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Understanding the Embodied Logic of Artistic Practice:
A Key to Turning Difficult Moments into Creative Ones

KAZUKO YAMAZAKI

 

 

Introduction
 

 

In the first week of APPEX, the participating artists shared with one another what they had brought with them that personally reminded them of their homelands: a suitcase, a photograph of a guru, a mantra, a community song—these items, among others, had stories to tell about the artists’ homelands and their separation from them. “Homelands” was proposed as the overarching theme of APPEX 2000, and we, as the APPEX collective, worked on this theme throughout our six-week residency.


Kazuko Yamazaki facilitates discussion on “Dream”
PHOTO: EKO SUPRIYANTO

 

As the program proceeded, I became aware of the broader relevance of this theme—the artists brought with them, in their trained bodies, the embodied logic of artistic practice that constituted the very essence of their art forms shaped by the political and cultural histories of their homelands. By the logic of artistic practice, I mean the ways in which the artist decides what must be done and how, in creating, rehearsing, and performing their art. The logic is embodied until it often becomes the artist’s second nature and thus not always articulated consciously. Furthermore, it may appear odd or even “wrong” to those who are not familiar with the art form. This paper suggests that it is crucial to look into the embodied logic of artistic practice to overcome difficulties inherent in intercultural collaboration.

This also implies that I must ask myself what I took to APPEX with me and what my perspective was based upon. As a performer of Nihon Buyo (classical Japanese dance) and a native speaker of Japanese, I found myself close to the Okinawan artists aesthetically and linguistically. This allowed me an insight into their practice in a way that was more intuitive and possibly deeper than what was otherwise possible. With this understanding, I analyze the development of the project called “Dream,” proposed and directed by Okinawan dancer, Higa Norihiro. I will retrace the development of “Dream,” examining what worked and what did not work in the process of collaborative creation and why. My aim is to revisit some of the difficult moments encountered by collaborators and to suggest alternative interpretations of the problems by using the analysis of the embodied logic of artistic practice.

    Higa’s Expectations
   


Higa Norihiro directs a workshop on Ryukyu Buyo
PHOTO: EKO SUPRIYANTO

 

Reading the letter of expectations that Higa wrote to the other participants of APPEX, I discovered that the process of creation had its beginning before Higa arrived at APPEX. Higa wrote, “It is my desire to put new ideas to Ryukyu Buyo.1 My dream is to create new works of Kumiudui. That is why I wish to learn as much Asian arts as possible to incorporate them when I create Kumiudui.”

Kumiudui refers to the genre of dance-drama originally created by Tamagusuku Chokun (1684-1734) for the royal court of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Some of his works were first performed in 1719 to entertain investiture envoys sent to the Ryukyu Kingdom by the Chinese emperor. Since then, Kumiudui had been under the royal patronage as Kansen’udui, or “royal dance,” until the Japanese Meiji government took the Ryukyu Kingdom under its control in 1879.

In the Meiji period, a central figure in preserving and transmitting Kumiudui was Tamagusuku Seiju, who taught Majikina Yuko, Higa’s teacher. According to Higa,

I first learned Kumiudui from Majikina Yuko-sensei. After his death in 1980, his daughter, Majikina Yoshinae-sensei, succeeded her father as 2the head of the Majikina Honryu (Majikina School of Dance). Yoshinae-sensei used to accompany her father wherever he went, and had a deep understanding of his art. She then got married and moved to Hawaii. Meanwhile, Okinawa has entered the era of informational technology, and as a result of more and more influence from the outside, particularly from mainland Japan, Ryukyu Buyo has changed, not so much in terms of form but rather in terms of its general feeling. Since Yoshinae-sensei had moved to Hawaii, she has been outside of all these influences. That is why she still maintains the truly traditional feeling of Ryukyu Buyo, like a living fossil. Since she learned dance from her father, she has a dynamic, rather masculine quality. Ryukyu Buyo was traditionally danced by men, but these days, we have more female teachers and that has also contributed to the change of quality. Yoshinae-sensei is probably the last person who still bears the marks of truly traditional Ryukyu Buyo.

