After interviewing Kokoro Dance's Barbara Bourget on Tuesday, I returned to the company's offices at Woodward's yesterday to interview Jay Hirabayashi. Beginning, as usual, with our "when" question (i.e. when dance/when Vancouver), I learned that, remarkably, Jay only began dancing at age 30 and, even more extraordinarily, he was invited to join his first company after only nine months of study. To explain.
Jay had come to Vancouver in 1973 to do graduate work in Buddhist Studies at UBC. He had no connection to dance at that time, but he had been a competitive downhill skier. As a result of an accident at the Canadian national championships in Whistler a few years earlier (a fascinating story in and of itself), Jay had blown out one of his knees; after consulting the physician to the BC Lions, he underwent corrective surgery, a long and painful process in those pre-orthoscopic days. Around the same time, Jay and his first wife had enrolled their daughter in dance class, and had chosen the Paula Ross dance studio. Noting that Paula offered beginner adult classes, and thinking that dance would help with rehabilitating his knee, Jay signed up for a class. He liked it, and soon he was taking three classes a day. It wasn't too long before Paula, liking what she saw, offered Jay a scholarship to pay for full-time dance studies. And then, after less than a year of training, came the invitation to join her company.
Jay danced for Paula from 1978-80, during which time he met Barbara. Jay and Barbara both separately confirmed to me that while Paula was an amazing choreographer, she was a volatile person, with a habit of firing people. After one episode in which she kicked everyone out of the studio, telling them not to come back unless they were willing to work twice as hard, Jay and Barbara quit. Two years later, and after a brief stint working with Mountain Dance, the initial seeds of EDAM began to take shape. Jay filled in some additional detail on how this happened by explaining Karen Jamieson's crucial role in hiring most of the eventual EDAM co-founders to dance in her piece Coming Out of Chaos. Having gotten to know each other as a result of that process, the idea for a collective was born. And that idea, as Jay also confirmed, was at base altruistic: share a studio and dance in each other's work in order to save money and be as creative as possible. But differences in style and training, combined with seven strong personalities, meant that things were a struggle from the get-go. There was also the issue of management, which Jay said they tried to resolve by appointing an individual AD for each project, and then eventually by hiring a company manager. But it was what both Jay and Barbara described as the Expo 86 debacle of presenting an early multi-media and immersive piece called Bach to the Future that was the straw that broke the camel's back for the two of them. They left EDAM after that show and established Kokoro shortly thereafter.
Jay, noting that Kokoro's approach to butoh evolved through a combination of self-instruction through research and workshops with visiting companies, and eventually trips to Japan (where Jay studied with Kazuo Ohno in 1995), said that the company's style is beholden to no particular tradition of butoh (e.g. the Ohno versus Tatsumi Hijikata traditions). It is easier for them to say that their movement is influenced by butoh rather than to call themselves a butoh company per se. This was offered in the context of Jay's discussion of some favourite and memorable performances over the years, including Episode in Blue, which was a musical based on Nabokov's retelling of the Faust story in The Master and Margarita, and which employed 16 mm film projections (on which Jay appeared as the devil) and audience participation. It was a critical disaster though to this day Jay insists it was brilliant and ahead of its time in its combining of different media. Then there was the story of Jay passing out during a performance of Bats, in which Jay is suspended upside down by his feet. On this particular performance he had tied the ropes that secure him around his chest too tightly, and he began to have trouble breathing, eventually losing consciousness. He woke himself up with a sneeze, and realizing he couldn't get anyone's attention, he concentrated on breathing very shallowly until the end of the performance and someone came to cut him down.
At the end of our time together, when I asked the "why" question--as in, why do this, why keep going, especially in Vancouver--Jay said he never really thinks of stuff like that. He just thinks about getting through the work to be done one day at a time. He admitted that he has never really been practical and strategic about that work, that running two organizations (Kokoro and VIDF), and now having taken over the management of KW Studios, is somewhat absurd given they have no real full-time staff apart from he and Barbara. But what motivates Jay is, in his words, that there "are always things that are yet to be done that need to be done." And so he keeps on doing.