Interview with Beyond the Box Curator Rika Lin

Chicago-area native, Yoshinojo Fujima (a.k.a Rika Lin) is an interdisciplinary performing artist, based as a Japanese classical dancer/choreographer. She received her professional name in 2006 as a member of the Fujima School of Classical Dance in Japan and has attained her grandmastership, which certifies her with a shihan (teaching license). She has performed in collaborations with Asian Improv aRts MidWest, Tsukasa Taiko, Tatsu Aoki’s the Miyumi Project, and was featured in the 2016 Chicago Jazz Festival at the J. Pritzker Pavilion. She has recently finished her show “Quantum Monk” at Links Hall. An active performing member of Toyoaki Shamisen, she also coordinates the performances for Shubukai, the classical Japanese dance troupe in Chicago. This year, she has been awarded the Links Hall Artistic Associate Curatorial Residency for the 2017 season, for her “Beyond the Box” presentation/series.

 

This interview has been edited for length, clarity, and content.

 

Patricia Nguyen: Before we delve into the specifics of the series, I’d like to ask what inspired you to develop the concept.

 

Rika Lin: I think one of the main reasons is that I was born and raised in Chicago, but with Japanese parents. The various trials and tribulations of not belonging to the mainstream populace have had an effect on who I am as a person and how I identify as a Japanese person in America or as a Japanese-American, but not in the traditional Issei-Nisei sociology applied to the post-World War 2 populace.

 

Growing up and being introduced to Japanese classical dance, I was trying to find a way to I fit in. My mother forced me to try it (dance) and it was very traditional, very rigid, very conservative, but I embraced it because it was something that my parents came from. I practiced and trained and was indoctrinated into Japanese cultural aesthetics of how things should be done because that’s how they’re done. Meanwhile, I was not in Japan, so I couldn’t perfect;y copy the art in the way that it was “supposed” to be. So this project was necessarily going to be not traditional and “Beyond The Box” is a metaphor of testing and exploring the traditional Kabuki dance concepts.

 

Patricia: You mentioned training in various Japanese cultural aesthetics and practices. Can you name what those practices were?

 

Rika: That’s a good question. The first thing would be a comparison of how it’s taught; dance is vicariously learned. In dance and music, you are shown how to do it, and have to watch it, and you have to steal the techniques and stylizations as much as you can from your teacher. And that’s kind of imprinted on you.

 

Another practice that is absorbed from training with a teacher is the particular presentation or performing of the different genders. But the thing is, your body is different from your teacher, your gender may be different, your age is different–so your perception of when and where and why you are learning the genders at that moment is going to be different from when your teacher learned it. You’re going to have to remix it and understand it in your own way and present it.

 

Especially since the advent of YouTube, everyone thinks they can just learn something by watching it. But the “essence” of the thing ends up missing when you learn just by watching something online. A part of that essence is the language. But even when I was absorbing dance in the original Japanese, it was still sent through the filter of my American experience. We have to go that extra step, we can’t just say “Well, I don’t need to do traditional arts because I’m Japanese so whatever I do is Japanese.”

 

Patricia: How did being Japanese-American in Chicago inform the creation of this project and your development as an artist? How do your identities and relationships help you understand the parameters and definition of Japanese Art?

 

Rika: It was always an issue when my family would visit all the rest of the family in Japan. When we visited, it was always “Oh, you’re Americans.” Over here, it’s “Oh, you’re Japanese.” Then you start trying to balance both and hopefully reach a happy medium of having the “best of both” cultures. You don’t have to pick one side, but you have to make sure that you embrace both. And you can’t claim to be one or the other because you’re not going to be fully accepted by either side. It’s better just to take what you can and run. That’s why the pieces I picked not only have to do with cultural identity and ethnic identity, they also deal with gender identity and gender roles. And this will affect the presentations which in turn will affect what the audience sees.

 

Patricia: Can you talk more about each piece and why you chose it?

 

Rika: The first one is Mai Ougi, which is a kabuki piece. The main character is a very strong, unyielding female character who confronts the traditional trappings typically attributed to the female role in Kabuki. In classical dance, it’s mostly all 45 degree angles. But in the traditional showing of Mai Ougi, they pull away the sheet and the main character is seen facing straight out into the audience. You never do that. It’s already a statement because Kabuki was very much a popular culture in the Edo period.

 

The story is set in during a war, and to see her lover one more time, the main character has to hide her feelings and actually perform for the enemy general. There’s drama behind the conflict because she has to go into the enemy territory, but she’s doing it for love. Her decisions are out-of-character from how traditional women would have behaved because she’s doing it for herself. But what is not shown is how it affects her internally. That’s the performance I’ll be in.

