Yasuko Yokoshi talks about her new dance BELL

Yasuko Yokoshi talks about BELL, inspired by traditional Japanese dance, with dancer Kayo Seyama

Yasuko Yokoshi's Tyler Tyler with Kayo Seyama

Yasuko Yokoshi's Tyler Tyler with Kayo Seyama Photograph: Shimpei Takeda

Experimental choreographer Yasuko Yokoshi delves into traditional Japanese dance in BELL, a fresh look at the classical dance Kyoganoko Musume-Dojoji that also incorporates parts of Giselle. The cast of American and Japanese perfomers includes Julie Alexander and Kayo Seyama, who joins Yasuko Yokoshi in a conversation about the new work. BELL is at New York Live Arts, where Yokoshi is the inaugural Resident Commissioned Artist.

Several years ago, when Yasuko Yokoshi encountered Masumi Seyama—a master teacher of Kabuki Su-odori style of traditional Japanese dance, and successor to Kanjyuro Fujima VI—her world turned upside down. For Yokoshi, a Japanese experimental choreographer based in New York, the creative meeting led to two progressive works exploring the form: what we when we and Tyler Tyler. Beginning March 16, she offers a third, BELL, at New York Live Arts, where Yokoshi is the first Resident Commissioned Artist. The premiere features Kabuki actor and dancer Kuniya Sawamura; American dancers Julie Alexander, Lindsay Clark and Jennifer Lafferty; and the brilliant Kayo Seyama, Masumi Seyama’s eldest disciple. In honor of BELL, a contemporary look at the classical Japanese dance Kyoganoko Musume-Dojoji (“A Maiden and a Bell at the Dojoji Temple”), with a little Giselle thrown in for context, Yokoshi and Kayo Seyama discussed their work over the years.

Time Out New York: You look terrified. Please don’t be scared.
Kayo Seyama:
I’m so scared.

Time Out New York: Have you ever been interviewed?
Kayo Seyama:
It is the first time ever in my life.

Time Out New York: When did you start studying dance?
Kayo Seyama:
I was four years old. My teacher lived near my house; my parents ran a business out of their house, and I was in their way so I was sent to dance school.

Time Out New York: What do you remember about that experience?
Kayo Seyama:
I was so young that I don’t remember details, but when I was brought to the house of the teacher it was like going out to play.

Time Out New York: When did you start to figure out that you were good or even enjoyed dancing?
Kayo Seyama:
It’s not that I was meant to be [a dancer] or anything like that, but I loved doing it. I was asked to be trained in Tokyo. I am from Kanazawa. It is a little bit north.
Yasuko Yokoshi: It’s a beautiful old place where lots of traditional performing arts are very popular. And they make beautiful kimonos.

Time Out New York: At what age did you move to Tokyo?
Kayo Seyama:
I graduated from high school at 18, and I went to Tokyo at 19 to enter Masumi Seyama’s school. It’s by invitation. Kanjyuro Fujima, Masumi Seyama’s master, used to go to Kanazawa to teach the Kanazawa branch of the students so Masumi Seyama used to accompany him as his assistant. So I knew her.

Time Out New York: Why did you want to go?
Kayo Seyama:
[Laughs] I don’t know how to answer that. My parents chose Masumi Seyama for me to study with.

Time Out New York: Did you want to?
Kayo Seyama:
[Pauses] Yes, of course.

Time Out New York: Why the hesitation?
Kayo Seyama:
It is super complicated,and there are a myriad of complications so I’d rather not talk about it. It’s a long story. It takes years. [She wipes her forehead to show that she’s sweating.] It’s not that what I had to do was hard every day, but the daily routines…[I] had to take care of everything in the house.
Yasuko Yokoshi: You might want to know the system. If you enter as an apprentice of the house, it includes everything: housekeeper, cook, cleaner. So it’s every day, and she had to handle lots of things, every single day as it comes. This was when she went to Masumi Seyama’s house to enter as an apprentice and that means you become that whole thing. It’s not a student per se.

Time Out New York: It’s your whole life.
Yasuko Yokoshi:
Yeah. Devotion. Every single minute, every piece of you is there to work for the master.

Time Out New York: Could you leave if you wanted to or were you in it for life?
Kayo Seyama:
To leave is not allowed. Absolutely not. The traditional world is what you’re entering, so it’s conservative, of course, but that’s what you know at a young age. It’s what it is, no questions asked. 

Time Out New York: You became an apprentice at Masumi Seyama’s school in 1969. What was daily life like? 
Kayo Seyama:
When you get up, you clean the entire house. I didn’t have any time for myself. When I entered the school, Masumi Seyama told me, “You don’t possess time for yourself. All the time you have is given to me. Taking a bath and going to the bathroom is yours. Everything else is mine.” So it’s 24/7 that you are devoted to the master.

Time Out New York: When did you dance?
Kayo Seyama:
One week during the month, there is practice. Masumi Seyama’s practice and Kanjyuro Fujima’s practice were back-to-back, but they were separate. I am from the Seyama family school, and Kanjyuro Fujima had his own big family of students. So I accompanied Masumi Sensei to back up Kanjyuro Fujima’s teaching one week. My job was as the sound person. There was a huge reel-to-reel tape to turn on and turn off for each student. [Laughs] Two reels. On off, on off all day. And you put a little paper on a tab to rewind, so you know where to go back, because it has to be repeated. That was my job. So the next week, I danced in Masumi Sensei’s school. Masumi Sensei taught, and we danced together.

Time Out New York: Were you learning one piece or many pieces? Or movement?
Kayo Seyama:
There was a performance onstage and one-on-one [teaching] the repertoire, but the regular practice was one repertory [piece] a month. A long piece like Dojoji takes many weeks. It’s not to complete it [in order to] be able to dance. It’s that you copy. That’s a practice. When there is a stage then you have to dance, and it becomes a different animal.

Time Out New York: Were you performing when you got to the school?
Kayo Seyama:
No, it’s not like that. It took three years to get the certificate. I was given a family dancer name that requires a certain number of years of practice; it took me three years and after three years, gradually, I was allowed to be onstage.

Time Out New York: How did you get the family name?
Kayo Seyama:
You have to be a certain age, older than 15. In my generation of performing artists, you had to have mastered 30 pieces to get to that family name. That’s the protocol.

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