Reading the Other: A Conversation with Kimi Okada | By Marie Tollon

A few months ago, “This Life” New York Times columnist Bruce Feiler wrote about how young people are increasingly losing their ability to read nonverbal communications and develop other skills that are essential to social interactions. He reminded of the innate and crucial ability of humans to “read” each other:

“Reading nonverbal communication is an underappreciated skill. For most of our history, humans had no choice but to communicate face to face. With so much experience, we honed the ability to detect sometimes-lifesaving information from facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice and posture. Though these cues may vary in different cultures, reading them involves decoding what people think less by their words and more by their raised eyebrows, downcast gazes or rolled eyes,” writes Feiler.

Kimi Okada's "Two If By Sea" Photo by Andrew Weeks

Kimi Okada’s “Two If By Sea”
Photo by Andrew Weeks

Kimi Okada’s Two If By Sea, which received an Izzie award for outstanding achievement in choreography and will be presented during Summer Sampler at ODC Theater next week, exemplifies Feiler’s words. In the piece, the survival of the two protagonists depends on their capacity to communicate and understand each other in non-verbal ways.

Okada and I sat down last week to talk about her two works that are featured during Summer Sampler.

Marie Tollon: Both of your pieces on the program are about communication. In Two If By Sea, the survival of the two protagonists depends on their capacity to communicate to each other in non-verbal ways, while I Look Vacantly at the Pacificthough regret is about miscommunication in the context of cultural differences.

Kimi Okada: Yes, it’s about communication or lack of. In Two If By Sea, it’s really about personal and professional communication. It’s also about a relationship that connects to an outside world where communication is not only imperative but urgent. I was interested in a “do or die” aspect and the idea of imminent danger. It was not just about a very personal physical language with someone you love but I wanted to put it in a larger context. That’s what Two If By Sea was really exploring, using all kinds of different non-verbal languages and physical codes.

MT: What about the genesis of I Look Vacantly?

KO: The piece started with my experience as a Japanese American. I grew up in Minnesota, in the Midwest, in a community that didn’t have a Japanese American population. I didn’t speak Japanese. My grandmother was Japanese, first generation, but she lived in another city. I never really used Japanese as a child. I was always interested in my Japanese heritage but really never looked at it.

My junior year, I went to Japan and was completely miserable for the first few months: everybody assumed that I was the Japanese translator because I looked Japanese. So I was always feeling incredibly awkward because I didn’t feel American, I didn’t feel Japanese, I was in a cultural identity limbo. I felt that I was always doing the wrong thing: I was trying to shake hands when you are supposed to bow; I was using language that only men use; I was trained as a dancer, my feet are turned out, how I walk is not how Japanese women walk. I was a weird person to the Japanese. They didn’t know how to respond to me and I didn’t know how to respond to them. I found myself really isolated and lonely. I think when you go to a foreign country, there’s a deep desire to communicate and to be responsive and open. When you don’t have language skills or understand cultural etiquette, you can feel completely lost.

Kimi Okada's "I Look Vacantly..."  Photo by Margo Moritz

Kimi Okada’s “I Look Vacantly…”
Photo by Margo Moritz

At the same time, I was fascinated by Japanese pop culture and the veneer of Western culture that overlays Japanese culture. I started collecting Jingrish -hilarious English translations of things that you see in public places which have a very funny use of the English language. I also started collecting shopping bags, pencil boxes and t-shirts that all had a twisted use of English. I’ve always found them really funny and fascinating, because on the surface they make no sense but they do have a weird logic.

The title [of the piece] comes directly from a pencil box that I have. One of the other sound sources consists of teaching tapes for Japanese businessmen to learn English idioms. I used three different dialogues from the tapes. Each part of the conversation crams as many English idioms as possible into an implausible, so they are pretty silly.

MT: The piece has three sections. Can you talk more about each one?

KO: The beginning is called “Language Class.” There is a sensei -the teacher- and the students, and it’s the impossibility of understanding a language when too much information is thrown at you. At the beginning, you just feel completely at sea. There’s a kind of befuddlement and a lack of clarity to being in a foreign country. In the piece, the sensei does wild improvised things that everybody has to copy as best as they can. They start with the legs, add the arms, then strange head movements. It’s silly, but it’s the physicalization of how you feel when you are learning a language.

