself in inkground’s workshop community and countryside environment taught me something valuable about how to cultivate sustainable dance for myself. Sustainable dance is not simply being able to pay my bills through dance gigs. Sustainable dance is rooted in the deeply organic pillars of community and environment. Yes I want to get paid to dance. But I also want to dance in a community that feels collaborative, indispensable, and built upon the people within it. Similarly, I want to dance in a way that is informed by environment, whether that is the countryside or simply the city I live in, though I find myself in a studio more often than not. The point of going to a place like inkground is not only to learn how to dance in the wind or in the water, but to commune with dance in a way that is organic and integrated. As Dana put it, inkground is a reminder of what’s possible, of the ways that dance can be incorporated into the environment and community around it, if only for a short while. Shinichi added that a retreat like Dance on Land is simply a stepping stone in the larger process of building sustainability.

When I asked my fellow workshoppers their feelings on sustainable dance, long time attendee Lucas Baumann put it well: “Sustainable dance, to me, is living and moving in a way that grows. It is finding a way to live within grounded principles so that we neither have to abandon what we have done, nor be confined to it. This is true of our dance and of our gardens.” So yes, please shop locally and eat regionally. But perhaps dance that way too. Let’s ground dance in something deeper than movement research and performance. Just as the future of our society is dependent on how we find ways to be sustainable, so dance is too. Looking at dance’s relationship with community and environment is a good place to start.

inkBoat’s Line Between premieres at ODC Theater December 2-4. Visit for more info.

This article appeared in the December 2011 issue of In Dance.

Emmaly Wiederholt is the founder and editor of Stance on Dance. She danced in the Bay Area for six years before pursuing her MA in Arts Journalism. She currently lives in Santa Fe, NM.