Breadth of Bodies: Discussing Disability in Dance, Kazuyo Morita

Episode Summary

Breadth of Bodies: Discussing Disability in Dance seeks to investigate stereotypes often used to describe professional dancers with disabilities. Kazuyo Morita.

Episode Notes

Breadth of Bodies: Discussing Disability in Dance seeks to investigate stereotypes often used to describe professional dancers with disabilities. Spearheaded by Emmaly Wiederholt and Silva Laukkanen with illustrations by visual artist Liz Brent-Maldonado, the team interviewed 35 professional dance artists with disabilities around the country and world, asking about training, access, and press, as well as looking at the state of the field.

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Details: Authored by Emmaly Wiederholt and Silva Laukkanen, illustrations by Liz Brent-Maldonado, design by Christelle Dreyer, edited by Donne Lewis and April Adams, audiobook narrated by Sami Kekäläinen.

Episode Transcription

Kazuyo Morita is a dancer and actress from Osaka, Japan. As the leader/founder of “Performance for All People – CONVEY,” Kazuyo has performed in such events as the Yokohama Paratriennale and Happy Spot Nara, as well as collaborated with SLOW MOVEMENT, Knit Cap Theater, and Niwa Gekidan Penino. Kazuyo also teaches workshops, choreographs, and directs dance performances for people with disabilities. Together with her mother, she launched the nonprofit P’spot 14, which includes a dance studio and produces stage performances. She has also participated in symposiums hosted by the Agency for Cultural Affairs and the British Council.


How did you get into dance and what have been some highlights in your dance history?

In my second year of high school, which is like 10th grade, I watched a musical by Takarazuka Revue – a Japanese all-female musical theater troupe. I was impressed and decided to pursue the performing arts. I tried to get into college for art, but because of my disability, I was not able to take the entrance exam. I was told I could not participate in the performance art of dance. That was quite a major incident for me because it was the first time someone denied me something because of my disability. I live in a society where I am not allowed to speak up. That was when I was faced with the reality of being a disabled person.

After that, I got into a non-art college where I majored in economics, which is totally unrelated to the performing arts, but I joined a theater club at the college and after that I started going to a musical school where so-called healthy people were being trained. Back then, there was no place for disabled people to learn how to dance so I had no other choice than to join somewhere that was geared toward only non-disabled people. But that musical school accepted me, and I was able to learn how to dance there. I studied jazz dance, ballet, and acting for three to four years. Most of the stuff I learned was not something I was able to do. But I was determined to learn, and I think it was a good experience for me.

After that, I tried different types of dance. I was trying to find what fit my body, like trying on different clothes. For several years, I was just comparing the differences between healthy people’s bodies and my own body. I studied what they can do, what I can do, what they cannot do, and what I cannot do. That’s how I saw my body back then.

Something changed in 2000. A director named Wolfgang Stange started offering workshops in Japan. I participated, and for the first time, I experienced free movement with no set style or form. I thought, “Oh, I can move more freely in this way.” In 2004, I started creating my own performances.

From 2008 to 2010, I joined a performance project organized by DANCE BOX in the city of Kobe that facilitated dance with disabled and non-disabled dancers. The director was a contemporary dancer. His way of creating dance is very special; the dancers are forced to really look into their bodies when he’s choreographing. It’s not about form or movement styles. I suffered a lot during that time. I had learned classical ballet and jazz dance, but the director didn’t like me using those styles and forms. Instead, he made me partner with a wheelchair dancer. He forced me to explore how to dance with my partner. It was a really good experience for me.

In 2012, I created a performance called Walking Tomorrow. I started being able to show how I can dance with my own body and put what I really want into my own dance performance.

In 2017, I created a 20-minute piece called Our Beginning with citizens in the city of Miyakonojo. It grew out of a two-day workshop I gave in the city the previous year. Afterwards, the organization where I taught asked me to teach workshops on the weekends for three months. That became the performance piece. There were 12 people in the piece and half were disabled. It was a highlight from my career.

There are many performances like this in Japan, but there is usually no continuation once the performance is done. After this show, the participants asked an assistant who taught ballet locally to keep teaching them. Those classes are still going on today and it makes me so happy. There are more projects for disabled people these days, but most of the time, the disabled people are passive. In this instance, the students took the initiative for the classes to continue. It is a success story.

How would you describe your current dance practice?

I take classical ballet on a regular basis to maintain my body. When I was taking ballet before, I was trying to get closer to the bodies of non-disabled people, but now my focus is on what I can do with my own body or how I can translate a step. My sense of achievement is definitely higher now.

