Art Works Blog

At the Intersection of Japanese Culture and the Language of Dance: An Art Talk with Cameron McKinney

Cameron McKinney is one of six U.S. artists who—with the support of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission (JUSFC)—will partner with a Japanese peer to conceive and present an arts project that reflects the themes of this year’s Olympic Games; unity, collaboration and the long-time friendship between the United States and Japan. The completed projects are expected to be showcased in Tokyo this summer at the same time as the Olympic and Paralympic Games. (Read the original press release here.)

Just a decade ago, McKinney had no formal training in dance. What he did have, however, was a passion for the arts and culture of Japan, an amateur’s love for dance, and a set of killer dance moves consisting of tutting and an arm wave. Today McKinney, who earned a joint degree in dance and Japanese from Vermont’s Middlebury College, is the artistic director of Kizuna Dance, where his choreography merges his passions for exploring Japanese culture with Japanese and American dance forms. As he described, he sees his work as a vehicle to “create community through movement.” Here’s more from McKinney—in his own words—on discovering Japanese culture as a kid in Memphis, how his exploration of that culture informs his take on dance, and what he hopes will come of his JUSFC collaboration with Japanese choreographer Toru Shimazaki.

Two dancers improvise during a rehearsal. One stands at an angle with her arm curved above her while another dancer immediately in front of her stands in profile, curling her body forward.

Kizuna Dancers Cayla Simpson and Mallory Galarza improvise. Photo by Alice Chacon Photography.

At the Intersection of Japanese Culture and the Language of Dance

Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, there’s not all that much to do for a younger person; I just took up [Japanese] as a hobby. I went to the library. I got some self-learning books, how to learn the basic characters, that kind of thing. And I just messed around with it but was super into it. My mom was telling people about my big interest in Japanese, and a friend of hers told her about a language camp in Minnesota called the Concordia Language Villages. Basically you go out in the woods in Minnesota, and they take all of your electronics and they speak nothing but this foreign language at you for four weeks straight. The goal is to get a year’s worth of that language in just four weeks. I did that the summer before my freshman year of high school and when I left I had completely fallen in love with the language and with the culture. So I took [Japanese] in high school. I went back to the same camp every summer, and I ended up teaching there the summer after my junior year. Everything I oriented my life around had learning the Japanese language at its center. Before I found dance, I wanted to be the United States ambassador to Japan. When I first got to college I was taking Japanese. I was taking Chinese. I took Italian for a little while. I was going to take Japanese politics, Chinese politics, all that kind of stuff.

I wanted to know every language because I wanted to be able to communicate with any person that I came across. What was so appealing about dance was that here is this language that I don’t even need to speak [verbally] with someone. When I have been able to tour across the country and internationally, I [have been able to] walk into any classroom and dance with people and connect with them immediately through this movement language. I’d been studying all these languages and suddenly I found one that everyone speaks in some way, shape, or form. In college I declared a dance and Japanese joint major. When it came to my thesis I really wanted to delve deeper into the things that interested me most, which were Japanese and dance. I started looking into Butoh, the Japanese dance form, and did my thesis around an intersection of Butoh and street dance from both a physical standpoint and a psychological standpoint. Then when I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted without the confines of a college program I started to research whatever aspect of Japanese language or culture was interesting to me. I transformed my experiences with the Japanese language and culture into movement-based pieces of art.

[An example is] a work we did in 2015 called Ikigai, inspired by untranslatable words within the Japanese culture. As with a lot of foreign languages there are words that you can’t readily explain in English, words that describe super specific situations, super specific feelings, emotions, or themes. For example, there’s the word komorebi, which is the light that filters through trees in a forest. It sets a super specific scene. So I created that scene with bodies [of the dancers] and then [I looked] at the kanji and the hiragana used to write that word and had the dancers paint the space with movement as if they were trying to write those characters in space in front of them.

