Photo by RJ Muna
When we were growing up, we went to Hawaii nearly every summer. Our parents grew up on the island of Kauai, as did their parents. Our family has been in Hawaii for a while and it’s not until you get to our great- and great-great-grandparents’ generations that people start arriving from Japan.
People always tell us that it must be a nice place to have family. And it is. It’s a beautiful, culturally varied, genuinely paradisiacal place. To us, it also feels very much like the family home and when we were kids, we didn’t appreciate it as anything other than ordinary. Even the parts of it that are genuinely magical were just what we did in between visiting grandmas and grandpas, cleaning relatives’ houses, and getting fed by an endless sequence of aunties and uncles.
One of these magical and underappreciated things was bon dances. Bon dances are part of the Japanese and Japanese-American tradition of Obon, a summertime ritual of honoring the spirits of your ancestors. In Hawaii, a big part of Obon is a three-month-long season of bon dances, glorious nighttime gatherings that bring together people—locals and tourists of all kinds of beliefs and backgrounds—with music, food, and communal dancing. Many of our childhood summers were spent going to bon dances where we would hear our great-uncle sing, dance alongside our great-aunt, and absolutely take for granted the way that bon dances get people who don’t dance to move together like it’s the most normal thing in the world.
A few years ago, our aunt took us to a bon dance at an assisted living facility for seniors with memory loss. They set the dance up in the parking lot, around a big tree hung with paper lanterns. Musicians played flutes and drums and sang, caretakers pushed the seniors in their wheelchairs in a circle around the tree, and the seniors (some of whom can’t remember their names or who their family members are) lifted their hands and moved them through the gestures of the dances.
We burst into tears, struck hard by the beauty and wisdom of this act of remembrance through dance, something so familiar that we hadn’t fully understood its power before. By the time we were walking to the car, we were talking about making a piece for Sharp & Fine that would attempt to explore this strange resurrection of feeling and memory.
Several years later, when we were ready to start making that piece, three things happened.
The first thing:
In 2018, the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance closed. We are both alumni of the Conservatory and it had become our artistic home and family, in both philosophical and practical ways. Philosophically, the training and mentorship we received there are what made us want to choreograph in the first place. Practically, it gave us many of the resources that we needed to do so: like-minded collaborators and the gift of enormous amounts of time and space to experiment, fail, and discover in. When the Conservatory closed, we felt unmoored. We had never made a piece without a home to create it in. We realize that this was a very privileged position to be coming from, but (as every choreographer in the Bay Area knows) making work without a space is a daunting and expensive challenge.
The second thing:
We received some very good advice. Wendy Rein and Ryan Smith (co-founders of RAWdance and two incredibly savvy and generous builders of community) told us that we should never be afraid to ask for more help. They pointed out that there are always people who will want to help, if you can ask clearly and it is within their power to do so. Asking for help can be an exciting necessity, a way of bringing more people into the work so you are creating it together instead of facing it alone.
The third thing:
We started asking. We asked our collaborators to join a long and potentially nomadic process. We asked for help with finding space. We asked for advice, resources, and time. We asked friends, acquaintances, and strangers. We asked and asked and asked. Sometimes people did say no, but overwhelmingly and incredibly, so many people said yes.
We are astonished and humbled by how many people are helping us make this piece. The dance community has welcomed and supported us in ways that we never expected. It is making us expand the way we think of “home.” Our artistic home is so much bigger than we used to think it was. It’s a sprawling place with many rooms and many people, and everyone is busy juggling at unimaginable speeds. But if you lose something or are struggling to carry a thing that’s too heavy to lift, there is always someone ready to reach over and help.
The creative process of making this piece and the practical process of making it happen have shared many parallel themes. We are telling a story about family and ghosts while wrestling with the practicalities of nurturing our family of collaborators and carrying our history as choreographers into the future. We are asking our community for help while making a piece that explores why coming together, remembering, and the communal power of bon dances matter.
Sharp & Fine’s Just Ahead is Darkness will premiere at Z Space in San Francisco, February 7-9, 2020. It is a devised work for six performers and four musicians that draws inspiration from bon dances to tell a story about family, love, loss, and the eternal return of ghosts. We’re calling it a “play for dance” and while we are co-directing it, we are honored to share the credit for its creation with our collaborators (our dancers, Sarah Woods-LaDue, Sonja Dale, Christian Burns, and Tristan Ching Hartmann; and our composer, Cory Wright) and all the people and places who make up our new artistic home. We hope we can share it with all of you.
Just Ahead is Darkness
February 7, 8, 9
Z Space, San Francisco
Opportunities that we want to share:
Berkeley Ballet Theater’s Artist-in-Residence Program
Thank you to Courtney King, Ali Taylor Lange, and Robert Dekkers for responding to our need for help with the creation of this invaluable program. berkeleyballet.org/artist-in-residence
Dresher Ensemble Artist Residency Program
Thank you to Paul Dresher and Dominique Pelletey for supporting the creation of new works by a broad range of Bay Area artists. dresherensemble.org/community-programs/the-dresher-ensemble-artist-residency-program/
Other spaces that have welcomed us:
We thank all of these spaces for welcoming us. We highly recommend them as places to consider for rehearsals.
Academy of Ballet, San Francisco
Stapleton School of the Performing Arts, San Anselmo
Finnish Hall, Berkeley
This article appeared in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of In Dance.