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Survival of the Fittest 

June Watanabe uses dance to heal painful memories

Wednesday, Apr 25 2001
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Some experiences are impossible to translate into words, especially if they're particularly traumatic or joyful. So how do you express them? If you're choreographer and performer June Watanabe, you dance. Watanabe's latest show uses bodily expression to revisit personal experiences, in particular one close to her heart: the Japanese-American internment, an embarrassing period in American history when citizens of Japanese descent were herded into camps, purportedly to prevent espionage and treachery, during World War II.

When she was 3 to 6 years old, Watanabe and her family lived in a "segregation center" in Wyoming, having been uprooted from their home in Los Angeles. Since 1979, the feisty choreographer has plumbed the depths of that experience from various perspectives in five very different works -- silently; Herding/Internment; E.O.; Cradle Will Fall; and E.O. 9066 (a reference to the Executive Order that legalized the confinement). Now in her early 60s, Watanabe still finds inspiration in the tragedy, returning to it yet again with her latest, 5/15/45 -- the last dance, a 70-minute performance featuring guest artist Frank Shawl and six dancers. In this latest piece Watanabe transports viewers back to the date of a fictional final dance held at a camp.

Some might wonder why Watanabe would choose to revisit such a painful part of her past. But for Watanabe (and for dancers in general) pain is a fact of life -- something that can't and shouldn't be avoided. For Watanabe that pain was once physical: At age 40, she suffered three herniated discs, which left her immobile. It was during this time that she realized she had to dance, that she could heal her body by using it, that dance is a "mechanism for survival." One year later, in 1980, she started her own dance troupe, June Watanabe in Company.

Since then, Watanabe has collaborated with acclaimed artists from different fields, fusing narrative, visuals, design, movement, and music into her work. In 5/15/45 -- the last dance, composer Alvin Curran's eerily realistic soundscape mixes drums, tin cans, and gusting winds to aurally evoke the desolate sounds of the desert sites. The serious subjects of the piece -- wartime displacement, transience, and alienation -- are juxtaposed against the lively tunes of bebop and '40s-style swing, played by George Yoshida and his 17-member J-town Big Band.

Although her choreography adheres primarily to an Eastern aesthetic, evident in its stark, slow, ritualistic movements, Watanabe's abstract pieces are emotionally and topically universal, exploring such common themes as gender, race, and culture. By focusing on the all-American activities -- swing, baseball, the Boy Scouts -- that were essential to camp life, she emphasizes the community, patriotism, and "American-ness" of the prisoners. At the end of the performance, audience members join the dancers in a swing session, something Watanabe believes will "[blur the] boundaries between the past and the present to create a sense of both performance and community." Despite the title of the production, this will certainly not be the last dance from Watanabe.

About The Author

Lisa Hom

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