Preparing the Clouds

By Shinichi Iova Koga

October 9, 2023, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Shinichi holding two sticks, a shadowy figure behind. Black and white photo.
Photo by Robbie Sweeny
[ID: Shinichi, a half-Japanese performer, holding two sticks, a shadowy figure behind. Black and white photo.]

Editor’s Note: inkBoat, founded by Iova-Koga, is a CA$H Dance Spring 2023 grantee. This article outlines their funded activities and vision.

The impetus for Clouds from a Crumbling Giant was my father, moving into a sudden decline. I witnessed him crumbling. I watched the strong and capable man I grew up with rapidly change. His vigor diminished dramatically; his clarity of mind slowly faded away. What I observed came into conflict with my long-held ideas of him. I had trouble accepting who I saw him becoming. 

Some weeks ago, he died. Now I’m left with his patterns, his influences… and somehow this study of my father has turned into self-study. Perhaps that was always the case, and I’ve only just realized it. 

As with the creation of most inkBoat works, the personal experience extends into the process, no matter what the theme might be. In this case, the product/process/personal intertwine into some symbiotic fusion where life and art prove difficult to separate. 

Numerous figures taking off clothes and tossing them into air. Shadowed figure in foreground holding stick vertically.
[Photo by Robbie Sweeny. ID: Numerous figures taking off clothes and tossing them into air. Shadowed figure in foreground holding stick vertically. Elderly man in the foreground on right side, holding up an article of clothing.]

Clouds involves multi-generational, racially diverse, cross-disciplinary communities. They each bring perspective to the table, and fold a vibrant and essential layer into the growing life of the work. As director and performer, I sit in the center… literally and functionally. In that position I am guided by many forces: my father, the stories and experiences of the other elders we’ve interviewed for the project, the artistry of the musicians and performers, and the circulation practices shared by David Wei of Wudang West Cultural Center. Being at the locus of all this means receiving lots of information. And sending something back. And trusting the outcome. Letting go. 

The idea of “letting go” lives within the artistic process of Clouds. I invite collaborators or conditions to change the artistic work. The challenge resides in the balance of chaos and structure. Too far one way or the other results in either an over-controlled, sterile aesthetic… or a mess. My role within the project involves a balancing act between my ego, obeying the logic of the moment, listening and providing structure. Even a cloud has structure. 

We’re a year and a half into a very long development and research process that began in 2022 and will continue through 2025 and likely beyond. To date, we’ve performed works in progress at UC Davis, TanzFest in Luzern, Switzerland, the San Francisco International Arts Festival, and the Seattle International Dance Festival. We’re building up the strata of perspectives. One collaborator, musician Jon Raskin, had this to say about one of our scores: 

Shinichi holding a single stick vertically. Black and white photo.
[Photo by Robbie Sweeny. ID: Shinichi, a half-Japanese performer, holding a single long stick upwards. Black and white photo.]

The sticks are pushing Shinichi into shapes and patterns, and he grabs them and pulls them in a call-and-response type of interaction. The musicians only respond to the particular dancers they are assigned to. What’s fascinating is that it appears that Shinichi’s movement is being determined by the dancers and musicians, but in actuality Shinichi is conducting the movement between himself and the dancers with the sticks, in dialogue with the musicians. It is a conducted improvisation where everyone has agency.

This push and pull operates both as part of the stage work, and within the inner workings of the collaboration, the process. The heart receives and gives. 

On stage, I embody a crumbling, elderly person. Jon asks me: “Is your old man… your old man?” My old man is me. Or everybody. My father said, “Don’t make me an old man!” 

Acceptance doesn’t come easily. In this inquiry, I’m practicing for death… which I hope meets me far, far down the road. Until that time, I believe this process and practice will enrich my life. I hope it will bring value to others.

This article appears in the Fall 2023 issue of In Dance.

Shinichi Iova-Koga is the Artistic Director of the physical theater and dance company inkBoat, founded by Shinichi in 1998. He has toured in North America, Europe, South Korea and Japan, often collaborating with local artists in museums, theaters, studios and site-specific locations.