Contemporary Japenese Choreographers Comment on America's Political Climate

Kensaku Shinohara's MT and Yoshiko Chuma's Dead End Series

by Cameron McKinney on December 11th, 2016

'π=3.14… continues Dead End, Falling', Yoshiko Chuma.

"π=3.14… continues 'Dead End, Falling'", Yoshiko Chuma. Photo/film documentation by Megumi Eda.

America’s political environment is as tumultuous as it ever was, especially in the wake of the recent presidential election. At the Brooklyn Studios for Dance, Japanese choreographers Kensaku Shinohara and Yoshiko Chuma presented a politically charged split-bill that brought their concerns about their own futures to life on stage, while offering a grim reminder of the stream of violence in America that seems to persist no matter who holds our highest office.

Kensaku Shinohara’s MT opened the show. The two female performers, Courtney Barth and Nola Sporn Smith, entered the space in dark pants, colored tops, and sneakers. While emotionlessly chanting "left, right", the dancers combined simple hops, angled turns, and rigid arms in a never ending sequence that soon had the dancers panting for air. Their unwavering commitment to their choreographic task conjured militaristic images in my mind, and my guess was rewarded by the start a video projection of the American flag above the dancers’ heads.

Kensaku Shinohara, MT.

Kensaku Shinohara, MT. Screenshot from Vimeo.

As a work, MT displayed an acute awareness and understanding of how the audience would react to each section of the work. Shinohara’s choreography allows the audience's mind to wander within the constant repetition of the dancers’ movements. At one point, Smith engaged with the space by disappearing into the "backstage" hallway of the room, assumedly performed the same movements as Barth is on stage but out of sight. Another bold choreographic choice was turning the lights out for a few minutes while the dancers were performing. Though the audience strained to see the dancers’ silhouettes onstage, what they heard through the darkness was the same "left, right" chant that had characterized the piece. Barth and Smith pursued their tasks relentlessly even in the dark, as if blindly following their own ideology.

Despite its political theme, Shinohara’s MT was not without sparks of humor. During a brief interlude, in which the performers calmed their marching to stillness, Shinohara joined his cast in speaking short, auto-biographical sentences to the audience. The monotony of the simple, gestural movements was disrupted by these personal insights, which ran the gamut from the mundane (relaying Thanksgiving plans) to the intensely personal ("My girlfriend’s name is…"). These crucial and humanizing moments for a cast that had been impressingly robotic transformed the work into a compelling portrayal of the politics inherent within every physical body. As if to reinforce this idea, MT ended with a short slideshow of people in everyday situations (crossing the street, etc), and what had been a steady cadence of "left, right" simmered down to silence and a weighted pause.

The nature of the intermission before Yoshiko Chuma’s ℼ=3.14...continues 'Dead End, Falling' is certainly up for debate. The founder of BKSD announced a 20-minute intermission but Chuma’s cast began the work immediately. Live violin and trumpet players warmed up in opposite corners of the room. A video projection of the recent protests shouting "Not My President" ran across the walls of the church as Chuma’s dancers manipulated an enormous green army print sheet of plastic turf. Other members of her cast—who were actors, former choreographers, political activists, and musicians—moved white tables into the space and encouraged the audience to move their chairs to anywhere in the space.

What happened next is an almost otherworldly experience that is incredibly difficult to put in words. Chuma, who has been awarded multiple Bessie awards, combined set pieces, props, and bursts of movement with a fluid storytelling structure that painted a grim picture of violence across the world.

Yoshiko Chuma in Dead End, Falling

"π=3.14… continues 'Dead End, Falling'", Yoshiko Chuma. Photo/film documentation by Megumi Eda.

The cast took turns reading reports of brutal murders in a microphone while Chuma carried a plastic pistol throughout the audience, occasionally pointing it audience members and cast members alike. Those familiar with Bill T. Jones’s Story/Time might familiar with the image, but in Dead End, Falling, Chuma actively guided the experience from inside the work, using both silent gestures and soft word cue to initiate dialogue or movement in another cast member. While this improvisational atmosphere caused events as a whole to feel without clear direction at times, what cannot be overstated is Chuma’s ability to cultivate an individual experience for each of the audience members. She floated seamlessly between text and movement, maintaining an awareness of every person in the room. She touched some audience members softly on the shoulder, stood silently next some, or spoke directly to others. Objectively, I felt as if the work was somewhat disorganized (though to her credit, she only had two days of rehearsal in Brooklyn beforehand with several new members). However, subjectively, I felt as if she created innumerable personal atmospheres that allowed each audience member to connect with the stories of everyday brutality between peoples.

"How can we understand what our history is?"

Over the course of the work, she asked several of her cast members the same questions: "Who are you? What do you do?" It was a humble way of making sure each of her collaborators’ role in the production was heard. It also felt like a call to the audience, demanding of us to consider who we are and what we have (or have not) done to better our society. The question that stuck with me the most was toward the middle of the work: "How can we understand what our history is?" Chuma held a metronome high above her head as she spoke. Indeed, time does seem to running out, and we have so much understanding left to do.

This review of a night of two works by Yoshiko Chuma and Kensaku Shinohara at the Brooklyn Studios for Dance.


Cameron McKinney is a dancer, choreographer, teacher, and author from Memphis, TN. He is the Artistic Director of Kizuna Dance in NYC and teaches regularly at Gibney Dance.