I started grad school in 2019 at Kobe University to research how disabled people dance. This area of research is not yet advanced in Japan. I have been trying hard to gather information, but there are hardly any research papers on the topic in Japan, so I’m relying on research papers published abroad.

I also started teaching at a university in Osaka in 2020. I have a two-year contract. Next year, the students in my seminars are going to create a small performance piece with citizens, including disabled people. This year, my students are learning about disability expression online because of the pandemic.

When you tell people you are a dancer, what are the most common reactions you receive?

When I encounter people who have never met a disabled person before or who have never seen disabled dancing, I feel like they don’t believe what I’m saying. But these days, I just show them a video or pictures on my phone right away.

What are some ways people discuss dance with regards to disability that you feel carry problematic implications or assumptions?

People’s comments and discussion will differ widely depending on what kind of dance performance disabled dancers are doing. There is not really a solid category for disabled dance. For example, there are wheelchair dancers doing competitive dance, there’s a dance school for children with Down syndrome, and there are some disabled dance battles. It’s really hard to categorize disabled dance.

There are some occasions when I have felt disappointed with the press. I think it’s getting better compared with several years ago. Back then, it was like disability was something to conquer or overcome. I still see that wording and expression these days, but it is much less.

Do you believe there are adequate training opportunities for dancers with disabilities?

No, there are almost none. There is a big nonprofit organization that started a dance school for Down syndrome children. And there is also a dance group for wheelchair dancers. Different municipal governments offer occasional workshops for disabled dancers, but there are not continuous efforts to offer dance training for disabled students.

That is one of the reasons I started my own dance studio, P’spot 14. Disabled dancers are welcome to come and train, but I hardly get any new disabled students joining my studio. It’s hard for disabled people to find the motivation to start dance. I recently gave lessons to an eight-year-old disabled dancer. That child wanted to learn dance because her mother was doing jazz dancing.

I personally have a little experience in a type of traditional dance called Shimai that’s part of the traditional Noh drama, where the performers dance with masks. I’ve never really learned any other traditional Japanese dance. I never pursued it because you have to be able to squat and sit on the floor to do the dances. Overall, there is not a traditional dance school that accepts disabled students.

Would you like to see disability in dance assimilated into the mainstream?

In Japan, if you’re disabled or not, it’s really hard to make a living as a dancer. Something started changing in the past couple of years though; the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics were scheduled for summer 2020 and are postponed now because of the pandemic. Because of those big events, other notable dance-related events were scheduled, so there have been more disabled dance events and grants in Japan. What I see these days is a clear boundary or a distinction between the Olympic and Paralympic Games. That’s also what’s happening in the dance field; there is disabled dance versus non-disabled dance. It’s quite difficult for people in Japan to visualize what mainstream dance is.

What is your preferred term for the field?

Just dance.

In your perspective, is the field improving with time?

Yes, I think so, but I’m afraid this trend will go back a little bit because of the pandemic. It’s a financial issue. Thanks to the power of the Olympic Games scheduled in Japan, it has become easier to receive grants. People are afraid this trend will revert after the Olympics.

In 2019, the Japanese government enacted a law to promote the expression, art, and activities of disabled people. I was a member on the expert committee. The law covers the entire field of art, including fine arts and performing arts. It targets access, training, as well as promotes international exchange.

However, this law is managed by two different ministries: The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology. It was originally managed by the Ministry of Health because it was considered a welfare program. When you talk about access for mentally disabled people, you have to talk about their homes or workplaces. If you talk about access for physically disabled people, you have to talk about public spaces. It’s completely different. That’s why there is the impression that disability access is related to social welfare.

In the performing arts, there are very few horizontal connections between the organizations that work with disabled people because there is no single organization that manages everything. This new law gives grants, but many organizations have financial issues and need more money. I’m a member of the committee that offers the grants. The reason why they chose me as a judge is that I’m a freelance artist who doesn’t belong to any larger organization, so I have no conflicts of interest.

In Japanese society, there are still many prejudices and barriers when it comes to disabled people accessing dance. It is directly related to what I said earlier about how to motivate disabled people to learn dance. We need role models in this field so there’s somebody who other disabled people can copy or aspire to be, but I don’t think that’s possible unless more dancers come into this field. I personally think it’s very important to establish the status of disabled dancers and train more disabled dancers. That’s what I am focused on right now.