Ayano Elson’s “Name is Yoko” at Gibney Work Up 1.2
Emie Hughes: Can you speak a little bit about your research?
Ayano Elson: Sure. Let’s see. A lot of it was spending time with my grandparents trying to archive as much time with them as possible through photographs and conversation and recording, just hanging out with them, and asking my grandparents to sing. I felt like a real creep filming our time together, but I’m appreciative that I did it. As far as movement, a lot of it is just working through texts and ideas in order to create movement. We would do lots of movement prompts I would come up with; it was a lot of generating material. A lot of it was making movement in my bedroom and then showing it on another body and seeing how it works and if it fit the idea I was trying to portray.
EH: Were there any specific ideas that had a direct correlation to the movement?
AE: Some of it, but I think a lot of it is based on its form. We’re repeating this phrase and segmenting; it speaks to the idea of memory and representation and history and how you share memories. I am hoping that it portrays that kind of idea — that structure of starting and restarting, pauses, how time is flexible.
EH: All of your rehearsals have been large chunks of time — is it the same structure when you are making movement?
AE: I think my most successful moments are when I have a long 4 hours to work, and I get very anxious with having an appointment or something and knowing that there is only a certain amount of time. It’s very hard for me to remove myself and then actually work. Having a larger amount of time makes it easier for me to think and process in a more relaxed, calm way, rather than being very energetic and frantic. Just being relaxed by time.
EH: Where are your grandparents?
AE: They are in Okinawa. They are still very much alive. They are there, they work on a farm that they own, it’s a very different lifestyle from mine, and I find it really beautiful. Although they dealt with WWII and have all of this post-feudal imagery around them, their lives are very romantic to me. They wake up, they see the beach, they hang out on a farm and do those tasks, and then they sing a lot and drink a lot. It seems very nice to me. And it is such a retreat going there.
EH: Do they speak any English?
AE: No. Very little. My grandma can read a bit of English and my mom lived there until she was about my age. And since America took over Okinawa, they had to interact with American money and text, but they don’t really speak English.
EH: How often do you go over?
AE: I used to go every year and then took a pause through college to do summer internships and all of that stuff which seems so dumb now compared to spending time with your family. But I just went back last September and it was great. I brought my boyfriend with me and we recorded my grandpa singing and playing the shamisen. That was a really interesting thing as well, to bring a complete stranger into this very different world. It was kind of hard — it wasn’t hard — but we were very conscious of making sure that we weren’t appropriating the work, and making sure that we were properly…so that it didn’t look like ethnographic research. We were sharing a family instead of showing a culture that is distant.
EH: When you are making the work do you feel genetically embodied, being in the same space as all of the history and culture that you have created or brought into the room? What does it feel like while you are performing it or making it?
AE: Yes, I do feel genetically embodied. I wonder what my performers’ experience of it is as well since everybody hopefully has grandparents or just people that they think about who are physically distant. I wonder if that idea of memory comes up. But yes, I do, especially when I hear my grandpa sing — it’s very emotional for me. And in making this work, I attempted to spend more time with them even though we are miles and miles apart. This was almost a study to spend more time with them and think about them a lot more that I have, or would have if I weren’t making the piece.
EH: Do they know that you were making a dance piece? Did you explain the process?
AE: I don’t know if they really get it. They know that I dance and they know that I was recording my grandpa play and recording them for something but I don’t really know how much was in context. I don’t think they were able to predict its final form or what it would look like. I also think that at one point when my grandpa was playing the shamisen, I think he thought that we were going to just use straight tracks of his music instead of slicing it up and using this whole electro acoustic composition underneath it. So he was like, “A fast tune or a slow tune?” And I said, “Whatever you want to play! It’s totally fine! I just want to hear you play your instrument.” But they were both really supportive and into it. They aren’t shy people at all, which I also really like about them. They are really über confident. They are really just lively people, and they were totally down for it, which was great.
EH: I know that part of the Work Up process has been about visual research. Is there anything that has been really exciting visually for you in this process?
