Dance Notes: Yoshiko Chuma's vision of America | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Dance Notes: Yoshiko Chuma's vision of America 

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"Just walk," says Yoshiko Chuma, artist in residence at MoMing Dance & Arts Center. "Make it a regular walk. Not so serious. Not so important."

Walking may not be important. But under the direction of this remarkable choreographer and performance artist from New York, it becomes as complicated and difficult as any Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers routine. Chuma's dancers walk, sit down, stand up, uncross their legs, and even yawn with breathtaking precision, all to the accompaniment of a furious rhumba beat.

Some dancers find the execution of such undancerly movement a bit overwhelming. "My biggest obstacle has been trying to do things simply," says Louise Green, who has participated in Chuma's workshop for the past three weeks. "I'm a professional dancer, and I've developed a great awareness of my body. But in Yoshiko's workshop, it just gets in the way."

While Chuma asks her dancers to perform simple "tasks," she orchestrates these tasks at a breakneck pace. Her dancers move from laughing to crying to applauding to imitating the Beatles in a matter of 30 seconds.

"It's like changing channels quickly on television," she explains to her dancers. "Always interruptions. In America you interrupt each other all the time. You talk and in two minutes you've forgotten what you were talking about before."

Yoshiko Chuma, artistic director of the fast-paced performance company the School of Hard Knocks, which emerged from New York's East Village in 1982, sees American culture through an intriguing lens. Arriving in America from her native Japan in 1977 was something like stepping onto a huge soundstage.

"I grew up in Japan on I Love Lucy and Perry Mason," she says, "and game shows like . . . 'Say the Price Right' or something. It's an incredible amount of information going from the United States to Japan."

But for Chuma, such televised spectacles seemed to emanate from a kind of fantasy netherworld, not from the "real world of the United States." Now living in this country, she sees the "real" American world as dangerously similar to The Price Is Right.

"Every each small subject can be very important in front of a mass media," she explains. "A gossipy subject can become news. It's a selling attitude. We realize that. But the realities are more than we realize."

For her Chicago performance, Chuma is focusing on ordinary, overlooked moments of our daily lives.

"Do you pick up the toothbrush first or the toothpaste first?" she asks with a smile. "You do every day same thing but almost with no consciousness. So here the director comes, and I ask, 'How do you do that?' I ask each performer, 'When you sit in a chair, how do you sit in a chair?' The performer is formalizing, and can therefore be more free."

To add to the self-consciousness she wants her dancers to experience, she has placed them among the theater seats. The audience will watch from onstage.

"My work is about oppositions," she explains. "By reversing the audience and performers, everything becomes a recognition of what you are doing."

Perhaps the strongest opposition in Chuma's work exists between the audience's expectation of seeing a finished work and the artist's devotion to the process of rehearsal.

"A lot of people talk about goal," she says, "and I no really understand what they mean, goal. Everything is a process. You can't expect to achieve a goal in your life. I try to show that in my performance. We're not goal, just process."

The process by which Chuma creates her work is thorough, patient, and personal. In workshop, she elicits anecdotes about living in Chicago for her dancers to use in the performance. When one dancer claims that she has nothing to tell, Chuma quietly questions her until finally she is busily talking about her apartment in Lincoln Park. "You see," Chuma congratulates her, "you have a story."

Of course, asking a dancer to speak in performance can cause problems. "The hardest thing for all of us has been talking without acting," Green continues. "To just speak without making a presentation has been very difficult."

Chuma understands the frustrations of her dancers. "These people are not actors or actresses," she explains. She just wants them to honestly tell their stories. "I want them to talk and repeat and talk and use their imagination. I don't expect them to remember exactly what they say. It's their story."

Chuma's work is not always simple and personal, as her Chicago workshop would suggest. The Big Picture, a large-scale "performance opera" that the School of Hard Knocks presented earlier this year, incorporated the aerial-view paintings of Yvonne Jacquette and the singing of pop star Nona Hendryx. The Housing Project, created in 1986, was a two-and-a-half-hour extravaganza in which a house was built onstage.

Whether personal or public, Chuma's work seems to elude most critics. Many describe her performance pieces as subversions of American pop culture, which dissatisfies Chuma. The less daring resort to merely listing all of the many odd props that she uses, such as megaphones and huge toothbrushes.

"People ask me what the meaning is," she explains. "I say, 'No meaning.' People come to my performances and get confused. That's good. But some people think about nothing. They say, 'It's nothing. No meaning.' I'm not drawing. I'm not saying that the audience must see things one way."

While the images that Chuma creates are certainly meaningful, perhaps she is more enamored of information than meaning.

"Everyone walking by has a not-so-bright face," she says, pointing to pedestrians on the street. "So you don't need to say that it's summer and it's hot.

"I'm not trying to say that this man walking by is important. I'm not making descriptions. When you see it, that's it."

Yoshiko Chuma's workshop will be showcased at MoMing in an evening of performances titled "Dance Expo '87" on July 31 and August 1 and 2. Also included in the program will be workshop performances led by Jackie Radis, artistic director of MoMing, and Bob Eisen. The performances begin at 8:30 on Friday and Saturday and 7:30 on Sunday, and admission is $5. MoMing is located at 1034 W. Barry in Chicago, 472-9894.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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