Speak: Still With Us by Debby Kajiyama, April 2014

By Debby Kajiyama


Editors note: Debby Kajiyama is 2014 recipient of The Della Davidson Prize. This annual award has been set-up to honor the life and work of choreographer and teacher Della Davidson by supporting innovative dance and dance/theater artists. Kajiyama will receive a cash prize of $1,220 (in honor of Della’s birthday 12/20) for producing work in the spirit of Davidson.

When I think about Della Davidson’s work, there are two image-feelings that have been lodged in my mind: the dark, tense bed full of red roses in Ten PM Dream and the wavy projection of a languid-dreamy Kerry Mehling in a loose dress and high heels swimming underwater in A Dream Inside Another. As Kerry says, “Della had a very unique talent for creating eye candy on stage as well as being a passionate storyteller. Her crafted images become engraved in one’s mind because the emotions attached to them drive us all universally.”

Debby Kajiyama holds a miniature house underwater. She wears a business suit.
Debby Kaijyama / Photo by Kim Anno with photographic assistant Kyung Lee.

I also have such a visceral memory of these images because the worlds Della created were so completely immersive; even watching videos of her work, I had the sense that I was inside her world, affected by everything in it. I didn’t know Della well, but feel buoyed talking to her collaborators recently about the impact she continues to have on them. Eric Kupers and Kerry Mehling both talk about Della encouraging them to devote space and time to their artistic lives.

“One of the main things I learned from working with Della is to prioritize and protect my inner life as an artist. In my time with her I shifted from mostly measuring the success of my work by external feedback (audience responses, grants and awards, renown, etc.) to measuring success through an intuitive, inner sense of “rightness.” (Eric Kupers)

“For Della process was most important, she enjoyed one long enough to luxuriate in, become chaotic, destroy and rebuild…She gave us the gift of time and place. Dropping us into a womb like world so we could fully become our creations without too many outside distractions.” (Kerry Mehling)

The work I feel most proud of at the moment is one that almost no one saw, and one that José Navarrete and I remounted with almost no budget—BAILOUT! or Can you picture this prophecy? The temperatures are too hot for me. But it’s one that I think Della might have given interesting feedback on because of her explorations with instability and environmental destruction in Collapse (suddenly falling down) (Watch excerpts on YouTube at bit.ly/1if4wSK). BAILOUT! asks how we deal with instability and huge circumstances beyond our control—overwhelming forces like natural disaster and environmental destruction. It is an immersive, multi-disciplinary work about the triple disaster in Japan that started off with the slipping of the earth’s crust and the displacement of the ocean, and transformed into a nuclear catastrophe that will outlast all of us and many generations to come. We created a performance installation of the work in and around Some Thing Spacious Gallery in Oakland (somethingspacious.com) in collaboration with video artist Kim Anno (kimanno.com), musician Adria Otte, visual artist Elizabeth Harvey (lizharveystudio.com) and performers Emily Leap and Kevin O’Connor. We painted the expansive windows to become an extension of the sculptural elements of the set, and worked with multiple layers of video and audience viewpoints. We felt energized by the old brick wall and sound of barking dogs next door, and especially by gallery managers Adam Carlin and Erich Richter, who were so incredibly generous about letting us spend time exploring ideas.

When I asked Ellen Bromberg, a close friend and frequent collaborator of Della’s, for one thing she learned from her, she said, “to allow space and time for chaos, and to trust that order will ensue.” My current work-in-progress with José Navarrete is in that chaotic state.

What we are beginning to explore now—and what the Della Davidson Prize will help fund—are the stories of people of color who have experienced state violence, particularly at the US-Mexico border and in the streets of Oakland. José and I are looking at this through a racial equity lens and digging into issues of privilege and how communities of color deal with structural injustice.

This work is called The Anastasio Project, named after Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas, who was brutally killed at the hands of a dozen border patrol agents in San Diego while trying to come home to his family. By invoking an individual’s name, the work also challenges us to look, with great discomfort, at the immense physical suffering that he endured.

For me, this undertaking has already been one of the most challenging works we’ve ever approached. Even with support from committed collaborators, talking about racism in a group of artists of color has been sticky. This challenge has prompted us to consider a variety of questions, such as:

What is our responsibility to community, and where does our artistic vision fit in?

What role do white allies play in taking apart oppressive paradigms?

How can we avoid replicating oppressive structures?

How can we make a performance piece about people’s suffering while respecting their stories and experiences?

Why do we need to look closely at violence, death, grief, suffering?

Huge forces, so much unknown.

When I asked Jane Schnorrenberg about her many years working with Della, she wrote, “One of my favorite pieces by Della was Shrine (1993). We began working on this after Tracy Rhoades’ death in 1992. It opened with my solo for Tracy, and explored our mutual grief over the loss of our beloved friend. Working on that piece helped us both process the loss and sadness…Della helped me to access some deep places in myself that I wasn’t even aware of. She helped to get to those scary, dark places and somehow make sense and beauty of them. I loved her and her process very much, and I miss her every day.”

I am humbled and grateful to Della and the committee for this opportunity to look back at the contributions she has made to the dance community. Thank you for the encouragement to dwell on the things we cannot fathom. Despite the fragility of our existence, it is comforting to feel you are still with us.

This article appeared in the April 2014 issue of In Dance.

Debby Kajiyama is a San Francisco Bay Area native, and has been performing here since 1994. Her interests lie in the intersection of performance, cultural studies, and social change. She has performed with Dandelion Dancetheater, Anne Bluethenthal and Dancers, June Watanabe in Company, the Dance Brigade, and Somei Yoshino Taiko Ensemble. She is a member of TsukimiKai, an intergenerational group of artists, activists, and scholars that travels to Cuba to share Obon Festival folk dances and music, and to conduct oral histories of the Japanese Diaspora in Cuba. Debby is the recipient of a Djerassi Artists Program residency and a Silicon Valley Community Foundation fellowship. Last year, she studied Taiko intensively with master teacher Hiroyuki “Jimi” Nakagawa through an Alliance for California Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant. For the past thirteen years, Debby has directed Navarrete x Kajiyama Dance Theater (NAKA) with co-conspirator, José Navarrete. NAKA creates interdisciplinary performance works using movement, theater, art installation, multimedia and site-specifi c environments.