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ODC/San Francisco Dancing Downtown

The Personal and Political Portrayed through Collaboration

'Flight to Ixcan'

by Toba Singer

February 20, 2004 -- Yerba Buena Center for the Arts/San Francisco, CA

Catastrophe holds us in its thrall against our will. It both invites and strips away rationale. Basic elements such as fire, water, lightning, thunder, and the ionic charge of the air we breathe all register with greater force when catastrophe turns what we take for granted into the gravest of losses. Calamity, nature's exterminating angel, forges a singular memory into a pictogram. An instantaneous glimpse of an event cuts a backward zigzag against the forward march of time and the inner archive of aggregating memory.

In Flight to Ixcan, Kimi Okada, in collaboration with Claudia Bernardi, come as close as may be possible to redressing and redeeming catastrophic loss through a work of art. The two artists (one dance, one visual) harness the disorientation that cloisters human sensibilities from brutality. Then they unburden what lies beneath a foggy zone of disbelief. In the soil, the bared bones of remains, the reliquary of findings, and in what the earth retells, they locate release from the horror that attends catastrophe. The found items are the mute witnesses and humble evidence revealing the arrogance of political and military carnage. They confirm a tried and true historical paradox: a few rich latifundists will destroy thousands of the rural poor, the class of people whose very labor has enriched them, and for no other reason than that in this stage of history, they can.

The dancers' task is to unfurl and embroider a kind of story quilt, part of which is representational.  They dance the planes, the mercenary soldiers, and the collaterally-damaged individuals who are shot execution-style, hands tied behind their backs. Then they become the disdained corpses, left in the positions they assume when they fall, as carrion, as if no creatures but vultures would care about their fate.

Ms. Okada is telling the story of her brother's political murder as part of a larger story. She has chosen Yuki Fujimoto to portray her own character. Fujimoto dances the role with tremendous power, shadowed by grace and elegance. A hub segment marks the 12 hours of torment that begin with a Cessna's mysterious crash into a remote mountainside. The Fujimoto character's brother was a passenger in the Cessna. She is forced to wait for official word from afar, confirming his death. She waits seated on a pine box. Later, she and the other dancers use her sitting box and other pine boxes to construct a small shrine. In another sequence, the pine boxes will be coffins. But for now, she marks the time as a reluctant witness, turned partially away from the terrifying action unfolding onstage that tells a story she'd rather not know.

There are reveries derived from her memories of childhood play with her brother. There's a moment that relies on a shared glance with Daniel Santos (who dances the role of Okada's brother, Michael), combined with tussling arms, that captures the unique empathy that develops only between brother and sister. Memories of brother-induced frustration echo what she feels as she waits: girls left waiting by boys, girls hating waiting for boys, girls hating themselves for waiting for boys, but nonetheless, waiting and waiting and waiting, even for spirit-sucking confirmation of a brother's hair-trigger demise.

The score by Jay Cloidt introduces an arc of electronic music and sounds, from thunder and lightning to telephones ringing in 1970s-style tones, to the delicate warble of jungle birds. The company dances under the voiceover of Claudia Bernardi recounting "El Accidente" in the dispassionate prose of a Spanish-language newspaper account. The setting is elucidated by the flute/xylophone waterfall sounds of indigenous instruments marking the passage of time. Dancers spit out a military drill that overlays two women comforting one another in the aftermath of a massacre. We see the brother who was Fujimoto/Okada's earliest playmate transformed into the deer in the headlights of this grotesque, death-belching machine, the boy who runs from a game with his sister one last time, as the sun of his last day sets on the jungle, where calamity changes a geoscape forever.

A tableau vivant steps out of the pandemonium.  It includes all the visible parties to this tragedy: mercenaries, massacre victims, and surviving family members. Slowly, one after another, family members drop out of the posed photo-tableau. Names of an entire extended family are spoken by a single voice, citing sisters, brothers, a father, a mother, cousins, aunts and uncles, all with the last name of Morales. All massacred.

Brian Fisher dances with an empty wedding dress that still holds its human shape, as if an invisible mannequin were wearing the dress. A voice reads an official U.S. Government Freedom of Information Act memorandum detailing (U.S.) national security protocols. Its innocuous jargon is intended to shield the listener from its true purpose. It serves as the government's official apologia for the slaughter of those who lay claim to the land of their birth. Survivors peer into coffins. The Okada sister runs to her brother and reunites with him in a lift, but he falls away and she stands alone with empty arms.

K.T. Nelson dances an elder witness. She dances with gentle, but unshakable authority. Okada's decision to accept the retired Nelson's offer to dance is an outstanding choice. Her character represents what the mind and body have come to know over a lifetime. What is the role of an elder in a catastrophe?   Victim? Leader? The person with the most to lose? The person with the least to lose? Is she a repository for the social history that has led to this defining moment?

As the piece reaches its denouement, huge mounds of loam-like soil surface downstage and up. As the lighting becomes more oblique, we see the adult's white wedding dress and a child's white ceremonial dress suspended side by side in the background. They are stark against the soil in the foreground. Bereft dancers sway, seated before the mounds. They are grieving, their hands sifting through the dirt in a quiet ritual of retrieval. A disturbing answer appears to emerge to the brave question that asks, "What in the spiritual continuum of humankind has died and been buried here?"

Edited by Jenai Cutcher

Find out more about Flight to Ixcan in Toba Singer's interview with Kimi Okada

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