IzumonookunI Blog Post

Powell Street Festival Society is proud to be supporting the development of “IzumonookunI,” a multidisciplinary dance inspired by Izumo no Okuni, the 17th century cis-female founder of kabuki: a Japanese dance-drama form that currently contains little trace of its cis-female-centric, grassroots, counter-cultural origins. The following blog post is a reflection by choreographer Aretha Aoki on her motivations and ethos in the piece’s creation. Aoki reveals the layers upon which she and collaborator Ryan MacDonald have built their artistic excellence and ways in which identity informs her practice. We can’t wait to see how this genre spanning, intergenerational, and international work will come together!

Aretha Aoki singing into a mic on stage in front of two taiko drums.
Photo credit: Mathew Chun
Aretha Aoki crawling across stage with a child on her back.
Photo credit: Still from video by Colin Kelley

"Musing on the Making of IzumonookunI"

My name is Aretha Aoki, I am a choreographer and dancer. My collaborator and life partner, Ryan MacDonald is a multi-media artist and sound designer. We have been working together for over a decade. We bring our respective backgrounds in dance; and visual art, creative writing, and sound together in conversation to make experimental, interdisciplinary performances that center themes of lineage, authorship, and the body and sound as mediums for time/space travel. Our process is rooted in improvisation, rigorous collaboration, and a style that sometimes draws attention to itself and to the contradictions of movement. Together we collide, clash, synergize and ultimately create worlds that neither of us could conceive of independently. We aim for immersive theatrical productions that push us outside of our comfort zones, and to that end, each work is unique, and has included video, hyper-real animation, somatics, sculptural elements, musical-theater, memoir, dance criticism, references to Noh theater and more in conversation with dance and soundscapes.  

We are often drawn to what is left out, discarded, erased from dominant narratives, that which cannot be contained within the boundaries of the clever tweet, the pristine image or the sound bite. We appreciate strange and unexpected juxtapositions; a desire for a kind of buried treasure (or presumed “garbage”) of truth is what moves us to make work and to dance. When I dance, I want to be a vessel for a larger, mysterious radiating force of existence. Reason and rationality have their place, but mostly we create containers for intuition, a felt sense of rightness, a vibrational heftiness propelled, guided or informed by persistent questions or pangs: what is my relationship to my ancestry after generations of censorship, assimilation and geographical distance? Can we inhabit multiple facets and dimensions of humanity at once? Can we embody the rub of contradiction that potentiates new ways of thinking, knowing, being? 

Since 2014, our work has touched on my Japanese ancestry, creating formal containers for ancestral research, and braiding and bridging disparate communities and artistic modalities. Our research into ancestry has taken an even more personal turn with the inclusion of our 7-year-old daughter in our performances. Living in Maine, far away from my family of origin or a robust AAPI-community, our work is a way of extending tentacles back home and connecting our daughter to a significant part of her cultural heritage.   

Our latest project, IzumonookunI, reaches forward and backward. It crosses borders to bring together an international cast and partnership to create a hybrid, sci-fi kabuki/dark synth world of multigenerational (ages 7-83), mostly Asian women-identified performers, inspired by Izumo no Okuni, cis-female founder of kabuki. Ryan is building an entirely original sound score using a range of instruments, with taiko accompaniment by two members of Sawagi Taiko, Anny Lin and Linda Uyehara Hoffman, intricate costuming by Claire Fleury, singing, and of course, dancing. Dancing that traverses multiple states and characters: a baby, an aging man, a horse, a horse rider. The dance and the sound exist in a constant state of transformation, emergence, regeneration, looping through life and death, never closing in on one fixed state. 

Izumo no Okuni, the cis-woman who founded kabuki—the eccentric, bawdy, cacophonous dance-drama form that first took place on a dry riverbed in Kyoto in the early 17th century—is something of a mystery. She and a group of all-women social outcasts and prostitutes drew large crowds with their comical and licentious portrayals of everyday life and renditions of Buddhist folk dances. She is said to have invented the hanamachi or “bridge of flowers,” the runway that extends from the audience to the stage, and despite her disappearance from historical records around 1610 and the eventual outlawing of women performers, kabuki itself has lived on. 

The early definition of kabuki (“strange or indecent”) and its counter-cultural, scrappy, DIY origins align with the ethos of the punk movement—a personal reference coming from Ryan’s early influences. While researching Okuni Ryan and I zoomed forward, reaching beyond temporal and geographical origins, pairing her counter-cultural initiations with the genres of goth glam and synthwave, with influences such as Gary Numan, David Bowie, and Siouxie Sioux, and their highly stylized, outlandish, dramatic performances and crafted stage personas. IzumonookunI reimagines Okuni in conversation with the forms that she’s potentially influenced within a hybrid, contemporary landscape of live synthesizer, digital design, dance, and taiko drumming. The result, we hope, is an immersive, uncanny, multigenerational, East Asian and womxn-centric world that makes visible what has been lost, erased or deemed inappropriate, while complicating tyrannical and reductive notions of what qualifies as authentically “Asian,” through exploring how these seemingly unrelated art forms can converse and converge.

We hope to ultimately get closer to the primordial pulses that give birth to life; to the wild, uncontainable, strange and indecent—burps, groans, whispers, and wails—from which anything is possible.

About the Artists:

Aretha Aoki is a choreographer, performer, and educator. Her choreographic work in collaboration with Ryan MacDonald has been performed nationally and internationally with funding from the National Performance Network Creation and Development funds, the Kindling Fund, Maine Arts Commission, New England Foundation for the Arts, and the Northampton Council for the Arts. As a performer, Aretha has worked with choreographers Heather Kravas, Emily Johnson, Juliette Mapp, devynn emory, Vanessa Anspaugh, and others. She is an Associate Professor of Dance at Bowdoin College. https://arethaaoki.com

Ryan Alexander MacDonald is a multimedia artist and author. He was a 2017 Bessie Award Nominee in “Outstanding Composition and Sound Design” for his work in Vanessa Anspaugh’s The End of Men. He is the author of the story collection The Observable Characteristics of Organisms (FC2) and the winner of the 2012 American Short(er) Fiction Award. He works with long-time collaborator and choreographer Aretha Aoki and has designed sound for choreographers such as Vanessa Anspaugh, Devynn Emory, and Tristan Koepke. He lives in Maine where he teaches courses on sound design and digital art. https://ryanamacdonald.com/

Funding Credits

IzumonookunI is a National Performance Network (NPN) Creation & Development Fund Project co-commissioned by Bates Dance Festival, The Powell Street Festival Society, The Chocolate Factory and NPN. More information: http://www.npnweb.org. 

IzumonookunI is a National Performance Network (NPN) Creation & Development Fund Project co-commissioned by Powell Street Festival Society and NPN. The Creation & Development Fund is supported by the Doris Duke Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts (a federal agency). For more information: http://www.npnweb.org

Support for IzumonookunIis provided by The Kindling Fund, a grant program administered by SPACE as part of the Andy Warhol Foundation For The Visual Arts Regional Regranting Program. Funded in part by a grant from the Maine Arts Commission, an independent state agency supported by the National Endowment for the Arts; and by the New England States Touring program of the New England Foundation for the Arts, made possible with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts Regional Touring Program and the six New England state arts agencies.

Supported through work-in-progress showings at Bates Dance Festival, Bowdoin College, Salem St. University, Roger Williams University, estrogenius at the Kraine Theater, the New England Now Dance Platform at ICA/Boston, the School for Contemporary Dance and Thought, Motion State Dance Festival, and the Powell Street Festival Society.