Enmei (Long Life): A Dance and Aging Project
As the populations of both the United States and Japan grow older, it becomes increasingly critical to understand how cultural discourses about older women (who make up the vast bulk of the older population) affect individuals’ lives, as well as to understand how women work with and around those discourses as they age—a topic of considerable importance given the skyrocketing populations of older women in both Japan and the United States. In particular, this research examined how cultural ideas about aging and gender inform the lives and embodied experiences of older female dancers (and, by extension, of non- dancers).
Enmei (Long Life): A Dance and Aging Project (formerly entitled EN) is a dance performance and design project that examines what it means – and what it takes – to age with dignity and purpose in the youth-centered culture of contemporary dance. This issue is important for all dancers, but is especially acute for women, for whom expectations of beauty and youth stemming from the dance world are amplified by similar stringent demands from the culture at large. As a result, examples of American women working as professional dancers into their forties and beyond are rare, despite the success of a few iconic artists such as Wendy Whelan and Liz Lerman. Indeed, the idea that older women should be celebrated for their ongoing accomplishments as performers is so rare that there can be considerable difficulty finding any research literature on the topic.
Issues around dance and aging have been brought into particularly sharp focus by the project initiators, professors Mary Fitzgerald and Eileen Standley, who have long histories of working with older and quite successful Japanese women dance artists. The artists’ success may reflect the cultural emphasis on respect that elders and masters of the arts traditionally receive in Japan, however age discrimination, sex discrimination, and disparaging stereotypes about older women are at least as common in Japan as in the United States (Ingersoll-Dayton, B., and Saengtienchai, 1999; Prieler et al., 2015; Formanek, 2008; Ogasawara, 1998; Sung and Kim, 2001).
Enmei (Long Life): A Dance and Aging Project interweaves the collection and analysis of narratives, storytelling and dance making to examine the ways in which different cultures value (or devalue) the aging body. Mid- to late-career dance artists and scholars from the U.S. and Japan brought their varied life—and bodily—experiences together to explore how cultural ideas about aging and gender have informed the lives, embodied experience, and wellness of female dancers (and, by extension, of non-dancers).
Through a collaborative process, the interdisciplinary research team included women ranging from their early forties to their seventies: ASU dance faculty members Mary Fitzgerald and Eileen Standley; Dr. Rose Weitz, Professor of Women and Gender Studies; Kotoka Suzuki (School of Music) and Japanese dance artists Kei Takei and Masako Kitaura. Each woman brought a unique history and disciplinary perspective to the project, and all share a deep interest in art making and/or scholarship that centers on the body and movement.
Grounded in the team’s collective knowledge bases of the existing literature in dance, cultural studies, and women’s studies, the research approach also included continuous exchange with the Japanese colleagues and the creation of the new artistic work, Enmei (Long Life): A Dance and Aging Project.
The research methodologies centered on cross-cultural dialogues with several Japanese dance artists, in-depth movement research, and collaborative art-making to address three sets of research questions:
1. What is lost and what is gained as an aging dancer’s somatic knowledge grows but the body falters? How do dance and choreographic practices change with age, and how do older dancers navigate the physical changes that accompany aging?
2. How do cultural ideas about older women, and older women dance artists, differ between the United States and Japan? How are women dancers affected or limited by these ideas and how can they negotiate or challenge them?
3. What can dance practitioners in these two countries learn from each other about aging, women, and dance? And how can dance practitioners take this knowledge to a broader audience?
These questions were approached in some of the following ways:
• Video and audio interviews with older women dance artists in Japan between the ages of mid-40s to late 70s.
• Photo and video documentation
• Movement research
• Embodied collaboration to create ephemeral objects and design elements for the performance.
• Designs using traditional Japanese silks and kimono for costumes.
• Inspiration from ancient Japanese visual art techniques, contemporary aesthetics, and
sociocultural ideals related to age and the body.
• Continued dialogue, presentation and development of related artistic projects and workshops at conferences and festivals with mature women artists in the U.S., Japan, Argentina, Canada and Australia.
Additionally, this practice-based research, included two artist residencies in Japan and in the U.S with renowned Japanese choreographer Kei Takei and Japanese master dancer and designer Masako Kitaura. This creative activity and research culminated in an evening of original choreography, design, and music that first premiered at ASU in May 2017 and went on to tour at local, national, and international venues until 2020.
Findings and Impact
Several points of discussion were generated from the research – in particular ideas about resilience, presence and legacy– what do we leave behind as we age? How is the accumulated knowledge of aging female dancers from different cultures shared and articulated?
These remnants of inquiry have led to the creation of various iterations of the project Enmei (Long Life), including new pedagogical approaches, publications, conference presentations, film and animation projects, intergenerational workshops, and performances in a variety of sites and spaces, in both traditional and non-traditional venues.
Furtherance of this research:
• In May of 2017 the premiere of Enmei (Long Life) was held at ASU with Japanese artists Kei Takei and Masako Kitaura, U.S. artists Mary Fitzgerald and Eileen Standley (both professors in the School of Film, Dance, and Theatre), a contextual talk and performance by Dr. Rose Weitz (Women and Gender Studies in the School of Social Transformation) and a new music composition by Kotoka Suzuki (School of Music).
• National and international tours of the performance Enmei (Long Life): A Dance and Aging Project from 2018-20 (Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, Links Hall in Chicago, the BOLD II Dance Festival in Canberra, Australia, and Festival Corporalidad Expandida in Buenos Aires, Argentina, among others). Enmei (Long Life) performance trailer: https://vimeo.com/242642142
• Socially engaged intergenerational movement workshops by Professor Mary Fitzgerald and Professor Eileen Standley (School of Film, Dance and Theatre). Sample here from Taller Amplificado in Buenos Aires, Argentina: https://vimeo.com/405599334
• New music composition by Professor Kotoka Suzuki (School of Music) using interview materials and stories from the Japanese interviewees.
• Lecture demonstrations on the artistic and socio-cultural aspects of kimono and the female body.
• A photobook documenting the narratives of the Japanese women dance artists interviewed and the research team’s artist residencies in Japan and Arizona to collaborate on the creation of the project are available here: https://www.blurb.com/bookstore/invited/7215044/0e5f4588733376d2146e67f2...
• Video and audio documentation of interviews with Japanese dancers for eventual blog and video catalog.
• Dissemination of research through publications and presentations of Enmei (Long Life) project research at various international and national academic conferences on arts based research and the humanities.
• Screendance iterations of the research and festival presentations (at local, national, international venues). Sample: https://vimeo.com/328893339