Dance and poetry meet to narrate the internment and dispossession of Japanese-Canadians

Kunji Mark Ikeda uses family stories and artistic expression to navigate challenging life experiences in Sansei: The Storyteller at the Chan Centre Apr. 28–29. The show follows Ikeda as he brings the audience through his family’s experiences in Canada’s Japanese internment camps during World War II.

Drawing on interviews with family members and his own experiences, Ikeda uses multiple art forms, and a healthy dose of levity, to allow the audience to connect and empathise with these challenging stories.

“Because of the nature of the content, I really needed to lighten the mood. Looking for silver linings, looking at the brighter side, that’s what it’s doing,”
he says.

Humour as an artistic tool

Kunji Mark Ikeda uses dance, theatre, spoken word, poetry and music to manifest family history. | Photo by, courtesy of the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre

In Sansei: The Storyteller, Ikeda shares the very personal story about how he and his family were affected by Japanese internment camps. It’s a discussion that is as important as it is challenging, especially as Canada reckons with its continuing history of colonialism
and marginalisation.

While there’s no getting around the darkness of the subject matter that Sansei navigates, Ikeda brings these family stories to the stage with a surprising level of levity, and even humour, for such a
difficult subject.

Rather than using it as any kind of sugar-coating, however, Ikeda says the humour is used as a kind of tool for a very human approach to story-telling.

“Their descriptions of what they went through, what it was like, everything from the climate to the shacks at the internment site: it’s pretty bleak,” says Ikeda. “So there’s a couple times that, even within the show, where I say ‘Uh Oh, this is a pretty dark moment. Let’s see if we can, uh, shift the energy a little bit.’”

In this way, it allows Ikeda himself to flesh out these experiences fully, and it allows the audience to connect with the stories on an even deeper level.

“It’s the kind of content that I wouldn’t want to continually give a Ted talk about. It’s too heavy,” he says. “We’ve heard Ted talks. We know the basic form. We can read Wikipedia articles, all these different access points. [This performance] is like coming back to an old friend and being able to speak to them in different ways about
different things.”

The best of dance and theatre

With Ikeda coming from both a theatre and dance background, Sansei: The Storyteller allows him to dip into two of his favourite worlds of performance. Ikeda says that the result is a show that allows each artistic form to play off of the strengths and weaknesses of the other.

“[Canadian choreographer] Crystal Pite has this beautiful line that ‘dance is really inefficient at telling stories, but really efficient at showing emotion,” says Ikeda. “So that’s what I’ve done in this, is being able to set up a story and set up the experience, and then slip into dance to really have something resonate to you.”

For Ikeda, the result of pairing together these artistic worlds, as well incorporating spoken word poetry and music, allow for even more opportunities for audiences to really connect and empathise with the stories being told.

“I could speak it to you and describe it. And that gives you a certain context. I could dance what it felt like to me, and that gives you a different context. I could put it into a poem form and really play with flowery unique language and tickle your brain in that way,” he says.

In the end, Ikeda hopes that the story, in its attempts to resonate with people, allows them to even reflect on their
own experience.

“All these different perspectives really give a well rounded view, not only of this experience, but I think it speaks to that feeling that I think is quite common for so many of us: to feel left out, to be not respected or less respected, or looked over because our stories don’t align with the stories that get told in the mainstream,” says Ikeda. “So anyone who’s outside the mainstream or made to feel outside the mainstream, that’s showing
them respect.”

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