In 1972, the Japanese government designated Kumiudui as an Important Intangible Cultural Asset. Recently, in response to the demand of the Kumiudui Preservation Committee, of which Higa is a member, the government announced the building of the Kumiudui National Theater in Urasoe City, Okinawa, to be completed in 2003. The theater is expected to become the center for the preservation and promotion of Kumiudui through public performances, artist training programs, and research.

This cursory look at history reveals, first, how Higa understands his position in the genealogy of Kumiudui and, second, how he has committed himself to Kumiudui as an important facet of Ryukyuan identity—particularly vis-à-vis mainland Japan from the point of view of a minority Japanese. Higa’s “Dream” was created within this historical and cultural context.

    The Process of Creation
   


Owan Kiyoyuki playing the Okinawan sanshin
PHOTO: EKO SUPRIYANTO

 

July 4: All the APPEX participants were on our way to Venice Beach by bus to celebrate the Fourth of July. Higa sat next to me and began to talk to me. “I’ve been thinking of how I want to do the presentation of my homeland, and I have an idea. Let me know what you think. First, I’m down on the floor as if sleeping. I get up and see a fan. I pick it up and say, ‘I used this before, but I don’t remember.’ I see a sash, pick it up, and say, ‘I used this before but I don’t remember.’ Then I hear the sound of a sanshin (an Okinawan three-stringed, plucked lute). I begin dancing. I say, ‘I remember, I’m from Okinawa, I’m an Okinawan!’ I lie down, wake up, and say, ‘What a strange dream I had.’ Does this make sense?” Yes, it did. It was the very first attempt of Higa’s “Dream.” At the time, I did not realize that “Dream” was the structure, not the theme, a fact that later caused confusion when other collaborators joined Higa’s project. In this two-minute presentation, Higa was not talking about a dream he had; it was about his homeland, his Okinawan identity. He was presenting a sense of the loss of homeland and a rediscovery of it in music and dance in the form of a dream. This is a crucial point, to which I shall return in the next section.


Ida Ayu Wimba Ruspawati as villager in “Dream”
PHOTO: LARRY LOEHER

 

July 13: We were talking about our memories of homeland. For some of us, homeland was a place that no longer existed. Some of us had never been to the land from which our ancestors came, but still kept the place dear in our heart and imagination. Some of us had had experiences of returning to the place of childhood—the same street looked narrower, houses looked different, people were strangers. Higa shared his story of visiting Kanazawabunko with his wife, Hideko. Hideko had spent her childhood in Kanazawabunko, and in 30 years, the town had changed completely. Hideko was disappointed and felt that it would have been better if she had not visited the place at all. Higa made his original version of “Dream” based on this story.

July 25: “Dream” became a group project as dancers Pattara Danutra, Garrett Kam, Ida Ayu Wimba Ruspawati, and myself, and musicians Kiyoyuki Owan and Ricardo Trimillos joined Higa. We all shared stories of our dreams and decided to interweave Kam’s vivid and colorful dream scenes with Higa’s “Dream.” Kam’s dream included a traveler, a monster fish, children who beat up the fish, villagers in the form of shadow puppets, and wise old women who showed the way, with the performers moving in and out of different characters. This process itself was like weaving a dream tapestry: images after images, beautiful in themselves without a particular linear logic.


Garrett Kam as villager in “Dream”
PHOTO: LARRY LOEHER

 

It was during this time that Higa began to express his uneasiness. He communicated to the group that he had been thinking of his “Dream” with the subtitle of “Going Home,” and that his original idea was to perform it as part of the larger APPEX Homelands Project. He felt that mixing his “Dream” with other people’s dreams had been confusing, and his “image got destroyed.” A solution was proposed—“Why don’t we do Higa-san’s dream as part one and Garrett’s dream as part two?” This was tried out several times, but it did not settle Higa’s uneasiness. Higa insisted on doing only part one.

August 4: The entire APPEX group gathered to decide which projects we wanted to include in the final APPEX showing to the public. We wanted works that would demonstrate the creative process of intercultural collaboration. The works should also remain flexible and open to further experimentation.

Higa decided that, given these criteria, his “Dream” would not qualify. Higa’s embodied logic of artistic practice did not allow him to “break” what he had created, and thus, “Dream” would not be open to further experimentation. He had entered the stage of refining what had been created. In his practice of Ryukyu Buyo, it is unthinkable to perform anything for the public without rehearsing the piece literally hundreds of times. Now, “Dream” had to be repeatedly rehearsed if it were to be presented on stage. There would be no more changes, but only refining and polishing. If further changes were a requirement, his “Dream” would not be among the final projects. Higa announced, “I will drop it.” With the encouragement of the group and director Judy Mitoma, however, “Dream” remained in the program.

