Prickly Terrain

Dean Moss and Ryutaro Mishima plant a cultural garden.


The path leading to States & Resemblance has been anything but direct for its two collaborators—Dean Moss, a respected black American choreographer, and Ryutaro Mishima, a Japanese performer, photographer and video artist. Starring the pair, the piece deals with issues of race and culture, as well as how life is fleeting—the show is dedicated to the esteemed gardener and writer M.M. “Dicky” Graff, who worked tirelessly to improve city parks and whom Moss cared for in the final years of her life. A beautiful, flinty dance, States & Resemblance began unconventionally, not in a rehearsal studio but, as Moss recalls, “by going to see movies and by having conversations.” Mishima, in turn, muses, “I think we started making a piece, but we’re not really making a piece. We’re just trying to understand each other.”

Dean Moss and Ryutaro Mishima in States & Resemblance
IN THE SHADOWS Moss and Mishimastand tall in States.

Born in 1954 in Tacoma, Washington, Moss—once an aspiring jazz and ballet dancer—arrived in New York in the late ’70s on scholarship at the Dance Theater of Harlem. Though he had also considered acting, Moss decided to focus on dance, despite the fact that it remains a problem as far as diversity is concerned—there has never been a black principal female dancer in either major New York company, and men haven’t fared much better. “In theater, you could only play yourself, you could only play black culture,” he says. “And that culture wasn’t even defined by blacks—it was defined by whites. I chose dance because it was the most open of the arts. At least I was playing mythology, at least I was doing some abstract something, at least I was doing something broader than myself.” Still, while a member of the American Dance Machine, he was cast as “somebody behind a counter who wore a big pimp hat” during a performanceof Grease.

Moss, who escaped the musical-theater world to work with postmodern choreographer David Gordon, began to focus on his own conceptual work in the late ’90s. His sly approach to race is never blatant—video and movement coexist to build an uneasy atmosphere—though in Moss’s last major work, figures on a field (2005), in which he collaborated with artist Laylah Ali, he put up an audition notice for “brown people.” For States & Resemblance, which also features the Indonesian dancer Restu Imasari Kusumaningrum, Moss and Mishima spent hours discussing race—and their vastly different experiences—in the work’s early stages. “I always need the sense of otherness—someone outside of me, who does not share my culture,” Moss says. “That mirror is useful and it keeps you from trying to dig it out of yourself in a way. I feel if I only look at race through my own eyes, it’s a very narrow view. And if I only look at culture through my own experience, I don’t really understand my full experience.”

A continuation of a work shown at Dance Theater Workshop’s Nothing Festival, States & Resemblance is an unusually rigorous offering for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Sitelines series. The idea of mortality runs throughout the dance; the collaborators view death as a mark of change. “It could be like when you dream of dying and you have that sense that a shift is very present in your life,” Moss says. “I spent a year in Japan and know Ryutaro, and I feel attracted and influenced by another culture. Perhaps I’m trying to find my own culture by understanding another.”

The new work incorporates a gesture that Mishima identifies as being particularly Asian (the hands are gently crossed in front of the body); it was also one that Moss, who describes it as a “gesture of accommodation,” found himself using in his dealings with Dicky. “It became a whole question about how that gesture is used in Asia and how I used it with Dicky, who always had servants, much of the time black,” he says. “Here I was, hired to take care of her in lieu of paying rent. It was difficult. I didn’t even tell my parents what I was doing. Now, when I see black women who take care of elderly white people, I look at them in a whole different light because I understand the kind of complicated relationship and complicated compassion that you have for that person.” Dicky, 97, died on July 9. “In my arms,” Moss notes. “Myfirst death.”

Dean Moss and Ryutaro Mishima present States & Resemblance at Elevated Acre Mon 27–Wed 29 and Sept 4–6.