Having just returned to New York after performing in Venezuela, and still weary from the trip, choreographer, director and dancer Yoshiko Chuma breaks into a wry smile.
“If I had never left Japan and were able to hold my drink, I would probably have become an alcoholic,” she says. “I would probably be dead by now.”
Based in New York, Chuma, 68, is widely known for her avant-garde work. Since the 1980s, she has been pushing boundaries, creating controversial works that disrupt the fixed concepts and categories of the performing arts and cut deep through the mores of contemporary socio-political life.
Born into a medical family in Osaka in 1950, Chuma grew up in postwar Japan against the backdrop of rapid economic growth and political conflicts escalated by the Korean and Vietnam wars. Her first encounter with both dance and politics came in the early 1960s via her primary school teacher, the researcher and activist Kozo Tagawa. Tagawa taught modern dance to his pupils as an extra-curricular activity and himself participated in demonstrations against the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.
Chuma got involved in the anti-Vietnam movement when she entered university in Kanazawa. She frequented local cafes, which played a crucial role in activist networks at the time, and made trips to Tokyo, exploring radical bookshops and record stores. Yet, despite her growing interest in local grassroots activism, she felt frustrated that she had never been outside her native country and so began searching for a way to go abroad.
“I originally planned to travel to India as a backpacker,” she says. “But when my friend told me that many yogis and hermits lived along the Ganges River, I immediately changed my mind, because I knew that if I went there, I would never come back.”
When the writer-journalist Jugatsu Toi told Chuma about the artistic community in Soho, New York, including the abstract painter Kikuo Saito, who was close to artists such as Tom O’Horgan, Robert Wilson and Ellen Stuart, she made a snap decision to go there.
At the end of May, 1976, now in her mid 20s and with $3,000 in savings, Chuma left Japan for the first time, arriving in Hawaii at the height of the United States Bicentennial celebrations. The lone woman traveler was granted a generous six-month visa at Honolulu Airport.
“The clear blue sky seemed to stretch to infinity before my eyes,” she says recalling the excitement she felt when she stepped out the airport doors.
Once in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Chuma met many artists, including Hoki Tokuda, the last wife of Henry Miller. Her new acquaintances urged her to stay on the West Coast, rather than follow her desire to explore New York, where the downtown area beyond Avenue A had become so destitute and dangerous that taxi drivers would refuse to go there. Still, Chuma had to go.
Leaving behind sunny California for the jagged skyscrapers and murky streets of Manhattan, which was still reeling from the OPEC oil crisis, Chuma felt she had “fallen into a black hole, or some sort of chaos — a messy toy box, in which there was no border between the sane and the insane.” She saw men shouting and women crying in the graffiti-covered subways, and buildings demolished for the sake of insurance money.
Unable to speak English, Chuma also struggled with the language barrier. But it was her lack of English that first motivated her to explore communication using body language.
Living out of Saito’s loft for months and working as a cleaner and waitress, she began to make a name as a dancer-choreographer and collaborated with members of the famed Judson Dance Theater in Greenwich Village, including Simone Forti, Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer.
“Every single day, I met new people,” she recalls. “They were interested in me and helped me.”
When her visa due date approached, the dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham offered to help extend her stay by filling out the necessary documents.
Having received little formal dance training, Chuma founded The School of Hard Knocks, an artistic collective named after the idiomatic phrase meaning to learn things the hard way, in 1982. Working by trial and error, she developed an approach to dance that centered on spontaneity. Within the next four decades, she transformed herself from a young emerging artist to an established leader, creating over 100 productions, many of which were difficult to categorize as dance.
Project after project, she questioned and disrupted conventional notions of dance, rarely setting out to make a formal dance piece, but channelling her desires and energy into creating something never before seen.
Traveling to more than 40 countries in Asia, America, East Europe and the Middle East, including Palestine and Afghanistan, she has worked with over 2,000 international and interdisciplinary collaborators, most of whom she met along her “Secret Journey” — the title of a recent series of projects for her ongoing mission.
Now, she continues to visit what she calls “trouble spots,” where she intentionally puts herself “in trouble,” she says, in order to challenge the preconceived myth of “danger” and encounter something beautiful beyond expectation.
Name: Yoshiko Chuma
Profession: Founder and artistic director of The School of Hard Knocks
Key moments in career:
1959-early ’60s — Meets and is taught by educator, researcher and activist Kozo Tagawa
1969 — Relocates from Osaka to Kanazawa to enter university
1976 — Leaves Japan for the United States
1982 — Founds The School of Hard Knocks
1984 — The School of Hard Knocks receives a Choreographer/Creator Bessie Award, subsequently winning other categories in 1989, 1992, 1993, 1998 and 2007
2000-04 — Works as artistic director of the Daghdha Dance Company in Ireland