The second section goes to a slightly darker place. It’s called “Honorifics and Insults.” I did a lot of research on insulting physical gestures from many cultures and behavior that is offensive in some cultures, but not in others. The piece is pretty much about Japan and being Japanese American but I don’t want it to be limited to that. It’s essentially about being a foreigner in a strange country. It’s like going to a foreign country and not speaking any of the language. For the second section, I took 2 couples -one Asian and one that I imagined would be a couple from Texas- and it’s about the awkwardness of not knowing how to greet somebody. They go to shake hands, but the others bow. They try to be respectful but are always making the wrong choice.

I wanted to frame it in Japanese pop culture so while those dialogues are going on, there are stereotypical Japanese pop culture things [going on in the background]. There are algorithms phrases that Japanese school kids do, there’s Godzilla, there are ninjas… I wanted to frame it in how we see Japan too, in a pop way that is very much [on the] surface but also very funny.

"I Look Vacantly..." Photo by Margo Moritz

“I Look Vacantly…”
Photo by Margo Moritz

It gets darker. I did a lot of research about insulting gestures. In Indonesia for example, it’s hugely insulting to show anybody the bottoms of your feet, I took all of these weird offensive gestures and built them into more physical phrases. There’s also a moment where Jeremy [Smith] gets really tall and everybody else is short. This references my friend Dana who was 6.5 feet tall and had bright red hair. He was more than a foot taller than everybody else. In Asia, when you don’t look Asian, you really stand out in a crowd. So mothers would point at him to their children, as if he was a circus freak. He was very shy and he ended up leaving Japan because he felt that whenever he went outside, people would stop and take pictures of him. That was a reference to how you feel out of place, and it turns into this kind of crazy merry go round of obscene gestures. It’s about not knowing where you are and feeling a hostility against strangers.

The last section, “culture shock,” is about being in a culture and just doing whatever you think is right. All the physical material was developed based on an English idiom: “Throw up one’s hands,” “up to one’s elbows, ” “speed freak,” “bad vibes,” “keep both feet on the ground,” “ruffle one’s feathers.” The dancers came up with wonderful material. We started with a very literal interpretation and made it much more abstract. The pace of it is very frenetic. I want people to identify with being overwhelmed and then just winging it. You don’t have to be in another culture to feel that.

"Two If By Sea" Photo by Andrew Weeks

“Two If By Sea”
Photo by Andrew Weeks

MT: In both pieces, you are using gestures and humor. Did your background in theater, physical comedy and circus inform these two works?

KO: Definitely. I love physical comedy. The kinds of things that engage me often end up being humorous, but I don’t really start there. For Two If By Sea, I started with tap dance and Morse code, and then took it further. Working with physical comedians -Bill Irwin, Geoff Hoyle- I think that there’s a great possibility to engage and communicate with an audience when things are funny that makes people responsive, which is what I like about physical comedy. I’m not a huge fan of outright slapstick but physical comedy has the potential to be pretty sophisticated. And I think the best physical comedy is actually dark, and has much greater resonance than just a laugh. The greatest clowns have that. It’s the task that may be ridiculous, but the intention and the commitment of that person doing it are humorous. I love Buster Keaton for that reason, because he is just brilliant. He is absolutely serious but the situations get the better of him. His genuine attempts at coping are the basis of the humor. The best comedians that I know are absolutely serious about what they are doing as they are doing it. I think I want people to identify with seeing some of their own experience in there. The difference between my work and straight theater, which is often literal and in real time, is that I like to really abstract an idea and take it out of the realm of logic, play with it. This is this is why I love form: you can really abstract something in a way that is not bound by reality.

Humor in choreography comes from a situation. It’s very fun to direct the dancers because it’s not necessarily how they are used to work, there is a lot of acting. There are different kinds of languages: there’s a very theatrical, pedestrian language; there’s a gestural language and then there’s a very dancy, abstract language. These three are interwoven. When I direct dancers, I’m trying not to have them try to be funny. It’s a fine line and we hope it works!

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