Awake, Alive, Curious: An Interview with Arika Yamada

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Arika Yamada and I met in the Metro-Detroit area when we were beginning our lives as dancers. Though much time has passed since then, Arika remains a gifted dancer who is kind, compassionate, and honest, all qualities that are revealed in this interview. I am extremely grateful she was able to be interviewed for Michigan Quarterly Review, as her touring schedule with GöteborgsOperans Danskompani is demanding. What follows are her thoughts on her life and journey as a dancer as well as her experience as a member of a dance company situated within an opera in Sweden.

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How has your relationship to dance changed throughout your life?

It began as the one way I could speak for a time during my childhood. I first stepped foot into a dance studio as a seven-year-old. During that time I was mute for a few months from the culture shock of moving back and fourth between the United States and Japan. My mother thought that perhaps expression through the body would help me use words again since I didn’t want to talk in either English or Japanese.

Through most of my childhood and young adulthood, dance was the one consistent thing that stayed with me wherever I moved or during times when my family constellation was unstable. Now it’s my sole profession. When I’m asked what I do for a living, I say I’m a dancer. But being a dancer is a lifestyle to me. It’s not something you turn off at 6 PM.

I see movement in daily life, in myself, in my apartment, and in people when they are picking out produce at the grocery store. It’s everywhere: in every person, in everyday. It’s beyond the studio or the theater. It’s the very thing that has made my life as adventurous as it has been.

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You went to Juilliard, a renowned performing arts conservatory known for its rigor. What was post-Juilliard life like?

Right after graduation, I started working with Gallim Dance in NYC. It was just starting up at that time, so it was the perfect place to build and establish myself in a very hands-on environment. Since it wasn’t a repertoire company, movement was personalized and tailored to individual bodies. We made original works and I was given a lot of chances to explore my own characteristics as a mover. I learned skills to self-generate movement. I trusted my colleagues, which allowed us to take great physical risks.

After three years of working with Gallim Dance, I moved to Los Angeles to take a break from dance. I reached a point where I didn’t want to dance until my body craved it again. I truly thought my road as a dancer was coming to an almost complete dissolve. I practiced yoga everyday to recharge my body while doing small freelance work here and there.

After a year and a half of pause, my best friend and college classmate Spenser Theberge invited me to create a duet at a theater in Den Haag, Holland. It was a six-week residency: four weeks of creation and two weeks of performances. It was terrifying at first to start dancing again, not knowing if my body was up for it or if I would be able to access my creativity, which was my biggest concern. During the creation of our duet, I found myself again. During this time, I received an email from Göteborg Opera asking if I was interested in auditioning for the company. Now I’m here, feeling more awake, alive, and curious then ever.

What has been your experience with GöteborgsOperans Danskompani?

GöteborgsOperans Danskompani is a colorful collection of fascinating people with particular artistic characteristics. We are a mixing pot of thirty-eight people from seventeen different countries and it’s so interesting to me to see how people with such various cultural backgrounds and training history exist and work together. Creatively it’s thriving, and the environment is supportive and encourages all of us to keep pushing the boundaries.

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Göteborgsoperans Danskompani just participated in 1 Billion Rising this past February. 1 Billion Rising is a campaign to end violence against women. According to statistics, one out of three women will get raped or beaten in their lifetime. It is a very disturbing and alarming truth. Our director Adolphe Binder brought this movement to our attention and organized a site specific performance in the opera house and in a central mall in Göteborg.

What has been your experience as a woman in the arts/dance?

There still aren’t enough female choreographers or directors. I think that certainly affects the kind of work that’s being made now.

GöteborgsOperans houses a theater; has it had any influence on your dancing? What aspects of theater have you incorporated into your own work?

Movement has become something more then just moving my body for composition and making shapes. Every time the body moves, it relates directly to the space and the people inside of that space. To move in a way that conveys an emotion, or a human experience, condition, or situation are all theatrical acts. Even if it’s a bit out of the ordinary, exaggerated or slightly abstract, portraying a scene that allows people to access their own life experiences, trigger a memory, a dream, or their subconscious are all related to the theater.

The beauty of theater is that we can twist reality and make something possible on stage that in reality is only accessible via our imagination. Actions can speak louder than words, and movement can say things that there may not be words for. At the same time, we are what we say. Our choice of words can help another person relate to us. With the power of movement, and using words/text to enhance the storytelling, that is a theatricality that I’ve been enjoying working with lately.

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What future projects are on your horizon?

I’m currently creating a duet with my colleague and friend Jim De Block. It is titled “Digressing From the Four Tons of Grey.” We will premier it in St. Petersburg, Russia at the Alexandrinsky Theater this coming July. My next season at the GöteborgsOperans DansKompani will begin with a new creation by Marina Mascarell. This piece is a part of the production called, “Almost Nearly Perfect” which will premier in Göteborg in September. Between August 2015 and June 2016, the company will continue to tour “Noetic,” a piece created by Sidi Larbi in various cities in Europe. In the long term, I would like to stay in the creative field. Maybe one day work as a tour manager.

Photo credits (from top): Mats Backer, Angelique Johner, Göteborgs Operans, and Franziska Strauss.

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