Ayako Kato performs To the Shore: ETHOS Episode I June 1 and 2 at the 2019 Pivot Arts Festival. Alexa Erbach, Pivot Arts marketing manager, interviewed Kato about her new work, which takes the audience on a transformative journey to the beach.

AE: Much of your work is influenced by “a Japanese view of nature” and the philosophy of Tao. Can you explain to our audiences who may or may not be familiar with this philosophy what it means and what originally attracted you to it?

AK: Furyu is a transformative moment of being—to flow into spiritual and sacred perception while still belonging to the world. In Japanese, “nature” means not only elements of the Earth, the cosmos, etc., but also “being as it is.” Meaning that we are constantly responsible for our own transformative state of being, in search of who we are, evolving together with others, following principles of nature in its cyclical thoroughness.

Growing up in the Tokyo area in the ’70s and ’80s during Japan’s rapid economic growth, I practiced classical ballet for fifteen years and was strongly influenced by Western culture, with its high value on success. After becoming a finalist in the All Japan Ballet Competition, I entered the International Studies Department in college and developed a further awareness of my privilege and the suffering of others around the world. I decided to stop dancing entirely and set out to find a profession that might be more helpful to society.

While backpacking through Europe when I was 19, I encountered an exhibition in Germany about Japan. At that time, Japan was going through bubble economics and was widely criticized for its inability to say “no” as a people. Back in Japan, I decided that I wanted to be able to describe the “ambiguous” Japanese to Westerners in order to erase barriers and soften cultural conflict. As as result, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the traditional aesthetic of  furyu (風流, wind flow), “being as it is.” My thesis incorporated ideas from haiku poet Basho, who pursued a furyu life and was influenced by Taoist Zhuangzi. I found Basho’s biographical essay Record of a Travel-Worn Satchel stating, “there is something in my body which keeps swaying and easily ripped by wind…because of this, I ended up becoming a useless poet…follow nature, be one with nature.” I noticed this “something” is “dance” in my case. Nature is the path and it teaches “The Way.”

My winding path eventually led me back to dance, and I realized that dance can serve as a conduit for greater peace. I entered the MFA Program in Dance at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. A guest teacher, former Paul Taylor Dance Company Star Mary Cochran, asked us, “Why do you dance?”  I wrote, “To pursue the beauty and human dignity of ‘being as it is’ for myself and others,” and it became my mission.

AE: Improvisation seems to be a large part of your creative process. Is this something you incorporate into your live performances as well? If so, how?

AK: To me, improvisation and composition are not two separate entities. As a choreographer, I utilize composition, improvisation, and everything-in-between by following the nature of the work. I train myself and my dancers to be centered, grounded, aligned and empty (open) so that we can be fully attuned to the energy around us- and function as the conduit of this energy. 

Many people have probably experienced that when they “let things go,” the things you are wishing all of a sudden start to come to you. My dancers and I realize this physically. When we become empty and open, without holding any unnecessary energy, there is space and room for us to move fully and freely.

AE: ETHOS Episode 1″ is part one of a three-part series. What inspired you to do a three-part project?

I take time to create my choreographic work. ETHOS is a gigantic and very ambitious project. It aims to artistically and physically envision and embody an ideal ethos of humanity. ETHOS will view the movement of humanity from three perspectives: looking at the past from the present day; looking at the present day from the past; and finally, standing in the present day and looking at the future. Initially, I imagined these three perspectives as three parts. However, I am experiencing that all three perspectives are intricately intertwined. 

ETHOS came about through my research between Stoicism and Taoism- two different philosophies that share a similar bird’s-eye-view of observing human life from an egoless state, which inspires people to create a new ethos. Prior to my residency at the Camargo Foundation in France last summer, I traveled to Greece to explore the origins of Stoicism. I visited Omphalos of Delphi, which is considered to be the center of the world by ancient Greeks. I saw a similarity with the Yoruba tradition of Iwa Pele, or Good Character, which advises people to “listen to the universe.” I re-grasped “ethos” not only as a concept emerging from ancient Greek culture but as relating to something intrinsically human: the sensitivity to capture larger forces of the earth, the world, the cosmos.

AE: Your upcoming piece, which is part one of ETHOS, starts at Colvin House and then culminates on Thorndale Beach. Why is this (literal) journey important for not only you, but the audience as well?

AK: For part one, I am reflecting on the origin of our current dominant ethos and tracing the path of human value. I am inviting the audience to connect their social self with their personal/fundamental self by asking them to physically and mentally blur the wall between the two. I want to as, “what is truly missing in our daily lives?” By metaphorically capturing the Colvin House as the body of ourselves, society and the world, I am preparing site-specific experiences of being so that we can encounter our centered selves and recognize others’ centers, as well. I am planning to invite the audience to Thorndale Beach, and then invite them to experience voluntary meditation. This meditation is not religious or anything- it’s simply meant to hold quiet time and space externally and internally through ourselves so that we can find our base.

AE: When can we see the next two parts??

I would say whenever any opportunities arise and my team is ready! This time, I am so lucky to get the support of Pivot Arts Festival. Director Julieanne Ehre is a very rare person who understands what artists need and uses her open-mind and generosity to make it happen. I am sensing this project will take more time and research than I expected to execute and develop, so I have been seeking out ways to make this happen for the next three to five years. Since I am outrageously imagining that 24 performers are moving together for the last episode, I hope to begin the larger collective to train our body/mind and ensemble very soon. I would love to tour this work, especially in nature and national parks tied to Native American history and cultures.

AE: And finally…what’s one fun or the unexpected fact most people don’t know about you? 

AK: I sound serious. And yes, I am serious. But I can also be funny and funky! I am often told that I become a different person or I look totally different when I perform!

To the Shore: ETHOS Episode I performs June 1 and 2! For information and to reserve your tickets visit pivotarts.org/project/to-the-shore-ethos-episode-i.