Reflections on Dance: A Moving Canvas with Ayako Kato

By Sid Smith
Incorporating the work of Ayako Kato and her Art Human Landscape into the Moving Canvas methodology would seem to be a daunting, maybe impossible mission.
Kato's distilled, pristine movement is as much about Eastern philosophy as Western dance, lean and bare, any modification imposed from outside threatening to shatter its delicate purity. Moving Canvas, meanwhile, the series of events linking visual art and dance that ended its runWednesday at the Chicago Artists Coalition, is all about ad hoc revision, noisy and crowd-motivated addition, even superimposed and impromptu monkeyshines--almost any means allowed to invite audiences into the process, however messily and willy nilly. Kato's aesthetic is pinpoint and precise, down to the flicker of a finger; Moving Canvas audiences, ably guided by host Zachary Whittenburg, are urged to deconstruct, reconstruct and figuratively toss onto the stage all manner of intellectual implements culled from audience member's personal bag of tricks.
But perhaps it says something about Moving Canvas, Kato and the fundamentals of the aesthetic communal enterprise that the approach turned out to work so well, a dizzying illustration of the paradoxes, complexities, contradictions and inexplicables of art. Kato's dance, as Whittenburg pointed out early in the discussion, isn't so much simple as deceptively simple. The tools may be minimalist, but the concentration required is hyper-demanding, while the reach borders on the cosmic. With that broad a vision, detail and color turn out to be remarkably flexible. 
Wednesday's program, dubbed "Incidents 2," could be divided into three components, as Whittenburg suggested, beginning with a pre-performance idyll, wherein Kato and her two performers variously sway, mostly in place, situated in the main area of the exhibition space. Their attire consisted of garments originally made for the photographs by Liz Gadelha on view as part of the Coalition's Radical Natural exhibit. The photographs depict subjects in nature in the garments; Kato and company's wearing them began the evening with the obvious but undeniable image that figures from the photos had come alive, walked off the wall and joined the live proceedings.
The rest of Kato's presentation featured two more components: a series of double "figure 8" enactments by the trio that Whittenburg dubbed "figure 9" and another series carried out in a kind of clover-leaf construct organized around one of the room's pillars.
This is work with its own seemingly inevitable propulsion, the women resembling dirvishes whirling and perpetuated as if manipulated by an unseen hand or force. Their eerily balanced relationships to the pillar and each other recalled planets gracefully and beautifully in orbit.
In the discussion afterwards, one observer likened the performers to the double helix of molecular DNA structure, while another suggested they were priestesses, down to and including the sweat on one of their palms as a kind of holy water.
How the heck does a crowd of strangers modify that?
Part of the answer is that the meaning behind Kato's exploration is both as precise as molecular physics and expansive as the far reaches of multiple galaxies. In dialogue with the observers, Kato noted repeatedly that whatever an observer said would be accurate, an Asian-born movement artist echoing a line from that most Western of Western poets, Alexander Pope, who, reflecting on the theory of the Great Chain of Being, in his "Epistle on Man," wrote: "Whatever is, is right."
The group's revisions served to prove the point. Whittenburg prompted the audience to pick one of the three components to revise (the "figure 9" won), and then invited other suggestions, which included one of the dancers recast as a central focal point, enacting the "swaying" component. The velocities also underwent alteration: Jessica Marasa, the woman in the center, was instructed to begin slowly and gradually accelerate. Kato and Precious Jennings, the circulating performers, conversely started fast and slowed to a crawl.
All sorts of subtle musings came out of this alternative exercise, but one of them in particular ties in with Kato's overriding philosophic interest. She speaks often of chaos theory, and after the second enactment, one member of the audience brought up the topic in contrasting the two episodes.
The first rendering seemed symmetrical and orderly, the viewer noted; the second chaotic, as if, by the very act of communal participation, the state of entropy was lurking ever closer. Instead of priestesses, this viewer, in the second reading, compared them to demons.
Meanwhile, Gadelha's art played an even bigger role. Marasa donned the supersized sleeves from the photos left to the side during the first performance, deepening the mystery and complexity of the work when, as she slowly rotated, the material enveloped her in a movement-propelled wraparound. In yet another of the gossamer and yet profound paradoxes of the evening, she became a kind of living mummy.