August 4–9: During this period, Higa often expressed his surprise at the process of creation as manifested in the APPEX Homelands Project: “We make something in the evening, and the next morning, it’s gone. Why do they keep breaking things and throwing them away all the time?” Changes hit him as surprises—and, often, as disappointments—when what he had invested was thrown away. Higa began to ask if there was a fundamental difference in the way of thinking about the process of artistic creation between Asians and Americans, between traditional artists and modern artists. Higa commented,

It is hard for me to change what I’ve created—this is probably my weakness. They are constantly breaking and making something new. I am surprised. Do they always dance by improvising, or do they also set kata (forms)? They don’t seem to rehearse by repeating. When I’m rehearsing, do they think I’m just repeating the same thing mindlessly? Today, Judy-san told us again not to do the same old stuff....For us [Okinawan dancers], when we create a kata, we practice it by repeating it many times. Even if it’s only a lifting of the arm, you can do it this way, that way, or in so many different ways. We repeat many times, and every time we try to find a better way, a more beautiful way. My teacher used to say, “Don’t ask me why I’m telling you to do it this way when I taught you a different way yesterday. You are like a bonsai; while being bent this way and that way, you are crafted into a beautiful form.” What this means is, we should keep our body flexible and always ready to be corrected. Yesterday, doing it this way looked beautiful, but if you find a better way today, you should be able to change. But I don’t think this is the same thing as the kind of change that Judy-san wants us to make.


The woman (Higa) weaving at the beginning of “Dream”
PHOTO: LARRY LOEHER

 

Higa was not––as others may have perceived––rigid. He was constantly experimenting and making “changes,” albeit in a far more subtle way, which did not appear to others as dramatically innovative. Higa also encouraged the other dancers to alter their choreography in the scene where they danced as villagers. He asked that they elaborate their dancing in their individual styles—Balinese, Japanese, Javanese, and Thai—to make the work more varied and intercultural.

August 10: “Dream” was shown to the public as part of the APPEX 2000 final showing.

As “Dream” begins, a woman, played by Higa, dressed in a kimono of colorful Bingata stencil-dyed fabric, is seated at center stage. Two musicians are seated at stage left, one playing the koto (a Japanese 13-stringed, plucked instrument) and the other playing the sanshin and the yokobue (an Okinawan bamboo flute). The koto and sanshin repeat a simple melody, to which the woman circles her hands in the motion of weaving a cloth. The narrator, seated at stage right, begins to speak the inner voice of the woman: “It’s been 30 years since I left my homeland. Every time I weave cloth, I miss my homeland. My mountains and rivers, my friends, whatever became of them? I want to go back to see them once more.” In a dream, the woman begins her journey. The music picks up its pace and changes into a lively tune. Four villagers appear from different directions and dance in various styles—Balinese, Javanese, Japanese, and Thai, reflective of each performer’s training. The woman approaches each villager to inquire about the mountains, rivers, and neighbors in her memory, only to encounter shaking heads and indifferent “no’s.” At the apex of her despair and confusion, the woman is caught in the turbulence of a whirlwind as the villagers run off in a circle around her. The woman falls onto her knees at center stage. The music resumes its original melody, and the woman, upon waking from her dream, is seen weaving her cloth again as if nothing has happened. The woman’s inner voice, spoken by the narrator, tells the audience, “Now I know that the homeland is in my memory, like a tapestry of images that I carry inside.”

    Analysis: Historical Context and the Embodied Logic of Artistic Practice
   

At several difficult moments in creating “Dream,” collaborators were inclined to interpret difficulties as arising from limitations of Higa’s capacity for innovation and his personal attachment to his wife’s story. However, for purposes of enhancing meaningful intercultural collaboration, it is necessary to consider alternative interpretations for these impasses. Following, I attempt this by analyzing Higa’s embodied logic of artistic practice shaped in the cultural and political history of Okinawa.

  THEME OR STRUCTURE?
   

