It’s a week before opening night when, during a break in rehearsal, dancer-choreographer Yayoi Kambara reminisces about the 2011 ceremony at Oakland’s glamorous Paramount Theater in which she became a naturalized U.S. citizen. “I was really moved,” she recalls. “We were such a large group of people of so many languages, colors and hopes.”
The memory is ever more meaningful to her current work. When we talk, Kambara is in preparations for her new dance work titled IKKAI: Once, running Jan. 19–20 at ODC Theater, which reflects on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. As Kambara guides the fledgling ensemble of eight, formally known as KAMBARA + DANCERS, through intriguing formations and alternately tender and menacing interactions in a studio at the ODC Dance Commons, I note their striking individuality.
“I do like having dancers of different colors and shapes,” Kambara declares. “I think they like to work with me because we have a mutual understanding about being ‘other’ in this country. We all speak different languages — some are biracial, genderqueer, gay, coffee-colored, chocolate-colored, tan.”
The performance marks the inaugural home season for KAMBARA + DANCERS at the ODC Theater. As it turns out, the idea of ‘home’ is a fluid one for Kambara. Born in Japan, her family moved to the U.S. when she was six, and also lived for a time in England. She says that issues around citizenship have increasingly preoccupied her as she witnesses the ugly confrontations around immigration in this country, and she worries about the future that awaits her young bi-racial daughters. “Though I feel we’re safe in San Francisco,” she adds, though her expression remains quizzical, as if she isn’t entirely sure.
Her own extended family, mostly in Japan, were not caught up in the American internments. But Kambara rightly notes that many Americans, especially outside California, are unfamiliar with this infamous episode in World War II history, which capped a long surge in anti-Japanese sentiment. And she shares growing fear over the demonization of immigrant communities, of the ‘other,’ in the era of Trump.
She says, lately, she has seen more about the wartime internments in the Japanese press. Japan is spooked by unstable leaders in both North Korea and the U.S. Thus, she believes “the fear of war and nuclear holocaust is on our collective minds. So, I think we feel the urge to revisit history.”
In the Bay Area, Kambara has been a compelling presence onstage not just with her 12-year stint with ODC Dance but as a freelance artist with other area troupes. As a performer, she enjoys a devoted following, many of whom eagerly support her new endeavors in choreography.
One such piece is On Trust, an interactive performance piece created last year at the Asian Art Museum. (It will be restaged for this upcoming season.) Danced to a soundtrack incorporating audio clips of people describing, often haltingly, what trust means to them, it was performed at the museum repeatedly within the span of two hours, as people walked through the performance exhibit space. Between the formal performances, the dancers wandered around the museum asking attendees to cut a piece of their costume away and write the name of someone they trusted on the strip. They collected the ragged strips and used them like confetti in their dance.
“It was an homage of sorts to Yoko Ono,” says Kambara, referring to Ono’s 1964 Cut Piece. “Some people were excited to use scissors so near the dancers’ skin, while others were nervous.”
It’s this kind of visceral curiosity, coupled with an impishness and generosity of spirit, that has infused Kambara’s work to date.
IKKAI:Once may be her most ambitious. For this, she mined the Densho Archives and interviewed survivors of the internment camps – third-generation Japanese-Americans including poet and activist Janice Mirikitani, Dr. Satsuki Ina, and Norman Fumiyo Ikeda. The interview clips reveal in poignant and stark detail the humiliations, the dislocations and deprivations suffered by the camp detainees. And, in the aftermath, the culture of silence, the desperate need to “not make a fuss,” the pressure to become model citizens. First names were changed and eyelids were scotch-taped – all in the struggle to fit in with white society. A track from spoken word artist and rapper Colin Masashi “Senbei” Ehara further drives home some scathing truths.
The performance’s mood, at least in rehearsal, is far from tragic. A vein of optimism shines through the darker material, and Kambara’s wit is evident in many intimate encounters between the dancers, as well as their manipulation of visual artist Dana Kawano’s eye-catching oil-paper umbrellas. Whether these elements coalesce onstage to serve as the wake-up call Kambara intends, the program as a whole – which includes the reprise of two very different pieces, Near and Dear and To.Get.Her – gives San Francisco audiences a look at the protean inventiveness of a young choreographic mind.
For more information on KAMBARA + DANCERS’ inaugural home season, running Jan. 19–20 at the ODC Theater in San Francisco, see here.