By Steve Sucato
Who am I? It’s a philosophical question many have pondered. It also the central thought in interdisciplinary artist Michael Sakamoto’s latest creation Soil. Premiered in 2017, the multimedia dance-theater work makes its Pittsburgh debut March 9 & 10, at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater as part of its World Stage Series.
The hourlong, intermission-less work conceived, directed and choreographed by Sakamoto in collaboration with Cambodian classical dancer Chey Chankethya, Thai traditional and contemporary dancer Waewdao Sirisook, and Vietnamese-American contemporary dancer Nguyen Nguyen, explores crisis in the three Southeast Asian cultures the performers have a connection to, and who also have had “a historically fraught relationship with the United States, Western culture, and hegemony,” says Sakamoto.
Using personal narratives of the performers, a methodology Sakamoto says he often employs in his works, “Soil draws on dance forms and multicultural landscapes of America and Asia, performing a vision of 21st Century global society. This expression of intercultural being both connects with and challenges the audience’s sense of identity.”
The work got its start in 2012 when, says Sakamoto, “I had come to the point, as many artists do, where I was a bit tired of my own style. I wanted to be stretched and challenged away from my own singular voice, and also to do something from a more feminine perspective. I asked Kethya [Chankethya] and Waewdao [Sirisook] to collaborate on a duet, and then Nguyen [Nguyen], who was our colleague in Los Angeles asked to join.”
The collaboration also took Sakamoto out of his comfort zone. “As a Butoh artist also heavily influenced by popping and hip-hop culture, my movement inspirations and motivations are both internal/external and physical/psychological,” says Sakamoto. Alternately he feels, the three forms of dance Chankethya, Sirisook and Nguyen brought to the choreography were quite visual, symbolic, and spatial.
“We had to gradually develop a shared language, and it came in the form of personal questions that each performer answers in their own way,” says Sakamoto. “We excavated personal narrative and those experiences and feelings dictated the form and content of each scene. Each performer adapted their movement and personality to each moment as needed, just like any good actor would.”
As to each of the performer’s particular relationship with the work’s themes? Sakamoto says Nguyen is a post-Vietnam War refugee from South Vietnam whose family settled in America, Sirisook is native of Northern Thailand dealing with an unrealistic and touristic image of her country, and the majority of Chankethya’s forebears perished in the Khmer Rouge genocide.
Set to Japanese koto and guitar music by Reiko Imanishi and Shinichi Isohata with additional music by Raphael Xavier, Soil also employs dialogue written by the performers, various props and video to add subtext to the work.
Sakamoto says ultimately in Soil the question of who am I? is simultaneously asked by the way the performers express themselves, and answered in their individual identities. “We are not looking for neat and tidy images of cultural identity because there are none,” says Sakamoto. “Just the opposite, in fact. This is our truth that we try and gift to the audience. In this historical moment of divisiveness and violence [in the world], we must remember that despite our inherent differences we can love ourselves and one another in all of our messy and transformative beauty.”
Michael Sakamoto: Soil will be performed 8 p.m., Friday, March 9 and Saturday, March 10, Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. Pay What Makes You Happy ticket pricing. kelly-strayhorn.org or (412) 363-3000.
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.