 

The second performance will be the second installment of Quantum Monk, which was originally performed with Tatsu Aoki and Rami Atassi. We used the original classical track and then blended and manipulated it into an experimental composition. I’m also working with Eric Leonardson, who is a soundscape artist and engineer to create a 21st century environment.

 

The story is about a traveling monk who goes throughout the countryside begging and giving prayers out to the common people, unlike the monks of the temples. The role of a Traveling Monk is ascribed certain attributes such as being pious and humble. But in actuality, he is taking the donations and buying liquor and women, so it’s out of character. By changing the gender of the monk, I’m alluding to all those assumptions that society puts on a woman what your role is, what your job is, and not trying to be bluntly obvious about it.

 

The next one is called Swathe, featuring Ayako Kato based on a piece called Kasane. Now, a lot of Kabuki plays were written by men and performed by men. So when a man played the role of a woman, he had to make sure he sat like a woman. He had to make the audience think “that’s a woman on stage”. And to do that, he needed to present a highly polished, idealized version of a woman in Kabuki.

 

The story is about a woman named Kasane whose plight is to live through the emotional turmoil caused by her father’s misdeeds, misfortunes, and jealousies which are transferred onto her. Women were supposed to be demure, meek, obedient, humble, loyal to their husband, or whoever their male figure was. So Kasane comes back from the dead as a ghost because she couldn’t express her emotions outside of those traditional roles. How else could she reveal all of this rage unless it was through supernatural powers? She doesn’t exact revenge as a ghost, but she realizes what happened to her.

 

Ayako-san puts her completely contemporary aspect onto the story. When we first talked about it, all I said was “here’s the concept, and let’s see what happens.” It’s always interesting to see what she chooses to focus on for the audience to see. Gender expression plays a part in gender roles, and the piece will incorporate this.

 

The final two performances will be with Lenora Lee and we will present “Anger in the Bell”. This is based on one of the three big dance numbers in the Kabuki show titled Musume Dojoji. (As a Japanese classical dancer, you better have danced one of these!) Musume Dojoji is the story is about a courtesan who falls in love with a monk who spurns her. She goes mad, but of course women were not allowed to be angry or defiant, especially towards men or monks. In the original story, she chases the monk who runs away to a temple celebrating the hanging of a new temple bell. And as he hides inside the huge bell, she burns him alive and transforms herself into a demon snake (the embodiment of her anguish and rage).

 

Lenora, with her immersive dance, will present contemporary side of the character in a contemporary costume. I’ll be in it just a little bit as the traditional side in the traditional costume. That way, two parallels of character will be presented.

 

Patricia: Can you talk more about the history and art of Kabuki?

 

Rika: Kabuki is attributed to a woman named Okuni and her group of Temple maidens who would dance in the river bed for donations. She built a reputation as someone who would dress “rather inappropriately” in men’s clothing and do “outlandish things”. Their popularity grew and the government began trying to put a damper on Kabuki because fans were fighting over getting favors and other illicit things as well. They forbade any woman from performing these “horrible dances”. At that point, it was just dancing and it wasn’t quite theater yet.

 

So then young boys started to perform the roles instead of women. But that didn’t stop the illicit activities and fighting among their fans for their favorite actors–these young boys. So again the government stepped in. And when the young boys were forbidden to perform, mature men were the only ones who could perform.

 

That’s how the role of the woman impersonator was born in Kabuki about 400 years ago, and now it’s mature males who perform both male and female roles. In those days, the issues of gender identity and homosexuality were acknowledged and present. It was only around the 20th century that there was a more conservative stance surrounding the artform. So now in the 21st century with Beyond the Box, I think it’s an excellent opportunity to use these pieces to acknowledge and expand upon women’s roles as well as gender identity.

 

Patricia: What do you want people to walk away with from this series?

 

Rika: I think you can never assume what kind of knowledge or experiences the audience will have coming in, so I can only hope to contribute in my efforts toward creating art and making a statement as a Japanese-American, woman artist — they can see that there’s a place for this kind of art to occur and hopefully it won’t be just a rare occurrence for them.

 

Patricia Nguyen is an artist, educator, and scholar who was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. As a child of refugees, her performance work is grounded in her family’s stories to critically engage with issues of forced migration, notions of freedom, inherited war trauma, memory, home, and healing. In her practice as a performance artist, she works creating durational performances and devised theater pieces that bring together oral histories of Vietnamese/American refugees through poetry and labor intensive movements while working with a juxtaposition between natural and fabricated materials (such as water, soil, fish sauce, fabric, and plastics). Her work in installation art seeks to play with the tactile and sensorial affects of audience witnessing and participation. Presently, she is experimenting with the place of ephemerality in performance and installation, asking, “how can we archive an experience?” and “where does the body dis/appear in installation art?”

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