How do I even begin to explain this past weekend—in which I threw my belongings into a small bag and hitched it to the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts for a Delicious Movement Workshop with the legendary Japanese dancer, Eiko Otake.
I first came across Otake’s work while researching Hibakusha Stories – the stories of the atomic bomb survivors. When I found out that she was professionally trained in Butoh by one of the dance form’s founders, Kazuo Ohno, AND that she was teaching only three hours away from me, I knew I needed to attend the workshop and learn everything I could from her.
One of my characters in my novel is a Butoh dancer, and I took this weekend as an opportunity to understand what it feels like for him to dance—which is one of the yummiest things about being a writer—exploring my many selves and interests for the sake of “researching” a character.
The Delicious Movement Workshop was located at Earthdance, an artist-run retreat center, which provides dance, somatic, and interdisciplinary arts training, with a focus on sustainability, social justice, and community. Set in the middle of the woods, we breathed green tree oxygen, ate fresh vegetarian food, and helped each other with chores and clean-up. For three days, I had a home away from home with the kindest of strangers.
In total, there were 22 of us, ranging in ages from 23 to late 50s. We were mostly artists (visual, dance, writing). A few dancers had worked with Eiko in the past, but for many of us, this was our first time, and we were in awe.
Delicious Movement Moments
Since there’s no way to truly replicate the experience of this weekend without demonstrating each activity sprawled out on the floor, I’m going to try my best to explain in words a few of my favorite moments of the weekend.
The Paper Dance*
Walk around the studio space with a blank piece of paper in your hands—don’t let it make a sound. Then, make as much sound as you can. Get comfortable with your paper.
Find a partner. Sit down and place both of your papers on the floor between you. Communicate (without talking) who will begin. Engage with the paper any way you like. Make it clear when each interaction is complete. Take turns. As you grow comfortable with each other and build trust, begin to use each other’s paper—become one flowing unit. Move, attempting to hit an “end” of the dance.
Next, we move individually, reenacting the paper’s journey. What does it feel like to be that paper? As half the group begins to move as paper, the other half of the group eventually comes over to try to calm us (the papers) down. Our task as paper, Eiko said, was to resist the people.
Later, I reflected on how I approached “moving” like paper. As the paper, I felt a deep history of abuse circulating throughout my fibers—feeling wanted for a spark of a moment, a tease, used only for a certain purpose that does not include everlasting love—then unwanted, mistreated, crumpled, thrown around. How often, I realized, we take advantage of each other, our environments, our everyday objects. When the person came to “calm me down,” I had so much of that attention I had been craving as paper, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted it, or I didn’t trust that it was an ephemeral desire to connect. I was slow to trust—I think the paper really did want to be loved and treated well. It didn’t want to get hurt again.
It’s pretty incredible that I was able to inhabit this deep root of humanity through embodying an inanimate object. But it’s not too abstract if you really consider how we could ask the same questions on the circumstances of being an adult: “What does it mean to have a wrinkle? For someone to come along and care for you? What is it like to care about a thing that’s not human?” The Paper Dance is a terrific “icebreaker” move. As Eiko told us, ‘You won’t know much more about the person internally, but you will have spent some time seeing and being seen.’
*Keep in mind that this was the very first activity of the workshop. On Day One! Yes, it only became more intense from here.
Body as a Landscape
Throughout the weekend, our bodies were not human shapes. Instead, we took on the landscape of the earth. Our torsos were mountains, our hands were gardens, blooming. We were growing comfortably, yet asymmetrically. Moving subtly, with purpose, like the earth spinning on its axis. We were twists of air.
At one moment, we were to find a partner, a fellow mountain, and begin to touch. We were equipped with the language of “hissing” in case we ever felt unsafe or too uncomfortable with a touch. At one point, I wasn’t sure which part of my partner I was touching. But then I discovered the watery elements of her hair, the ridge of her knuckle, and I could have stayed there for much longer. I’m intrigued with this new way of encountering another body, another life form. I hadn’t known I could connect with an unfamiliar body in this way, with so much ease.
We All Come From Water
In this exercise, we are sacks of water moving downstream. The river is the dance studio floor. Everyone lying on the floor is now a sack of water. Drip, Eiko says. Drop your water. Let it go. The water always comes. It will never run out. It comes in and goes out endlessly. We all come from water, she reminds us. We come from the sea. The same salt content. Think of that the next time you disagree with someone, we are all water. Our water may just be different, or springs from a different source. We close our eyes and move/survey/flow in a slowed, embryonic state, swimming downstream, through this stubborn molasses river. Time does not exist here…5…10…20 minutes may have elapsed. The only sound is that of the live water sacks around me breathing, rippling. And then, Eiko’s voice emerges from the deep: “Begin to calm yourself.” When she claps her hands, we are awakened from the hypnosis. The world a blur. I am reborn every time I open my eyes.
Finding Your Aesthetic
We had several chances throughout the workshop to split into groups and “watch each other” perform. The point of “watching” was not to critique what was good art or bad art. Instead, Eiko reminded us that every time we have the opportunity to observe art, we are finding our own aesthetic. This is an important lesson that can apply to all fields of art. For example, it’s not the performer or writer’s job to entertain you specifically. It’s your responsibility as a viewer or consumer to hold your criticism and use your reaction to the artist’s work to help narrow and define what your personal aesthetic and interests are. Every time we engage with a piece of art, whether it’s to our liking or not, is useful in assisting us to better understand ourselves.
Gratitude and Growth
This weekend has been one of the most singular transformative moments in my life, and I do not know if I will ever again feel the way I did through these exercises with Eiko. I am filled so deeply with gratitude for Eiko Otake, the generosity of Earthdance and the land of the Mohican (People of the Waters That Are Never Still), and the other sacks of water with whom I had the honor of sharing my dances, my surveillances, my discoveries.
Learn more about Eiko’s tenets of movement by reading her Delicious Movement Manifesto and her Personal Manifesto of an Artist as a Cultural Activist.