When Higa performed his first two-minute dream piece in which he rediscovers his Okinawan identity, I was immediately struck by its similarity to Japanese Noh, particularly the style called Mugen Noh, or “dream vision plays.”

Mugen Noh, established by Zeami in 15-century Japan, has the following structure. A traveler visits a place that has some historical significance; a villager appears and tells the traveler a legend of the place. The villager then says, “I am, in fact, the spirit of so and so in this story,” and disappears. The spirit reappears in the traveler’s dream that night and tells more stories about his or her life and death. With the first morning light, the spirit disappears and is nowhere to be seen (Hata 1992, 22).

I told Higa on several occasions that his works reminded me of Mugen Noh, but he did not seem to be interested in or aware of any connection between Kumiudui and Noh. We agreed that these two forms are close to each other geographically, and it is possible that they show some similarities. This issue was dropped from our conversation, but I began to look for some direct, historical contact between these two forms. What I discovered was consistent with my intuitive speculation.

According to Yoshiteru Ikemiya (1987, 456-57), the originator of Kumiudui, Tamagusuku Chokun, made numerous trips to Japan and worked as a royal interpreter since he was fluent in Yamato kotoba (the Japanese language). He was appointed to the position of Odori-Bugyo (Royal Dance Director) by Sho Kei, King of Ryukyu, in 1715. Tamagusuku Chokun often traveled to Japan during his term of office and learned Japanese Noh while developing his plans for a new performing art—namely, Kumiudui. Thus, he created Kumiudui inspired by Noh, borrowing its structure and incorporating the subject matter from the history and legends of Ryukyu. It was not so far-fetched for me to recognize elements of Noh in Higa’s dream pieces.

Kumiudui expresses the character’s emotions and mental images through lyrical ryuka (traditional Ryukyuan songs) in the same manner that Noh does through the chanting of the utai (chorus). According to Flynn, “the basic structure of Noh drama is a memory play,” and the structure of the chorus is that it makes a commentary, representing “the interior thoughts of the shite [main character], and the landscape. This idea of the landscape and the interior thoughts of the shite having a single manifestation is very beautiful, very profound” (Flynn 1991, 190). In Higa’s “Dream,” the inner voice of the main character and the landscape were presented by the narrator, Pattara Danutra. The narration not only provided the audience with English explanations but also—and more importantly—played a role equivalent to that of ryuka in Kumiudui and the utai in Noh.

Again, “dream” was the structure and not the theme. The original story about the homeland of Higa’s wife was not a dream: Higa and his wife Hideko actually visited the place where Hideko spent her childhood. The central theme was the lost homeland (“Things have changed so much that I don’t recognize my childhood place anymore”) followed by a rediscovery of it in memory (“My true homeland remains in my memory”). There is a clear parallel between this story and Higa’s earlier two-minute homeland presentation, which dealt with lost identity (“I used this before, but I don’t remember”) followed by a rediscovery of it in Okinawan music and dance (“I remember! I’m from Okinawa; I’m an Okinawan”). In turning his wife’s homeland story into a dance-drama, Higa chose to present it in the form of a dream, as in his earlier piece. The dream format was employed as a structure, one that allowed Higa to be fully absorbed in the character’s personal world of inner emotions, images, and thoughts.

I argue that Higa’s reluctance to “mix with other people’s dreams” could be explained by the discrepancy between his understanding of the project’s theme and that of others. The collaborators held the assumption that “dream” was the theme. I was responsible for naming the project “Dream,” which prompted other collaborators to see dreams as the shared basis for collaboration and to consider their own dreams as possible contributions to the work. But, if we had called the project by a different name, such as “Going Home” or “Homeland,” then the collaboration could have taken a different path of development.

    CHANGE VERSUS REPETITION
   

A week before the showing, Higa felt that his choreography was complete and that the group had to run through the piece for the remaining days of rehearsal. Mitoma, on the other hand, encouraged the artists to continue experimenting and creating. We would be showing our works-in-progress in an informal setting. Higa felt that he was being forced to keep changing his choreography when he wanted to polish and refine the piece by rehearsing it. Collaborators, again, thought of Higa’s reluctance to change as limitations of his creativity.