AE: I work in an institution that shows visual art and part of my education was in Art History as well. So I think doing visual research and looking at stills definitely influences and affects my work. I feel like it’s also really helpful to look at. I’m interested in the idea of the body trying to emulate a natural landscape and specifically the one that my grandparents are inhabiting. Like those images that I showed you that are the oldest ever. It’s so visually impressive. And you think that you are 23 years old and you feel like there’s so much that has happened in that unit of time and this thing is 500 years old or 5, 000 years old. To me it’s overwhelming and its design is so intriguing.
EH: Are there any main questions that you have about the work right now?
AE: I don’t know if I have any questions. It’s still not in its final form, but I do wonder and am curious as how to represent or how to show memory because its so fragile and so problemetized and so personal. And I wonder how to show that to a large anonymous body of people. I am curious in the same way about how to represent history as well. Those are my big questions. And all of the tiny narratives or meta-narratives that get lost in the geography in general. Memory and history are my two big questions…and how to make good dances. Those are my big questions.
EH: I personally find it very difficult as a dance-maker to make the work that I am dancing in and I’m curious about your journey through that or where you are now.
AE: I’ve never done this before — been in my own work. I think I enjoy it more when I’m not in it. I like watching it and looking for things in rehearsal and I feel like I provide better direction when I’m not in it. And it took me a long time and the dancers I was working with forced me to be in it. Because they were like, “it doesn’t really make sense for the piece to be about your family without you being in it. It sort of gets lost, especially on these bodies who you don’t really see a direct connection with.” So that’s that. I do like dancing with everybody though. I feel like it’s very hard to go in between. It is definitely a learning process between directing and listening to everybody while inside the piece and being able to step out and watch it. It’s a very exciting journey. And it’s weird because a lot of the structure is set up that there are all of these lines passing and all of that. It is very difficult for me to see it without me being in it, which is why we’re filming it, because some of those crosses wouldn’t occur. I guess I could envision it, but there’s no way of seeing it. I don’t like it very much, but I think it’s challenging. I also wonder if this is my worst performance because I’m looking so much at what the dancers are doing and I don’t know if I even know the movement. I know what material the dancers are supposed to be doing but I don’t really know about what my body is doing, and then I get really emotional hearing the music and thinking about all of these forms…it’s so much. And then I think, ‘I’m doing a bad job dancing because I’m watching too much’. That part is difficult. As a performer, I feel like I’m hypersensitive, as most performers, to everything that’s going on around. But then when that’s impacting what you’re doing or your performance, it’s hard to find a middle ground. I’m having a hard time finding that middle ground.
EH: It’s a hard thing.
AE: It’s difficult. But it’s getting better.
EH: It seems like a practice, just practicing and learning how to use video and other tools.
AE: And also, granted, we’ve just started working together, but I’ve been working with Liz and Jeremy since our freshman year in college. And I’ve worked a lot with Liz and we are getting to a point where she’s able to tell me what she’s feeling in the piece and that helps me, or she’ll look up to see what I’m doing as well. So it’s becoming more of a communicative process, which is really important to me and to making work in general; having openness is very special. Once you find the right person, it’s key to making work that you enjoy.
EH: Stepping into it not knowing anyone or the work, it definitely feels like that, which is a really rare thing. It feels like a very established system that’s happening.
AE: It doesn’t feel like anything’s a system; it feels very much like guess work. But that’s nice to hear.
EH: Is there anything that is extremely important for you to have in your practice? Personal, artistic, or physical practice?
AE: It’s always really important to me to show new movement because I think that the body is a tool to do so. So why not do that? It’s really important to me to generate new movement, to investigate new movement. I think also, which is hard to say, it’s important to me to be able to defend everything that’s in the piece. And when I start making a piece, to ask if there is a necessity for this dance. I think, otherwise, it’s not really a full way to spend your time. At least for me. Movement, integrity, time, and also to be making sure that I’m creating a safe space with my dancers and myself, for us to work together. I feel like I have been in a lot of rehearsals or worked with other people in the past where I didn’t feel like I could voice my opinion or where I felt like I just had to receive the material and perform it and that was that. And that’s a fine practice for some people, but for me I find it so stressful that I’m there because I want to do it, but that it makes me a bad performer and it’s overwhelming and I feel like it’s not what I think I should be getting out of dance. But as a choreographer and a director, it is important to make sure that I am creating an environment where people aren’t stressed out and where they can perform the work and think about the work in whatever process works for them.
[Images courtesy of Ayano Elson]