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Dance artists Jay Hirabayashi and Barbara Bourget are inducted into the Dance Collection Danse Hall of Fame in Toronto | Pro Club Bd

Jay Hirabayashi. Photo by Chris Randle.

In 1986, Vancouver-based dance artists Jay Hirabayashi and Barbara Bourget founded the Kokoro Dance Theater Society, and now, after 35 years of continued dance performance, they are inducted into the Dance Collection Danse Hall of Fame, a Toronto-based organization dedicated to preservation the legacy of dance in Canada.

The Kokoro Dance Company takes its name from the Japanese word kokoro, means heart, soul and spirit and is primarily inspired by the Japanese dance form Butohdescribed 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 US government over the internment of World War II-era Japanese Americans, and to honor his parents Gordon and Esther, the younger Hirabayashi appeared Butoh in her memory.

He also credits his parents for his introduction to dance. “My earliest dancing memory was watching my mother square dance when I was six or seven years old,” he recalls. “My mother loved dancing and she took my sisters and I to see the Bolshoi Ballet when we were kids.”

But Hirabayashi’s dance career was not a given, as he only started taking dance classes to rehabilitate one of his legs after surgery. “I have always been physically active and found my first dance lessons physically and mentally challenging,” he said. “Although I started very late in my 30s, after just a year of studying in Paula’s studio, I was asked to join the Paula Ross Dance Company.”

He expanded from modern dance to ballet and contact improvisation. “I learned that ballet is the technical foundation of modern dance, so I started taking ballet classes to learn how to turn better and to develop some grace and fluidity in my movements,” he said . “For me, skiing is always an improvisation where you have to deal with changing terrain. Contact improvisation is similar to having to make spontaneous decisions when dancing with a partner or dancing solo with the floor as a partner.”

Then, in 1980, Hirabayashi saw a poster for a presentation by Harupin-ha, led by Koichi and Hiroko Tamano, by Ankoku Butoh – Dance of Darkness. “We had never heard of Butoh, so we went to see the performance and we never forgot that performance,” Hirabayashi said. “Tamano’s solo took our breath away and stopped time.”

When Hirabayashi and Bourget founded Kokoro Dance, they wanted to explore and develop their own dance form Butoh. “Butoh is not a specific technique,” he described. “It’s a search for your own original and unique way of moving.”

In 1995, Hirabayashi went to Japan to study with him Butoh Pioneer Kazuo Ohno. “He talked to us for an hour and then asked us to get up and dance what he was talking about,” Hirabayashi recalled. “He gave no instructions or corrections.”

Hirabayashi had to reach inside to follow Ohno’s orders. “He told us not to imitate his movement or use technique,” Hirabayashi said. “He watched us for ten or fifteen minutes, then stopped us and told us he didn’t think we understood what he was talking about.”

Ohno patiently continued to verbalise his theme and asked the dance students to try again. “This pattern would be repeated for the rest of the class and subsequent classes,” Hirabayashi said. “These were the toughest classes I’ve ever taken because we were completely on our own while trying to move in a way we’d never done before.”

Ultimately, Hirabayashi discovered his own style. “Butoh is as far removed from the mainstream of contemporary dance as possible,” he said. “Butoh is the only dance aesthetic we have discovered that recognizes that changing time and space in your audience requires you to change time and space within yourself.”

Despite this artistic development, Hirabayashi and Bourget struggled for many years to build their dance company and career. “When we started Kokoro Dance, Barbara and I had four kids to raise and we had no funding,” he said. “We both had to take turns looking after the kids while juggling multiple part-time jobs to sustain our dance careers.”

Hirabayashi reports on systemic racism in the Canadian government’s arts funding systems. “The Canada Council for the Arts based its funding on peer assessment,” he said. “They sent reviewers to our performances who then wrote reviews that formed the basis of where our work deserved promotion. In 1986, however, there was not a single Canada Council-funded dance company that did not have an English or French name.”

At that time, he says, there were no others Butoh Company and not real colleagues to judge the work of Kokoro Dance. “It was six years before we received our first Canada Council Company grant,” he said, “and we only received that first grant when we asked that no artistic director of a Canada Council-funded dance company evaluate us may send someone from another performing arts discipline instead.”

Now Hirabayashi is honored to be inducted into the DCD Hall of Fame. “When we started Kokoro Dance, we understood that there is an ecology of systems that we must initiate if we are to survive Butoh artist,” he says. “If we wanted dancers to work for us, we had to start teaching.”

He predicted decades ago that Kokoro Dance would be a long-term project with no necessarily immediate results. “If we wanted to give our dancers an opportunity to develop, we had to perform whenever there was an opportunity, and when there wasn’t an opportunity, we had to create 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 has a more diverse audience than most other dance companies. “We performed at the Vancouver International Children’s Festival, we played hundreds of school shows, we performed at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, and the Under the Volcano Festival for alternative rock and political activists,” Hirabayashi listed. “When we realized there was a growing number of BIPOC and LGBTQ+2S artists who deserve justice but are marginalized within their respective small communities, we brought the Vancouver International Dance Festival with a focus on presentation of these marginalized artists.”

Hirabayashi and Bourget have created over 200 dance works and plan to create, perform and teach in the future. “We run the 28th annual Wreck Beach Butoh Performance Intensive in July and also performs at the Powell Street Festival on July 31,” he said. “In September, we will join over 100 other Japanese Canadian artists at the Gei: Art Symposium of the National Association of Japanese Canadians in Victoria, BC, September 15-18.”

And that’s not all: In March 2023, Kokoro Dance will present the 23rdapprox Vancouver International Dance Festival, including performances by Hirabayashi and Bourget of their own work.

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