Choreographer Donna Uchizono’s much acclaimed Thin Air will be coming to the Walker this Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm (tickets here). We asked her a few questions about her movement, physics, and Buddhism.
WAC: Many press quotes mention your “unique movement vocabulary” – could you unpack that a little? What is your dance background, and what makes your personal style unique?
Donna Uchizono: I have been always interested in the research of a movement language that is appropriate to the work itself, so I create a movement vocabulary “unique” to each piece. I do not come into rehearsal with a set movement. With each new work I strive to create a new vocabulary that is driven by the concept or the work itself. I normally use a concept or an idea as a springboard for material, then I work with the dancers in creating a vocabulary. There is a point in the process where the dance itself starts to speak and then it’s about the dialogue you have with the work itself. Sometimes the piece wants to go in directions that you find surprising and in a direction away from where you thought it would or should go.
One aspect of the movement vocabulary that deserves “unpacking” as you put it, is that my movement vocabulary is so much more difficult to do than it appears and it certainly is true in this case. The dancers that have worked with me have always remarked how much harder the movement is to do than it looks. Levi Gonzalez, a dancer who worked with me for a very long time used to comment, “The audience has no idea how hard this really is.”
The opening of Thin Air seems so simple but requires so much focus and bravery really. The dancers cannot have one second of distraction or they are lost. And on top of it, one is perched above the ground in complete blackness, with no spatial orientation. It’s frightening really. And we found out during the tech of the premiere that one of the dancers actually has vertigo. Wild. When they finally get to come down they still can’t “touch” the ground and have to dance on an impossible-to-dance-on surface that is slippery and dangerous– and when that surface is finally removed, they have to do this technically difficult minute phrase.
I don’t intend to make things technically difficult. I really don’t. My movement vocabulary tends to end up challenging a dancer in technical ways that are not obvious. The virtuosity in my work is very subtle.
WAC: Thin Air is billed as drawing inspiration from a Buddhist tenet of emptiness. What does the tenet say, what is your relationship this principle, and how does that translate into movement?
DU: It’s funny sometimes… because some people assume I grew up Buddhist. But I grew up Christian, actually the daughter of a Methodist Minister. I have had a meditation practice (or sitting practice) that comes out of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for a long time and then I became interested in taking some of the study courses. So in 2006 I started taking a class on the Heart Sutra. Studying the Heart Sutra is a way of understanding how Buddhism understands reality. The Heart Sutra contains one of the most important ideas of Mahayana Buddhism–the principle of emptiness–and like many before me, I was quite struck with the study of its profound statement: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form”. How does that translate to movement?…hhmm…you’ll have to come and see.
WAC: The combination of physics, Buddhism, Fred Frith’s score, and Michael Casselli’s projection seems to be a lot of information to put into a piece about emptiness. What is the connection of these elements for you, and where, if anywhere, did you find difficulties bringing them together?
DU: I started creating this piece in 2006 and at that time I was taking this course on The Heart Sutra. While taking this class I realized that there were a lot of similarities between physics and the Buddhist tenet of emptiness. I started to be fascinated with this. When you come out of sitting in meditation for a long time, your perception of reality– or rather your experience of reality and the sense of time changes. I think that sense has leaked into the piece.
Like the Buddhist perspective, physicists state that reality is a mental construction, an idealization, which we have taken to be true. So taking the step from that idea of projected realities to ideas of projected images in space (using video) was a natural one.
According to Buddhist theory, reality is “virtual” in nature. What appears to be a “real” object initially, like trees and people, actually are transient illusions that result from a limited mode of awareness. So for example, I wanted to play with this idea of the “virtual” versus “real” and while thinking about it I had this idea of using the video image projected onto the performer in a way that plays with questions of what is real and what is virtual. The virtual layer of the video image makes the performer look more hyper real and dream-like simultaneously. And sometimes one cannot tell which is the live performer versus the virtual one. I also played with the idea that emptiness doesn’t mean nothingness. I had this idea of things existing in space even though we don’t see them until there is an event in which they are revealed. This led to this whole other section of the dance.
I think it’s important to clarify that I use concepts that I am interested in as a springboard, a point of departure from which to explore. So the piece is not “about” emptiness, but is inspired by the contemplation of that. I feel that one brain does not–or I guess I should say, that I do not–have the answers to anything, I don’t think anyone is that smart, so in the rehearsal process you connect to something that is larger than just you or the dancers or the collaborators. You listen to the process and that listening guides you into something that is bigger than you. And the audience comes in and enlarges the process and the sharing and dialogue continues into another experience.
Performances of Thin Air are at 8:00 pm, Thursday – Saturday, April 2-4.
Thurs. $18 ($15 Members), Fri-Sat $25 ($21 Members)
Purchase tickets online here, or call the Walker Box Office at 612.375.7600