Interview With Beyond the Box Artist Ayako Kato

Ayako Kato is an award-winning Japanese native and Chicago-based dancer, choreographer, improviser, teacher, and curator.Influenced by a Japanese view of nature and the philosophy of Tao,Ayako’s dance movementencourages the audience to perceivethe intangible, the beauty of being as it is,whichaffirms and nurtures theephemeral nature and dignity of life. In 2016, she received a 3Arts Award in Dance. She performed her works recently atvenues/festivals such as3Klang Tage, Switzerland; DOEK, Amsterdam, Holland; the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, New Haven, CT; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; SpinOff Festival, Chicago Cultural Center. In Summer2016, Ayako participated inthe Regional Dance Development Initiative (RDDI) of its National Dance Project (NDP) funded bythe New England Foundation for the Arts with the Chicago Dancemakers Forum (CDF), andalso performedblue fish -reveal-in Tabito Arts Meeting Festivalin Fukushima, Japan.Her recent group workThe Incidentswas selected for the Best of Dance 2014 in Chicago Tribune.Since 2010, Ayako has been an artist in residence at the Hamlin ParkFieldhouse Theater under Chicago Moving Company’s Dance Shelter Program.

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

Patricia: Thank you so much for taking the time to interview with me. It’s an honor to sit here with you, learn more about your creative practice and your work with the Beyond the Box series.

Ayako: Hello, my name is Ayako Kato and I am a dancer and choreographer. I am originally from Japan, and I have been in Chicago for 12 years. For Beyond the Box, Rika asked me to create a work based on the Japanese Kabuki piece called Kasane. Although Kabuki could not be performed by women in the past, the story of Kasane interestingly depicted how traditional Japanese women acted and were treated.

Patricia: What are you most excited about in terms of being a part of Beyond The Box?

Ayako: This is my first time collaborating with a classical Japanese dancer! I perform contemporary or modern dance now, but my background is in ballet, which is technical, very demanding. On the other hand, in Japanese classical dance, you don’t spend one or two hours on warm up like you do in ballet. There’s a difference in process and the way of practicing that comes from how we move our bodies to express.

As a performer, sustaining presence is very important. And I’m learning and experiencing the differences between different dance forms about this presence: the ways we walk, move, and perform certain gestures. It’s totally, totally different! And I am enjoying the differences between the forms.

Patricia: How do your training from ballet and your current practice in modern dance integrate into your performance for Beyond the Box?

Ayako: From 1996 to 1998, I went to University of Michigan for an MFA in dance. There, I noticed that I don’t know how to performance any ‘instant movements’. So first, I started doing Tai Chi at Michigan. Then, during summer break and after I graduated, I practiced Noh theater dance and butoh in Japan.

Noh theater is an older form than Kabuki. The form really charges up with this push and pull through the dance. The movement and tempo is very slow and so minimal, but so expressive–it’s really amazing. Training in noh taught me that movement really comes from the core. Of course, in ballet and modern dance, you need to have the core. But in noh theater, you need to charge to express. The movement comes from inside the core, rather than from jumping, kicking high, or a fast tempo. I always think of the butterfly effect–if a butterfly can change the course of weather, then why not human movement?

From moving quickly to moving slowly has been a process for the past 20 years. Recently, I have been developing and investigating the question “what is movement?”. My dancing can be very slow and even include stillness. In a way, it’s closer to Japanese classical dance in that it’s not too extraneous like in modern dance or ballet

It merges nicely with Rika’s dance, and I can perceive how her dance can be “beyond the box.”

Patricia: How do your aesthetics and cultural identity shape your creative practice?

Ayako: In Japanese classical dance, men and women characters have certain roles, and their roles are very clear. Rika showed me how men walk, or how women sit. But as a contemporary dancer, I always walk as a human, as myself. I don’t really “practice” how to walk as a woman or as a man.

When I dance, I try to convey the beauty of being as I am, like wind flowing. This is based on Japanese aesthetics. When we reflect upon our similar nature of being, and on the dignity of life, we sense how every moment is so precious. We start to feel the equity of being. When I create movement, I try to convey the essence and help you perceive your ‘you-ness’ and my ‘myself-ness’ or ‘other-ness’. That’s why even just standing still, that existence can connect all the way through from inner to outside. Everything is moving around us. In that way, I create my work.

Patricia: How can the traditional art of Kabuki offer contemporary relevance on topics like gender or sexuality?

Ayako: First of all, when Rika recommended me to watch this piece, Kasane, I almost felt anger because the script was written by a man. All Kabuki scripts were written by men, and all women characters were performed by men. So essentially, women were depicted in the way guys wanted women to be. It’s so biased.

Because I don’t live in Japan nowadays, I’m not exactly sure, but Kabuki really only depicts women in traditional roles. Rika’s aim is to elevate the form of Japanese classical dance to a new stage. Sort of beyond, or out of the past. In a way, it’s very interesting because the reason why Kabuki, Noh, and Japanese classical dance have survived is because they have successfully transformed with the times, even as they continue to be rooted in the original forms.

The challenge of going beyond, the way I see it, is in redefining the roots in ourselves. For example, I don’t think equality means all people doing the same thing. Equality means people finding their own nature and being able to develop their natures, as they are. The way they can move as a human. That’s the challenge for me: to work on this piece with Rika. But differently, we have nature — women nature. It’s the beauty of it that exists.

Patricia: What do you want people to experience or walk away with from your performance?

Ayako: I definitely want them to wonder about who they are and want they want, as a human. The most important thing is finding who you are, finding good space and time. I want to create a moment for the audience to reflect upon how we act in society.

Patricia: Are there any last things you want to say?

Ayako: One interesting thing I felt coming here after growing up in Japan was a realization or feeling of what my expectations were as a woman. I learned how to peel those off to be more like ‘Ayako’ through dance. But Rika, on the other hand, grew up here. She’s a rich ‘Rika’; when Rika dances or acts, she does it perfectly because she learned and practices to move as a man or as a woman through Japanese classical dance. But when she walks as ‘Rika’, she is so ‘Rika’. On the other hand, I have been practicing to move as ‘Ayako’ through dance. So we are almost approaching gender from opposite ends. It is so interesting.


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?”