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Izumonookunl: a multidisciplinary, multigenerational ode to Kabuki takes the stage

April 21, 2023

Courtesy of Peter Raper
A FAMILY AFFAIR: Professor of Dance Aretha Aoki on stage. Last Saturday, Aoki was accompanied by her husband and daughter as she performed a dance inspired by the shrine maiden Izumo no Okuni.

Bright lights, a disco ball, a swing and a two-foot layer of fog accompanied Assistant Professor of Dance Aretha Aoki as she took to the stage last Saturday in her multidisciplinary dance performance: IzumonookunI. On either side of Aoki were her fellow performers: her husband Ryan MacDonald and their six-year-old daughter, Frankie.

The piece draws inspiration from the shrine maiden Izumo no Okuni, the founder of the Kabuki dance style, who lived in 17th century Japan. With a long and eccentric history, Kabuki has gone through numerous iterations—from feminist beginnings, to patrilineal tradition, to the style of cis-gendered female outcasts and prostitutes. Originally danced by women playing the parts of men, the style now is the opposite: male dancers playing all the parts.

After the relationship between the artform and prostitution had been illuminated, women were banned from the practice in an act of “moral reform,” as Aoki puts it.

Today, the artform is only studied by men and maintains this patrilineality.

“You have to be kind of born into [certain] families to be able to study it. So it’s not something that I could ever study,” Aoki said.

To Aoki and MacDonald, Izumo no Okuni is something of a punk rock figure with a similar visual appeal to that of David Bowie. Aoki finds this visual appeal reflected in the movements of her performance themselves.

“At this point, we’re not really incorporating punk music, it’s just certain aspects of that aesthetic of the ethos, the do-it-yourself ethos of punk rock,” Aoki said.

A secondary but prevalent theme of the piece was Aoki’s family, her fellow and beloved performers. In her mind, Aoki places Ryan MacDonald as her first audience member while she creates her work, and he does the same. The two have been collaborating for over ten years, and Frankie joined this collaboration even before she was born.

“In our last piece, ‘Wind in the Pines,’ I was pregnant with her through the making of it. So I’d like to think, actually, we were collaborating,” Aoki said. “I love it. I feel so fortunate. Ryan and I say this about finding people that you really connect with. Artistry is so special, and we have developed a language over time.”

Situated upstage, left, perched on a blue cloth swing, Frankie contributed through improvisation and an on-stage representation of family. Since they already had the swing, and Frankie was so comfortable improvising with her parents, MacDonald decided to combine the two.

“It was like, well, maybe we should put the swing on stage and that’ll make you feel comfortable and she was like, I would love that,” Aoki said. “She was really excited, and as it turned out, all of those movements that she did in the piece were essentially hers, so we didn’t script it or tell her to do it.”

Audience member Ruby Fyffe ’26 interpreted Frankie’s involvement as a commentary on family.

“I honestly liked how many transitions there were, it felt like I was following her through some change in her life,” Fyffe said. “I just thought it was so cool…. [My mind] immediately went to the struggles of motherhood.… So, having a child in the background, that was great.”

According to Aoki, the reception of her performance has been very positive, especially from students at the College.

“I wasn’t sure how people were going to receive it. It’s pretty wild. It’s pretty out there. I think it’s probably unusual in terms of what people think of dance, what can be done with the form of dance,” Aoki said.

Up next, the trio plans to perform the piece for the Bates Dance Festival in 2024, this time incorporating live taiko drumming by the first intergenerational all-women taiko group in Canada.


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