Editors Note: The following is a conversation between theater artist/performer Ruth Zaporah and choreographer/director Shinichi Iova-Koga, about his upcoming work 95 Rituals. Presented by Dancers’ Group/ONSITE, 95 Rituals is a series of free, site-specific performances in San Francisco honoring Anna Halprin in the lead up to her 95th birthday. Iova-Koga is drawing from Halprin’s creative processes of score-making. In addition to this conversation, you can read “Notes from an Invited Spy” by Julia Davidson.
“I woke up one morning. Good thing that. On my mind: directing a performance work that embraces the messy business of collaboration while referencing the creative process of another artist, Anna Halprin. I decide to give a call to Ruth Zaporah, my teacher of improvisation since 2000, whose students Sten Rudstrøm and Cassie Tunick have been an integral part of inkBoat since that formative time. In Ruth’s work, I’ve found personal clarity within potentially random and chaotic situations. Ruth doesn’t hold back her opinion, ready to cut to the heart of the matter. At the time I made this call on May 27, 2015, I needed to hear that voice.”
Shinichi Iova-Koga: Anna [Halprin] often times says “I don’t want to tell people how to do something, I just tell them what to do and they figure out the how.” And as I understand your work, you don’t care what people do, but how they do it.
Ruth Zaporah: Correct.
SI-K: In one way that could be viewed as a contradiction, but in another way it could be viewed as looking at the same thing from these two different perspectives.
RZ: It could be, yeah. You know a lot of people talk about the what and all that, so I don’t know, it would really be all in the details there. But the how is the experiencing of the body. Because anything could be done, that’s the what. The what is anything, it’s like picking up a piece of paper. What are you doing? Oh I’m picking up a piece of paper. But HOW are you picking up the piece of paper is where the body interacts with that action. Or, I’m saying a sentence “I want a glass of milk,” so that’s what I’m saying, but how I’m saying I want a glass of milk, provides a whole subtext. That’s the body. That’s the instrument of the mouth, the pitching of the voice, the tempo, the timing, the pauses, all that kind of stuff.
SI-K: One of the things that I’m struggling with right now, with Anna’s process, is that it does bring into it this naming the resources and stating the intention and doing all sorts of things which I think are great, it’s great to have those things, and especially for reaching consensus amongst people on what we’re working on. But more difficult to articulate is this relationship that happens between me and something/someone else through the simple existence of my body in space, with or without another body. I trust that more than having, for example, a stated intention to connect to somebody else. Automatically that intention starts me in on, “oh, connect… now I really have to work at it.” As opposed to just being there and seeing what IS.
RZ: Exactly, yeah. Your work seems very intuitive to me. You’re not thinking ahead of why you’re doing something or whether you should or should not be doing something. I mean, if you are, that’s when it sort of falls short. But when you’re not, when you’re really flying at your best, it just seems very intuitive and leading with a self sense of knowing. You just KNOW what works and what doesn’t, and you move into that, you move towards that. When you’re directing an ensemble, is that what you’re doing?
SI-K: That’s exactly what I’m doing… and then trying to figure out how to talk about it, how to respond to the material that others are coming up with.
RZ: So when you’re directing an ensemble, do you stay out and direct or are you in with them as you’re directing?
SI-K: I’ve been taking both approaches. I’ve been outside and shaping things. When I am outside, I feel like the product is clean and clear. And then there’s another part of our process in which many people are coming together with different components and we’re seeing how they meet and that’s totally messy. It’s very messy and people are invested in their own ideas, their own things…I mean including myself, I’m no different.
RZ: Why are you doing that?
SI-K: Good question. I guess one answer is that in this particular project I’m interested in what it is to have different minds meet and how do we get through the messiness and come out with something that’s beautiful to us? So if I’m just creating clear, clean things all the time, it could become antiseptic. There’s a real structural bond that I’m putting out there and I think there’s a strength to that. And at the same time I also want to encourage the life, the liveliness within the people. And they have a mixture of backgrounds. Some are really strong with improvisation as soloists, though they have different degrees of strength of improvisation within an ensemble.
RZ: And these are mostly dance people doing dance improvisation?
SI-K: Dance, but we’re certainly not talking about modern/ballet dancers, right? Dohee and Heekyung are from Korea, Yuko and Crow come from Japan and then Dana, Sten, Joshua, Suki and I are born in the USA. Our backgrounds emerge from traditional dances,music of many varieties, Butoh dance, Action Theater…. And there is this distinction between performing scores and improvising.
RZ: Collaboration is challenging. Sometimes we’re lucky. Collaborating with Bob Ernst, Rinde Eckert, Rhiannon, etc. was a breeze because we instinctively connected on timing. Timing is the skeleton. If timing doesn’t connect between people, forget it. You know, it’s a hard thing to teach, but it can be taught step by step by step. You don’t have time for that with your ensemble. And so timing is essential, and then almost anything can happen as long as the music of it is right. As long as each person is listening to the timing, phrasing, everybody, all that, and space, where any individual is located! So if that can work out, then I think it could be really interesting, but if you don’t have that, then you’re right, it’s a mess and it’s chaos. So I don’t know, my advice, from where I am, is to have an iron hand.
SI-K: Hahahaha. Yeah, and I’ve kept the iron hand option in my mind, but I also just need to see what my materials are collectively. I think it’s really good to get strict with how we score things, and at the same time encourage people to be people and not automatons. The iron hand should not create automatons.
RZ: Of course.
SI-K: That would be going the opposite direction I want to go.
RZ: I didn’t mean that kind of iron hand. I meant that the final decisions are up to you. You direct the soul of the event. As you’re saying, you can’t have a bunch of automatons just because they’re following each others cues like machines. So the more personalized each person’s actions are, even though they might be the same actions, the more vibrant the stage. You must feel the individuals as individuals. Yeah, you’ll learn a lot from this job.
SI-K: Yeah, yes I will. I am learning. This ensemble doesn’t get together very often. As a large ensemble the last time we got together was 2008 and the time before that was 2001.
RZ: That’s fabulous. And how large is large, how many people?
SI-K: Well we’re 9, as a core ensemble.
RZ: That’s a good number.
SI-K: And then as the project goes on there will be additions of supplementary musicians, and guest artists taking a place within the structure. So by the time we have the final presentation it’s going to look like we’re 30 people. But at the core we’re 9 people.
RZ: So this thing that’s appearing in In Dance… what do you want readers to get from it?
SI-K: Well my dumb answer is: process. You know like, “what’s going on behind the scenes?” I’ve been interested in that because so many times the documentation or the speaking about any work is about the final work. Ok here’s this work and it’s been presented, the reviewers review it and they say what they say. It’s just evaluated in terms of “what was my experience to watch this final work?” And I’m digging right now into what it is to look specifically at process and at the same time, not lose sight of that final product. I don’t want to just have us all wheeling around in the studio and having a good time and presenting crap. I want to have a very good performance. I want to figure out how to use the resources, the strengths of these individuals within the company to make it much stronger than if everything came from my brain.
RZ: Well it sounds like you have a group of strong people in one way or another. I’m assuming that or you wouldn’t have invited them.
SI-K: They’re all strong.
RZ: So your job is to capture their strengths and make a tapestry out of all that.
SI-K: Yeah, and I’ve got 2 kids and I’ve got one brain… hahaha
RZ: Hahaha I know…