Debby Kajiyama and José Navarrete of NAKA Dance Theater (San Francisco) will present an excerpt of their multi-disciplinary site-specific performance BAILOUT! or Can you picture this prophecy? The temperatures are too hot for me at Velocity’s SCUBA 2014. The work investigates modern day humans’ relationship to the earth through the lens of Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami and the ongoing Fukushima disaster. Drawing from the artists’ experiences on a trip to northern Japan in 2012, BAILOUT! asks: how do we cope with, and contribute to, massive environmental catastrophe?
STANCE had the opportunity to ask Debby and José a few questions about BAILOUT! and their creative practice, in general.
Why did you make this piece?
We didn’t realize it at the time, but the seeds for this work were planted in 2010 when we created a piece in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill which claimed eleven lives and spewed oil into the Gulf of Mexico continuously for nearly three months. On March 11, 2011, when the earthquake hit off the coast of northern Japan, we had just finished opening night of the premiere of ATLACUALO: The Ceasing of Water, commissioned by YBCA, a work about the need to create new rituals to rescue ourselves from the systems we have created: systems that promote the commodification of water, plastic pollution and a disregard for the sanctity of the earth.
That night, after the show, we watched the news unfold as two natural disasters, the earthquake and tsunami, carried away entire towns. We saw the high waves hitting the shore and destroying rice fields, houses and freeways in tremendous magnitude. In the next week, we watched as yet another man-made cataclysm developed: the nuclear power plant explosion and meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. We were speechless, powerless.
We had already begun work on “Found and Lost,” (the red sweater piece) at the time, and immediately our conception of the work changed course as we saw reports of people in Tohoku searching for lost friends and family members.
I think ultimately the reason we made BAILOUT! was as a kind of prayer, a creative response to a feeling that something has gotten out of control.
NAKA Dance Theater in BAILOUT! Photo by David Teter
Where did you go in northern Japan? What did you do there?
Because we’re performance artists, and we use our bodies to make art, it felt important for us to physically visit this place that we had only seen on television. In September 2012, we decided to go to Tono City in Iwate Prefecture to volunteer at Tono Magokoro, an organization that sends daily busloads of volunteers to coastal towns that were destroyed by the tsunami. We participated in cleanup efforts in Kamaishi, Rikuzentakata, and Ootsuchi where we dug debris out of the earth, helped prepare the soil for planting crops, and cleaned and weeded gardens.
We also had the opportunity to participate in the Kozuchi Shrine Festival in Ootsuchi where we witnessed many ritual dances. During the festival, José was in a group pulling a portable shrine that went to people’s houses to make blessings through dancing, singing and playing drums. José helped pull the shrine and a few times accompanied the dancers with small cymbals. At one moment we went to an open field where someone’s house used to be. Very quickly, people started arranging candles, incense and setting out pictures of people lost in the catastrophe. A deep feeling of sadness invaded the place; the singing and dancing became strong and emotional—first the dragon dance, then the tiger dance. By the end of the ritual, everybody seemed much lighter, enjoying the memories of what used to be.
This experience showed us that art is one of the most essential practices for survival and memory. Dancing, music, and connection through art is bigger than each of us as individuals; art allows us to appreciate the mystery of life, the recounting of our ancestors, even the process of mourning, and lets us keep the culture alive. That continues to inspire us.
We also spent several days visiting friends who currently live just outside the nuclear exclusion zone in Fukushima Prefecture. When we first asked the Tamagawa family if they would be willing to be interviewed about their experiences, they answered an enthusiastic “yes!” Then they said, “If you aren’t afraid of the radiation, please come and visit us at our home.”
We were afraid of the radiation, but we decided to go anyway. The Tamagawas were generous hosts; they took us inside the 20-km nuclear exclusion zone to see the remains of their home; they showed us the radiation monitoring stations around the city; shared the stories of extreme stress under which they’ve lived. They also cooked us beautiful traditional meals and took us to a hotspring in the mountains of Fukushima.
What was the process of working on this piece like? Can you give one or two specific examples of how you went about translating your experiences in northern Japan—or distilling the information you gathered on your trip—into performance?
One of the sections in the full-evening version of BAILOUT! is called “The Highest Wave.” Every time we visited a coastal town for clean-up work, people would point to a two or three-story building and tell stories of how high the waves of the tsunami had come. At the time we were there, many of the buildings were still standing in skeletal form, so it was an overwhelming sight to behold, even a year and a half after the tsunami.
We wanted to use the vertical space—the ‘top half’ of a room—to make a section about “the highest wave.” One of our collaborators, Kevin O’Connor also makes work about environmental issues, and has trained professionally at The Circus Space in London and the National Circus School of Montreal. Kevin can climb anything, and can teach anyone how to climb on him! Debby learned how to stand on his shoulders, but always felt a slight sense of danger, of instability. When we started to get too comfortable, we introduced obstacles in the space: five 3’ x 2’ platforms with one wheel attached to the underside of each. Our goal was to create a strong sense of instability in the piece.
What is your relationship, if any, to narrative? Do you feel your work is organized around a core? If so, what is this core?
We love a good story, without question, and stories are often a jumping off point for what we create. But we usually twist and blur and distill—and try to find a symbol, visual element, or physicality that has resonance with us. In BAILOUT! we started with a snippet of a story about a woman who was carrying a dozen eggs when the earthquake hit. She is still in a state of shock as she tells how she dropped them all on the floor. Inspirations from that snippet became the through-line for the full-evening work. Other objects we fell in love with during development of BAILOUT! are a 55-gallon oil barrel filled with water (in a section danced exquisitely by a powerful-vulnerable Emily Leap), 10-pound cubes of ice, and a polar bear.
From the inside, what in this piece—or in the process of making this piece—compels you the most?
One of the big challenges in the process of making BAILOUT! was also the most rewarding. We created the work outdoors at the busy intersection of Mission and 24th Street in San Francisco. We spent many hours in front of the BART (subway) station, in trees, alongside the Latino evangelists, at the front door of the library. We chatted with many local artists, were joined by onlookers in performance, and fielded many questions. At the performances, half the audience was made up of passersby who happened to join in the procession. We were thrilled at the number of spectators who were drawn in enough to stay.
Why do you choose to make art? What do you want your art to do, in the world?
The driving force for many of our works is the need to shine a light on the awkward, the underdog, the vulnerable. We hope that our work elicits an emotional or visceral experience, and provokes the audience to contemplate the issues we are inspired by.
You are so close to the waves that the mist touches you, and you feel the immensity of the force of nature.
You walk in solidarity with anti-nuclear protesters in streets of Tokyo.
You eat a peach picked straight from a tree in Fukushima.
You stand at the epicenter of the bombing of Hiroshima.
You are on top of a mountain contemplating the magnificent configurations of the landscape.
You watch a spider weave her complex web.
It is a physical engagement.
How can we be empathetic? How can we put on the shoes of another suffering individual? The more we can understand the suffering of another person, the more our art can expand. It is beyond us as individuals. It becomes more universal.
NAKA Dance Theater in BAILOUT! Photo by Kim Anno and Kyung Lee
Hear more from NAKA Dance Theater and SCUBA 2014 artists Elia Mrak + Erica Badgeley (SEA), SuperGroup (MN), and Nichole Canuso (PHILLY) at Velocity’s Artists as Activists: SCUBA Speakeasy Lightning Talks April 24, 2014, 7pm at Velocity.
Featured image by Kim Anno and Kyung Lee