By Yayoi Kambara

January 1, 2018, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Woman in pink dress jumping while being surrounded by people in chairs faced forward
Woman in pink dress jumping while being surrounded by people in chairs faced forward
KAMBARA + DANCERS / photo by RJ Muna

I’d like to think I have become a mature dancer. After a 12-year professional career, I don’t get nervous anymore. As I perform, I enjoy the clarity of being on stage and the hyper-meditative awareness I experience. I can feel my skin prickle when the audience’s attention perks as they cross the fourth wall of the stage as they engage. Or conversely, the hilarity when I see a person in the front row falling asleep while I am upside down in a challenging lift. Being able to serve someone else’s vision, and imbuing meaning to their movement is an incredible experience. As a performer and muse, I can often see how I am  perceived in the world through the eyes of the director.

My time in the studio has always been the most fulfilling. I love making phrase work and duets. Being creative and solving physical problems comes naturally and I have learned to love resolving musical cueing and counting challenges when dancing in groups.

Towards the end of my career as a company member with ODC/Dance, I became less interested in my own performance. I still perform with Jo Kreiter’s Flyaway Productions to keep up my physical practice and to stay relevant in our performance field, but I’ve become more driven to create and present dances that represent stories and themes that I find pertinent to my perspective as an artist.

When I was only a dancer, I never fully appreciated what it takes for choreographers to produce their work. Coming up with the movement ideas, dancing with your friends, even the dramas/struggles in the studio are manageable compared to the grant writing, press release, audience cultivation, and putting together the production calendar. While at ODC I was lucky to get to know the folks in PR, Development , and Marketing departments. It’s only now that I have begun to understand their nuanced and difficult work. I founded KAMBARA + DANCERS in 2015 as a vehicle to produce my work, and now I do most of the ‘backstage’ work myself. Writing has never been a particular strength of mine but it’s now the bulk of what I spend my time doing. To make it more appealing, I try to liken it to teasing out the perfect unison or making an agreement with momentum and gravity while trying to defy it. Both writing and dancing are modes of expression, and my central hope is that both will evolve as I continue to produce work.

If I only choreographed commissioned ballets, I might create work without the grant writing, fundraising and cultivating audience. But I also learned from Julia Adam, a choreographer that’s commissioned to set work around the country, that there are drawbacks in commissions, too. Commissioned choreographers don’t get to choose their dancers, and they might also find it harder to take risks when choreographing.

In November I created to.get.her, a commission from Dance Brigade/Dance Mission Theater for their home season Adelante!. I was able to get to work with a cast of my choosing, and Krissy Keffer gave me the opportunity and freedom to try something new. The dearth of female ballet choreographers has been much discussed, and to.get.her is my response to this sad fact. I tried something new; I made a women’s pointe piece. to.get.her is for the champions and cheerleaders in our lives who challenge us to reach our goals, especially when times feel dark. Jaimelyn Duggan created the costumes and they even have a gelato colored cape-like flourish as a counterpoint to our current darkness.

Given the current discussion of divisiveness in our country, I find it pressing to work on choreography that creates a space for empathy and dialogue. In a world becoming alarmingly more conservative and segregated, taking time to choreograph with a diverse cast of masterful dancers is my way of preserving optimis. Dance can represent the ineffable resiliency of the human spirit to continue in the face of uncertainty.

For our inaugural home season, January 18 and 19 at ODC Theater, I am currently working on IKKAI: Once (ikkai is Japanese for “once” or “first floor”), a piece about the Japanese American internment. I became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2011 and as a Japanese-American immigrant, I feel an urgency to share the stories of the Japanese internment, particularly now with President Trump’s executive order to ban travel from predominantly Muslim countries and the deportation of  our immigrants who make up the heart and soul of our country. Members of the Japanese-American community were seen as war criminals during World War II, and I am afraid we are inflicting similar atrocities on our immigrant communities and their children again. I’ve been very fortunate and inspired by being able to interview 3rd generation Japanese Americans: Janice Mirikitani, Satsuki Ina, Norman Fumiyo Ikeda, as well as use the Densho Archives (a free online resource about the history of the Japanese American incarceration experience). I’ve also collaborated with Japanese American Visual Artists Dana Kawano and Weston Teruya. Dana Kawano has created our costumes and she is also creating a visual installation in the lobby in collaboration with Weston. Weston will be creating installations in the bathrooms of the ODC Theater.

It’s been refreshing to take time to research by conducting individual interviews. Information is readily available online and I am grateful the Densho Archives can keep the first hand experience alive when sadly many of the survivors of the interment are no longer with us. It’s been gratifying sitting with people and hearing their personal stories, being welcomed into their homes, offices and and hearing younger Japanese Americans share their hopes for our future.

I am also working on a piece that is inspired by living in this current technological climate. We mass communicate via social media or text messages. We sit in front of our technological devices, order goods online for delivery, and then race from one commitment to another. In Near and Dear, I ask:  What impact does this have on our ability to empathize with and understand each other?

As a parent, I am constantly struggling to make sense of the world not just for myself but for my young girls. With the dark cloud of the threatening political climate we all feel, it’s challenging for us all to make sense of the world. My creative life in the studio is my anchor and my float.

I have instinct around movement and composition but lack the finesse of a mature choreographer and often second guess my decisions. I am an emerging choreographer and much like a young dancer, I make unplanned decisions which might be provocative, but that are ultimately impulsive like I am putting out flames. As I charge into 2018 with our inaugural home season, I refuse to see anyone fall asleep in the front row! As a performer, I can laugh it off since I am merely the vehicle of someone else’s vision but as an emerging choreographer I am more fragile.

This article appeared in the January/February 2018 edition of In Dance.

Yayoi Kambara, MFA started her career as a professional dancer and currently directs and produces live performances and multi-media works, including film and XR.