Recently, in this exclusive interview, we caught up with superstar choreographer and founder of ISHIDA, Brett Ishida, on her point of view toward contemporary dance. The upcoming performances in her latest work, Faraway, so close, happen in Austin August 13–14 at Dell Fine Arts Center at St. Andrew’s and in Houston August 19–21 at MATCH Midtown Arts & Theater Center. At IshidaDance.org
By Lance Avery Morgan Photography courtesy of ISHIDA
LANCE AVERY MORGAN: What is the significance of contemporary dance as the world begins to recover from the pandemic–what are the healing aspects it can offer to your audience?
BRETT ISHIDA: Over two thousand years ago in ancient Greece, citizens attended Greek tragedy; it was one’s civic duty. These plays informed society of its moral code. The performances were cathartic and the personal narratives portrayed connected to audiences emotionally, creating space to hold the spectrum of human experience, from joy and lightness to the dark, difficult aspects of the human condition. Through performance, individuals and society at large were able to reflect on, grapple with, and ultimately grow in the face of innate human experiences from desire, jealousy, and loneliness to belonging, hope, fragility, and mortality.
In the wake of COVID-19, attending live performances gives each of us a renewed chance to process the trauma of the pandemic in community, just as they did in ancient Greece. ISHIDA’s contemporary narratives mirror the ethos of the communal civic duty of Greek tragedy. My work invites existential questions and emotional connection, allowing audiences to extract personal meaning because there is a narrative thread expressed through the movement that is relatable and universal.
LAM: Being universal begs the question, why do you think contemporary ballet continues to be a favorite performing art for audiences across the world?
BI: I think there is an alluring visual and physical aesthetic to ballet that’s mesmerizing, and I draw on this classical foundation for my work. I combine the beauty of the human form from traditional ballet with theatrical, grounded, fluid movement that expresses the everyday being. I don’t want audiences to say after watching one of my pieces, “I don’t get it,” so I create unique poetic narratives to help audiences attach emotionally to my work and empathize with the characters/dancers on stage. As an audience member, you don’t need to “get” it because you feel it: you are swept up and reflected back in the visual story.
LAM: Speaking of reflections, how different is contemporary dance–and its audiences – across the world vs. to here in the U.S?
BI: Much of contemporary dance, particularly in the U.S., seeks to represent a certain culture or address social issues. Although ISHIDA Dance is not without social messages and context, my poetic narratives are first and foremost universal and yet personal, asking each of us to connect to existential questions of Being. Ultimately, my work is different in several ways, which taken as a whole, suggests ISHIDA is unique to U.S. dance companies today. I am working hard to find dancers that express themselves through contemporary movement, yet retain the beauty of the human form that many of us love about classical ballet.
I am relentless in my pursuit of a visual aesthetic which encompasses dramaturgy, lighting, stage design, and sound and music. My work seeks to fill the creative space between fairy tales in traditional ballet and themed dances of the often highly abstract world of contemporary dance. Although ISHIDA pursues some of the patterns and interesting movements seen in contemporary dance, my work is always driven by a unique narrative. I’m working from an original storyboard/script within a modern context to connect to audience’s emotions and psyche.
LAM: Regarding emotions and psyche, how has your Japanese heritage informed your subject matters and work?
BI: I grew up a in rural community, primarily white and Hispanic, with very few Asians. I was hyper as a child and my mom says I was always dancing spontaneously, so she put me in tap, tumbling, and ballet classes. I immediately was smitten with ballet and knew I wanted to be a professional ballerina when I grew up. I didn’t look like other children and even at a young age, I was already passionate about something (dance) that most children weren’t that focused on. I didn’t have many friends as a youngster in this context, so growing up, I felt isolated and alone. To escape these feelings, I’d create my own stories through dance in my bedroom and at my grandparents’ modest citrus farm between trees on the dirt roads.
Dancing in the landscape from which I came provided solace, but that landscape, and the family who has inhabited it for generations, also shaped and informed me and the stories I tell. As a choreographer and artistic director, I hope to create space for that creative interplay for each of ISHIDA’s dancers. As a female artist of color, I cultivate a safe, collaborative environment in which participants’ culture and history is treated as an asset to be shared.
LAM: On the subject of assets, how did studying the Greek classics support your career and what you’ve created?
BI: Studying literature at UCLA, Attic Greek (the Greek dialect of the ancient region of Attica), Greek philosophy which utilizes various poetic structures, and ancient Greek tragedy which is written in iambic trimeter, has had a direct and significant influence on ISHIDA Dance. I structure my narratives using conceits of Ancient Greek language and culture, which then influences the choreographic process. I harness fundamental narrative devices seen in ancient Greek tragedy which were also noted by Shakespeare and many other great playwrights. The communal experience of Greek tragedy in its social and historical context united the moral code of its citizens and encouraged thinking about Otherness. The intent of my work has the same motivation—to play with the tension between the collective and the individual experience. How do they define and inform one another and what can we learn from each?
LAM: Brett, can you describe your creative process in developing the choreography for your latest project?
BI: Before I get into a studio, I engage in a rigorous writing process. I start by creating poetic fragments. From there, I develop a structure for the work similar to that of a play. With this framework, I start to create movement that stems from the context of the plot, the character development and his/her/their motives for being. It is a collaborative process in that the dancers bring their individuality and personal experience to the work. One of my dancers said that my creative process was like going to therapy. My work encourages self-awareness and a heightened awareness of the presence and experience of others, too. My hope is that the process of creating and watching dance prompts introspection in each of the artists with whom I work and each of the audience members who will ultimately see that work. By creating basic structures that leave room for the process of further creation, expression, and interpretation, I hope to foster curiosity in both artist and spectator and afford the opportunity for deep meditation on Being and the possibilities for becoming more other-centric.
LAM: What is it like to collaborate with guest choreographers like Bret Easterling and Kristian Lever?
BI: I not only choreograph, but I also curate all programming for ISHIDA Dance. I do extensive research before inviting a choreographer to create with the company. The guest choreographers I choose are extremely talented choreographic voices and devoted artists who have had extensive dance careers with renown international companies from all over the world. Bret is a former member of Batsheva, creating and performing works by Ohad Naharin, and now sets his work with universities and professional companies. Kristian is a former dancer with Hamburg Ballet and an award-winning choreographer. He has created works with dancers from the Dutch contemporary dance company Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) and Royal Danish Ballet. They both are creating important contemporary work in the field of dance engaging and connecting to audiences in a tangible, meaningful way. And yet, their work is not typically presented in Texas. These pieces will be world premieres. It is a pleasure to know and work with each of them.
LAM: Why are you excited about bringing Faraway, So Close in Houston and Austin soon?
BI: I am excited to bring this program to Houston and Austin because it is a program that explores hardships and suffering and yet celebrates our fragility and the beauty of Being in time.
Faraway, so close is a title indebted to a Wim Wenders’ film that is really an existential poem about love and mortality. The story follows an angel that is drawn to this lonely mortal woman on Earth because the things she feels, he feels, too, and he falls in love with her from afar. Though they don’t connect on the same plane of being—she can’t see him and he can see her, but he can’t touch her skin—we sense that, perhaps, she feels his presence or the presence of something Other. There’s suffering, longing, and tenderness; the angel seems to truly understand her loneliness.
This film is also a nod to the film geniuses of Wenders’ time. For me, I’m also indebted to the poets and choreographers I’ve worked with. This program, in a way, is a nod to them and to a memory of a dear friend who was consumed by depression and loneliness and took his life. He remains so close in memory, and like the angel, I continue to love him from afar.