During the 1960s, Suzushi Hanayagi ventured alone to New York in an unusual act of courage for a Japanese woman of her generation and armed only with training in traditional dance to forge a new form of Western-style modern dance.
Now 80, she sits in a wheelchair in a home for the elderly, a frail woman with gray hair, a shadow of her former robust self. She mutters and smiles, lost in her own world, a victim of Alzheimer’s disease. But her influence is still felt.
Avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson, who worked with Hanayagi in the United States, has created what he calls their “last collaboration,” titled “KOOL — Dancing in My Mind.”
“KOOL” had a premiere two-day run at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in April, and is scheduled to be shown at Guild Hall in East Hampton, New York, Aug. 8-9.
The poetic collagelike homage takes its title from words that were whispered to him by the mostly speechless Hanayagi during a visit to her home last year.
Key in Wilson’s work is choreographer, director and writer Carla Blank — Hanayagi’s longtime friend and collaborator, starting in the 1960s. The latest work re-creates some of Hanayagi’s and Blank’s choreography and presents new elements, including those by Jonah Bokaer, one of the piece’s six dancers.
Juxtaposed throughout are images of Hanayagi shown on a large stage screen. In one segment, video of her performing Western dance is shown side by side with footage of her in a Japanese dance.
On one side, she swings her arms and bends, wearing a man’s hat. In the other, she wears a kimono and sashays down a dark stage. In some moments, the movements are stunningly similar.
Also shown are more disturbing but equally beautiful recent shots of her wrinkled face, softly bending fingers that flutter like wings — and her gnarled but still powerful feet.
From 1984, Hanayagi served as choreographer in more than 15 productions and projects by Wilson, a pioneer in experimental and multimedia theater, including “The Knee Plays,” “Death Destruction & Detroit II” and “Madame Butterfly.”
When Wilson visited Hanayagi last year, he found that by making delicate hand gestures in front of her, she would imitate the moves, appearing to connect with the joy and memories of her past.
Hanayagi was educated in several traditional Japanese styles. She performed traditional dance throughout her career, including at the prestigious National Theatre in Japan.
But she also absorbed Western forms, studying modern dance in Tokyo in the 1950s. It was a scholarship to the Martha Graham School that brought her to the United States, where she mingled with other American artists such as Merce Cunningham, Anna Halprin and Trisha Brown up to the late 1990s.
It was natural for Hanayagi to take the best of both worlds to help articulate a choreographic language that used the whole body in a way that has become, in a sense, signature Wilson theater.
She worked with other international artists in her later career, including Julie Taymor, Katsuhiro Yamaguchi, Heiner Muller, Hans Peter Kuhn and David Byrne.
“Suzushi was one of the bravest people in the arts I met. She really always wanted to try something new. She wanted to shock herself. She wanted to keep changing,” said Blank, who has been trying for more than 10 years to piece together Hanayagi’s legacy.
Although Hanayagi commands respect among the intelligentsia, she is largely unknown to the public. Blank was worried her history would be lost. When she visited Hanayagi in Japan in 2004, she had already begun to show signs of her disease, being distant and withdrawn. Blank’s efforts to create a monument for her friend became reality when she returned with Wilson and videographer Richard Rutkowski last year to film Hanayagi for “KOOL.”
One of the most moving aspects of “KOOL” is to catch a glimpse into the vision and emotions that bond artists, how they overcome cultural differences, the passage of time and hardships of sickness.
“She loved being wild and outrageous,” Blank recalled in a telephone interview from Oakland, California. “I miss her. I miss having a connection to her.”