An alternative approach I suggest is to examine the concept of kata, which is also an essential part of Higa’s embodied logic of artistic practice. Movements in Kumiudui consist of various kata, which may be translated as “form,” “shape,” or “pattern.” kata may be seen as motifs, which are combined to make a movement phrase, which then is combined with other movement phrases to make a dance. Thus, kata may be called the basic building blocks of Kumiudui.

Each kata may look simple, but slight changes in the position of body parts can create various different meanings. In Kumiudui, dancers do not show emotions and feelings directly in their movement or facial expression; they process the internal world of sentiment to translate it into appropriate kata with all their subtleties. Expression through kata is also found in Noh,3 and again, like in Kumiudui, fine changes in bodily movements can alter the meaning expressed. Zeami describes the significance of “slight bodily actions” as follows: “When you feel ten in your heart, express seven in your movements” because “no matter how slight a bodily action, if the motion is more restrained than the emotion behind it, the emotion will become the Substance and the movements of the body its Function, thus moving the audience.” 4

Because of all the subtleties inherent in kata, Kumiudui calls for the fine-tuning of kata through repeated rehearsals. This does not mean that there is no innovation or creativity in Kumiudui; creativity may be found, for example, in slight changes in the angle or level of the arm. Thus, creativity in Kumiudui operates at a micro level of refining the detail of expression, as opposed to macro level such as changing the choreography or structure. By reframing the issue as a question of whether continuous exploration should be done at the macro level or the micro level, we can move beyond the impasse of repetition versus change. What helps in intercultural collaboration is to look at creativity creatively and to understand that there are different kinds of creativity in different cultures because creativity itself is created within culturally specific frameworks.

    Conclusion
   

APPEX 2000 offered a nurturing environment for artists from the United States and various parts of Asia to come together and explore innovative possibilities of performing arts at their crossroads. Experience was the primary mode of learning, and experiments were encouraged without setting particular standards of success. Through learning new movements, rhythms, and language, and through collaborating in the creation of new works, participants made a constant effort to understand one another.

Nonetheless, there were moments of difficulty in which limits of experimentation were found, and differences were experienced as threatening to the integrity of one’s art. Participants found themselves grappling with the situation in which their embodied logic of artistic practice was challenged, threatened, or denied in the process of collaboration.

In this paper, I have examined Higa’s project “Dream,” in which I took part as a collaborator. My goal has been to revisit difficult moments that collaborators faced in the process of creation and to suggest alternative interpretations by examining the embodied logic of artistic practice Higa brought with him into the creation of his “Dream.” I have specifically discussed the problems that arose due to different interpretations of the project title and different understanding of what constitutes creativity.

We do not accomplish much by attributing difficulties of intercultural collaboration either to personal limitations or to differences between Asia and the United States. This perspective tends to treat all differences by the same dichotomy between the East and the West, the traditional and the modern, the codified and the improvised, the communal and the personal. Instead, we can find a way to be creative, through the specificity of each project of collaboration, to understand each other’s embodied logic of artistic practice that we carry within our bodies so that when we face problems, we can take the opportunity and turn difficult moments into truly creative ones.

    Notes
   

1 - Ryukyu Buyo means dances of the Ryukyu kingdom. Following Higa, I use this term rather than “Okinawan dance” throughout this paper.
2 - Majikina Yoshinae, current headmaster of the Majikina Honryu, flew from Honolulu to Los Angeles to view Higa’s “Dream” in the final showing of APPEX 2000.
3 - The main character in Noh wears a mask, and thus, the facial expression is not part of the performance. Noh actors express emotions through kata and by subtle differences in the angle of the mask.
4 - Zeami 1984, 75

    References
   

Flynn, John J. “Transiting from the ‘Wethno-centric’: An Interview with Peter Sellars,” in Interculturalism and Performance, eds. B. Marranca and G. Dasgupta, (New York: PAJ Publications, 1991), 184-91.
Hata, Hisashi. “No no Sakugekiho to Engi,” Bessatsu Taiyo 25 (1992): 21-28.
Higa, Norihiro. “Letter of Expectations,” 2000.
Ikemiya, Yoshiteru. Ryukyu Geino Kyohan, (Naha, Okinawa: Gekkan Okinawasha, 1987).
Zeami. “A Mirror Held to the Flower (Kakyo),” in On the Art of No Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami, eds. J. T. Rimer and M. Yamazaki, trans., (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984), 74-110.

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