In 1986, Vancouver-based dance artists Jay Hirabayashi and Barbara Bourget founded Kokoro Dance Theatre Society, and now, after 35 years of sustained dance performance, they will be inducted into the Dance Collection Danse Hall of Fame, an organization in Toronto dedicated to preserving the legacies of dance in Canada.
The Kokoro Dance company takes its name from the Japanese word kokoro, meaning heart, soul and spirit, and is primarily inspired by the Japanese dance form butoh, described as a “dance of darkness” that explores the boundaries between the realms of life and death.
Hirabayashi is the son of Gordon Hirabayashi, known for challenging the U.S. government regarding its World War II era internment of Japanese Americans, and to honor his parents Gordon and Esther, the younger Hirabayashi has performed butoh in their memory.
He also credits his parents for his introduction to dance. “My earliest memory of dance was watching my mother square dance when I was six or seven years old,” he recalled. “My mother loved dancing and she took my sisters and me to see the Bolshoi Ballet when we were children.”
But Hirabayashi’s dance career was not a given, as he only began dance classes in order to rehabilitate one of his legs after surgery. “I have always been athletically active and I found my first dance classes to be physically and mentally challenging,” he said. “Although I started very late at the age of 30, I was asked to join the Paula Ross Dance Company after only a year of study at Paula’s studio.”
He expanded from modern dance into ballet and contact improvisation. “I learned that ballet was the technical basis of modern dance so started to take ballet classes to learn how to turn better and to develop some grace and fluidity in my movement,” he recounted. “Skiing for me is always an improvisation where you have to deal with changing terrain. Contact improvisation is similar as you have to make spontaneous choices when dancing with a partner or soloing with the floor as your partner.”
Then, in 1980, Hirabayashi saw a poster for a presentation by Harupin-ha, led by Koichi and Hiroko Tamano, of Ankoku Butoh – Dance of Darkness. “We had never heard of butoh so went to see the performance and we have never forgotten that performance,” Hirabayashi said. “Tamano’s solo took our breath away and stopped time.”
When Hirabayashi and Bourget formed Kokoro Dance, they wanted to explore and develop their own form of butoh. “Butoh is not a specific technique,” he described. “It is a search for one’s own original and unique way of moving.”
In 1995, Hirabayashi went to Japan to study with butoh pioneer Kazuo Ohno. “He would talk to us for an hour and then ask us to get up and dance what he was talking about,” Hirabayashi remembered. “He gave no instructions nor any corrections.”
Hirabayashi had to reach inside himself to follow Ohno’s instructions. “He told us not to imitate his way of moving and not to use any technique,” Hirabayashi said. “He would watch us for ten or fifteen minutes, and then stop us and tell us that he did not think we understood what he was talking about.”
Ohno patiently continued to verbalize his topic and asked the dance students to try again. “This pattern would repeat for the rest of the class and the ensuing classes,” Hirabayashi said. “They were the hardest classes I have ever taken because we were totally on our own while trying to move in ways we had never moved before.”
Ultimately, Hirabayashi discovered his own style. “Butoh is about as far away from mainstream contemporary dance as you can go,” he said. “Butoh is the only dance aesthetic that we have discovered that recognizes that to change time and space in your audience requires you to change time and space in yourself.”
Despite this artistic development, Hirabayashi and Bourget struggled to build their dance company and careers for many years. “When we started Kokoro Dance, Barbara and I had four children to raise and we had no funding,” he said. “Both of us had to take turns taking care of the kids while juggling multiple part-time jobs to sustain our dancing careers.”
Hirabayashi reports encountering systemic racism in the Canadian government arts funding systems. “The Canada Council for the Arts based its funding on peer assessment,” he said. “They would send assessors to our performances, who would then write assessments that formed the basis for where our work merited funding. However, in 1986, there was not a single Canada Council-funded dance company that did not have an English or French name.”
At the time, he says, there were no other butoh companies and no true peers to assess Kokoro Dance’s work. “It took six years for us to get our first Canada Council company grant,” he said, “and we only got that first grant when we requested that no artistic director from any Canada Council-funded dance company be allowed to assess us and to send someone from any other performing art discipline instead.”
Now, Hirabayashi is honored to be inducted into the DCD Hall of Fame. “We understood, when we established Kokoro Dance, that there was an ecology of systems that we had to initiate if we were to survive as butoh artists,” he said. “If we were going to have dancers work with us, we had to start teaching.”
He predicted decades ago that Kokoro Dance would be a long-term project without necessarily immediate results. “If we were going to give our dancers opportunities to grow, we had to perform whenever there was an opportunity and if there were no opportunities, we had to make our own opportunities,” he said. “If we were going to survive, we had to build an audience, so we performed outside of the normal dance milieu.”
Kokoro Dance now boasts a more diverse audience than most other dance companies. “We performed at the Vancouver International Children’s Festival, we did hundreds of school shows, we performed at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, and at the Under the Volcano alternative rock and political activist festival,” Hirabayashi listed. “When we realized that there were growing numbers of BIPOC and LGBTQ+2S artists that were equity-deserving but marginalized within their respective small communities, we started the Vancouver International Dance Festival with a focus on showcasing these marginalized artists.”
Hirabayashi and Bourget have created over 200 dance works and plan to create, perform, and teach into the future. “We will be leading the 28th annual Wreck Beach Butoh performance intensive in July and also performing at the Powell Street Festival on July 31,” he said. “In September, we will be participating in the National Association of Japanese Canadians Gei: Art Symposium in Victoria, BC, from September 15 to 18, with over 100 other Japanese Canadian artists.”
And that’s not all: In March, 2023, Kokoro Dance will present the 23rd Vancouver International Dance Festival, including performances by Hirabayashi and Bourget of their own work.