Aretha Aoki, center, and Ryan MacDonald, right, will perform “IzumonookunI” at the Bates Dance Festival July 12 and 14. Their daughter, Frankie Mayfield, left, joins them on stage. Photo by Colin Kelley

Aretha Aoki, 44, is a choreographer, performer and educator originally from Vancouver, British Columbia. She is an associate professor of dance at Bowdoin College. Ryan MacDonald, 47, is a multimedia artist and author originally from Kansas City, Missouri. They are partners and collaborators who now live in Topsham.

This summer, they will perform “IzumonookunI” at the Bates Dance Festival. The dance is inspired by the 17th-century founder of the Japanese dance-drama form of kabuki and reimagined in a post-punk, contemporary landscape. They took a few minutes away from their preparation to answer five questions about their work. This interview has been edited for length.

What do you find to be the most inspiring aspect of working together and also the most challenging?

Aoki: Making work is so isolating. It can feel really lonely to make. For me, having a built-in partner to bounce ideas of off is so wonderful. It brings us closer in many ways. We’re trying to create something that we haven’t made before. There’s something about having someone else there to short of challenge your own habits and how you’re perceiving things, to even wreck the work that you do and to create something new from that. It’s so wonderful.

MacDonald: Yeah, it really fosters creativity. If there’s ever a time that you start feeling stuck as an artist, you have the other person to, you know, stir it up and churn the creative process, then it really starts to bloom. I think we get along maybe best when we’re working together, which is most of the time, honestly. We’re always working on something.

Can you tell me a little bit about the piece you’ll be performing at the festival this year?


Aoki: We’re showing a work called “IzumonookunI.” It’s the name of the female founder of kabuki. Izumo no Okuni was her name. It’s interesting to think about the genesis of our work having multiple origin points, and it’s not always the truth that there’s just one, but one distinctive moment for us was watching a BBC documentary about kabuki, focusing around this current kabuki superstar, a man. In passing, they mention the founder of kabuki. That was this moment when the two of us looked at each other, and we’re like, how did we not know this about kabuki, that there is a woman that founded this form that’s predominantly and pretty exclusively men? …

One of Ryan’s early influences is punk rock and music of various genres. We were thinking about the way that when kabuki started with a group of women – mostly potentially prostitutes and social outcasts – there was something kind of countercultural about it. It was very different from the high art of Noh theater at the time. We don’t know much about kabuki. We mostly looked at a fictional book called “Kabuki Dancer” by Sawako Ariyoshi. It’s a fictional account of kabuki written by a Japanese woman author in the ’60s. Potentially, “kabuki” is what people called her dancing, and one definition of that is “strange and indecent.” So it was labeled weird and strange, and that being very much connected to an ethos of punk rock.

How did you decide to include your 7-year-old daughter Frankie in the piece? What is that experience like for you as parents and as artists?

Aoki: We made this work – I don’t know if we were under lockdown, but we were in the sort of early stages of COVID and isolation. We got this show through a New England Dance Now platform and ICA in Boston, and Frankie hadn’t been with a babysitter in a really long time, and to be honest, we haven’t used a lot of babysitters. … We asked her, “Should we try and find someone, or would you like to be in the show?” She said she would like to be in the show.

MacDonald: At the time, she really just sat at my feet on this big fluffy pillow, and that was the extent of it.

Frankie Mayfield sits on her mother like a horse during a performance of “IzumonookunI.” Photo by Colin Kelley

Aoki: And a lot of people remarked on her. Everyone was like, wow, she has this really penetrating, amazing way of looking out into the audience. But more importantly for us is that she loved doing it. She was really excited about it. When the next opportunity for showing came, she was really eager to do the same.


MacDonald: There was this rehearsal where she rode (Aretha) across the stage like a horse, like a kid and a mom would do. And both of us were like, oh, that’s such a cool image. And it completely stayed in.

Aoki: It’s hard being a parent and being an artist and also having a job and all these other things, and I feel really lucky to have a space where all that stuff can come together. … And she’s part Japanese. I’m from Vancouver, which has a very big Asian population, and I’m away from my family of origin. So we get to bring some of that to her, and she gets to be a part of that, which is really huge.

You are bringing members of Sawagi Taiko, the first all-women identified taiko drumming group in Canada, from Vancouver. How did that collaboration begin, and what does their presence add to the performance and the story?

Aoki: I miss home, my family’s there, I miss the communities there. So I think there was this element of, how can we draw a line back to Vancouver? And there is a festival that I was heavily involved in called the Powell Street Festival, both as an organizer, programmer, performer early on. It’s a Japanese-Canadian arts and culture festival that was formed from redress money through Japanese internment. And I grew up going to that festival and so watching Sawagi was part of that. I very much connect with them as part of that original community. I reached out to see if there would be any possibility – it felt like we needed to broaden a little it. It felt like it couldn’t just be the two of us, that we really wanted to have the presence of other Asian women on stage.

MacDonald: And soundwise, it was balancing that contemporary sound with a more traditional sound, and they very much bring that.

Why did it feel important to you to tell this story in 2024?

Aoki: For me, there’s this hunger for a disruption to how we typically think of Asian women still as passive or submissive or certainly not enterprising, spearheading a cultural form that now UNESCO designates as a form that has global significance. I just never knew about that, and there’s still something about erasure, that it bothers me to hear about people being erased or not receiving the credit they deserve.

Ryan MacDonald, left, and Aretha Aoki, right, perform “IzumonookunI” at Motion State Arts in Rhode Island. Their daughter is center on the white pillow. Photo by Nikki Lee and courtesy of the artists

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