Jenny Schaffer talks with Shinichi Iova-Koga about how Action Theater has influenced his work.
JS: What drew you to study Action Theater?
SI-K: It was a friend who started looking at my work and said I’m moving in the direction of Action Theater. She brought me to an Action Theater performance. The performance that I saw (by Etiquette) really impressed me because a lot of the other things I’d been seeing were “bullshit” (in the sense of “you’re bullshitting me.”)
JS: Can you elaborate?
SI-K: In general, I feel like a lot of the dance and theater performers and the performances themselves are liars. When I saw the Action Theater performance, I felt like I wasn’t seeing a lie.
JS: What was it about it that felt like the truth?
SI-K: Everything was immediate. I could see the performers responding to situations as they arose. They were playful, I enjoyed the playfulness.
JS: So before you saw this, you had been discovering the value of that immediacy and playfulness in your own work?
SI-K: I suppose so. I was starting to create work through improvisations and with a playful attitude. It was during the first incarnation of Onion that I’d been working on in 1999.
JS: What do Butoh and Action Theater share?
SI-K: That connection to the moment. Butoh dance, if it’s not connected to the moment,. can be about the worst piece of c-—on earth. And because Butoh dance has so many exterior markings—the twisted grimace or monk-like white body as opposite images—people will oftentimes imitate these exteriors and not have any connection to the moment. Whereas Action Theater, by contrast, doesn’t have any marked exterior forms associated with it. I certainly notice tendencies with Action Theater practitioners, but these tendencies are not what define Action Theater.
JS: What does practicing Action Theater teach you about Butoh?
SI-K: What I take most strongly from Action Theater that teaches me more about Butoh is that I’m listening far more now to small impulses and going with those small impulses and staying with and developing them. Sometimes, that’s just a feeling I have in a muscle in a finger and then everything starts to develop from there. Butoh has more forms in it, such as body shape that are distinctly Butoh where Action Theater doesn’t have that. But because of what I learn in Action Theater, I can bring a new and different kind of life into these forms that exist in the Butoh vocabulary.
JS: When I watch Butoh, I’m struck by how much time is given to letting something develop, it requires a kind of patience and trust on the part of the audience. As an AT practitioner and teacher, I find myself emphasizing more and more, the importance of staying with things for along time in order for mysteries to reveal themselves. Is this part of Butoh as well?
SI-K: It’s typical of Butoh, but not by definition. It’s very common that a Butoh dancer will slow things down because that allows things to fill a lot more. In general, the mind is not advanced enough to really fill fast moments in the way that it can fill slow moments.
JS: And it’s when we let things fill that mystery or magic or surprise can happen?
SI-K: I’m wrestling with those words: mystery , magic and surprise. If you mean by these that you’re allowing the unconscious—personal or genetic memories—to inhabit or come forth, then yes.
JS: What does it mean to fill a moment, in Butoh?
SI-K: In Butoh, there’s a clearly stated premise that you also want to empty your moments. So fill moments, empty moments…in a certain sense they can be saying the same thing. Because if I make myself so empty that then I’m automatically becoming filled.
JS: What can Action Theater practitioners take from Butoh?
SI-K: I’ll tell you a common thing I see in Action Theater performances. The performers are typically basing what they do on their anxiety. And so what they could take from Butoh is to be comfortable with quiet, silence and empty moments.
JS: Do you think this has anything to do with Action Theater being more a Western form and Butoh an Eastern one? I thinkof the West as a fairly anxious culture and the East as more calm.
SI-K: I want to take the discussion out of East and West and get it more specific : America and Japan. Because that’s basically the origins of these two forms. The Japanese have a stoic quality. I think of the modern, urban Japanese as oftentimes being extremely anxious. They hide this anxiousness under a veneer of stoicism. At the same time, the Japanese do culturally value time, that is to say there is a value placed on taking time with a large process so there is also a very high degree of patience that exists in Japanese culture. So while modern Japanese have this anxiety, it is combined with a long-term sense of development.
JS: Thank you.
SI-K: You’re welcome.