In a rehearsal studio, a male dancer holds a womn dancer suspended in air pressed close to his body

Kizuna Dancers Cayla Simpson and Martin Lerner perform in Rebirth. Photo by Alice Chacon Photography.

On Starting Kizuna Dance

I started [Kizuna Dance] literally two days out of college. It started with a Facebook page and a dream. The need I felt was to have the space to do the kind of work that I wanted to do. Coming from Middlebury with all of its amazingness, you also come from a program that isn’t ballet-oriented, that isn’t technique-oriented. When you enter the professional world, especially in New York in the year that I got here, a strong ballet foundation was really the common language. When I was auditioning, I would get comments like, “You’re a great mover but you don’t have enough technique to be in this group, to be in this ensemble.” That was really frustrating because I do have technique; it’s just not a Eurocentric idea of technique. Starting the company was a way of saying I’m going to make work when I want to make work. I’m going to share work when and where I want to, and no one can say otherwise. It also came from wanting to continue this journey into the Japanese culture through a dance lens and to create the kind of communities that I had been involved in while I was in college, to curate a feeling of family and community within a group of dancers where I can share this love for [Japanese] culture.

I would love for audiences seeing my work to leave a show and be curious about some part of the Japanese culture. When we did the Zen Buddhism piece, I had a lot of people leaving those shows and wanting to learn more. We had a lot of humorous moments, and they were like, “What made that so funny? I didn’t quite understand that.” And they left that show curious about something we were talking about in our work. I would love for audience members to leave in a positive mindset. A lot of work in the contemporary world is really dark and mysterious and [audience members] leave angsty. I would love for people to walk into a show and leave more upbeat, more positive about life in general, and about the interactions people can have than when they came in.

A posed photo of the full six-member Kizuna Dance Company

The full company of Kizuna Dance: (l-r) Rohan Bhargava; Mallory Galarza; Cameron McKinney, artistic director; Malena Maust; Isaac Martin; and Cayla Simpson. Photo by Alice Chacon Photography

On Cultural Collaboration versus Cultural Appropriation

It’s a very fine line to walk [between cultural collaboration and cultural appropriation]. The way I walk it is I have input from a lot of different people that help keep me in check. I have an advisory board that works in the Japanese performing arts, but a lot of it comes from speaking to things that I have experienced on a personal level within the context of the Japanese culture. For example, my work with Butoh and trying to combine it with street dance. The way that I involve myself with that is that whenever I have made works through a Butoh lens, I've always started those works by going to Japan first, by going directly to teachers, by studying with people directly, by meeting with scholars like I did this past summer when I was there for three months,asking them questions about walking this line of cultural appropriation. Am I going the right direction? Do I have the ability to speak in this way or to act in this way? I’m always going to be walking [that fine line]. And I feel like there’s always going to be some who view it from the outside as cultural appropriation. But what I want to emphasize is that I’m not speaking to anything about what the culture should be or what it is. I'm investigating a certain aspect of it, and I’ll take a small piece of that and I’ll flourish it into something larger.

On Celebrating the Arts at the Summer Olympics as a U.S.-Japan Creative Artist Fellow

Toru Shimazaki and I are like two opposite ends of the spectrum. It’s me as an African American who’s been so heavily influenced by the Japanese language and culture, but more specifically has been interested for a long time in the world of Butoh. And then Shimazaki-san is a Japanese artist who works from a more Eurocentric idea of the ballet world. We’re like two opposite sides of the same spectrum that come together to meet for this creative process. What we’re hoping to do from the microscale is to look at the personal histories of both my performers and his Japanese cast and translate these moments from their individual triumphs and connect them. The goal is to build these bonds between our two nations and, more specifically, between these two casts. [The project is about showing that] when we all get into the field together, dance is this universal language that we all speak and [we can] build these bridges through the performing arts.

Sue Mark and Bruce Douglas, a husband and wife artist duo known as marksearch, are also US/Japan Creative Artists this year. Read about their first experience as fellows and what they plan for their second fellowship here.

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