Rika Lin in Lines of Tradition Credit: Marquisha Lu

Black hair. A jilted woman. A sacrifice. Snow. “She’s a geisha who falls in love with a samurai. They have their one secret night together, but she realizes the future of the clan depends on his marrying this other woman, so she says, ‘Go.’ It’s their wedding night. She’s alone and undoing her hair. It’s black hair—a symbol of youth, the strength of a woman, resilience, beauty,” says choreographer Rika Lin on Kurokami (“Black Hair”), an excerpt from the now-lost 18th-century kabuki play Oakinai hirugakojima. “If you listen to the lyrics, it sounds like she was this innocent girl, and he went, ‘We’ll be together forever, baby!’ But if you know the play, she’s in anguish and bitter because she chose this sacrifice.” 

Now Lin, in collaboration with musicians Matsuya Nozawa and Tatsu Aoki, calligrapher Hekiun Oda, director Subhash Maskara, user interface designer Derrick Fields, and software engineer Michael Flood, is developing Kurokami e{murge}, a contemporary rendition of this classical work for virtual reality presentation—the latest project in a body of work that examines gender and tradition through the lens of Japanese classical dance.

Born in Chicago to first-generation immigrants from Japan, Lin began dancing after her younger sister, Rina, got a taste of Japanese classical dance one summer in Japan. Upon her return, Rina continued at Shubukai, the Chicago school of Japanese classical dance founded by grandmaster Fujima Shunojo in 1976—and their mother took Rika, a self-described “tomboy” who practiced martial arts, along.Japanese classical dance in the conventional older ways was one more line in your ‘I’m going to be a good wife’ resume,” says Lin. “Can you do the tea ceremony? Do you do flower arrangement? Do you dance? I’m sure my mom was thinking, ‘Here’s my butch daughter who likes karate; I better get her something so she’s presentable.’ So I went and had my lesson, and it was this rare thing, a male dance teacher. [Japan is] a male-dominated society, but all the Japanese classical dance teachers were women.”

“There are five major schools of Japanese classical dance,” she says. “The Fujima school is known for having very intricate, complex choreography and a strong connection to kabuki.” When Fujima Shunojo began his apprenticeship in Japan, as the youngest of a cohort with several boys, it was decided that he would learn the female dances. “It was an unusual thing that there were so many male apprentices in his teacher’s school. So it was fate.” 

Lin continued training in both Japanese classical dance and Shotokan karate. “The dojo [JKA Chicago Sugiyama Dojo, founded by Shojiro Sugiyama] was on the second floor, and my dance teacher worked on the first floor,” she recalls. “In karate, my teacher would say, ‘You’re dancing! This is karate!’ And I’d go to dance, and it would be, ‘You’re doing karate—this is dance!’ And I’d be like, ‘What am I doing?'” 

Yet Lin was drawn to dance in spite of herself. “The characters and the dances had a complete story. You knew your character. It was comforting to know. You are dancing a woman, and you’re selling your flowers, and this is how a woman moves, this is her class, this is what she’s wearing. It’s a comforting security that there’s this path, this is what you do, and you try to do it as best you can. I always figured, growing up, you have this track to follow. This expectation, you’re supposed to have ‘osmified’ into you by your family: you get good grades, undergrad, med school. It was planned. It was secure. So dance was a way to not worry about the real world. It was an escape,” she says. (An escape that looks just like the trap, I suggest. I never thought about it that way, she laughs.)

Dance was also a connection to Japanese culture as Lin grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Warrenville. “My first language was Japanese, but in the burbs, there were no other Japanese people at all. My father [a radiology physicist] would moonlight at checking MRI machines in hospitals. We would go to Iowa—a big family vacation!—and we were across from the hospital in a playground, and I distinctly remember a Caucasian boy in a station wagon with a window open and he’s standing on his seat, and he goes, ‘Chinese!’ I go, ‘Where?—oh, he’s talking about us!'” she recalls. 

Yet, as a result of American hostility towards Japan and those of Japanese descent before, during, and after World War II, relationships even among Japanese Americans can be complex: “During the internment, there was a line drawn between nationals, people who come from Japan, and families who were interned and went through the camps. Typically they don’t speak Japanese because they were trying to assimilate. So nationals were kind of deemed the enemy,” notes Lin. On the other side, her Japanese teachers expressed ambivalence about becoming American. “My karate teacher, we always used to ask him, ‘You’re not going to get your green card?’ He experienced the war in Japan. He would say, ‘If women, the bodies float downwards, and men they float upwards.’ He was giving an explanation after a firebombing or something. We were stupidly lighthearted, like, ‘Why won’t you become an American citizen? Go, America!’ And he’d start telling these stories. He saw that.” 

In college at Northwestern, Lin found herself surrounded by Asian friends for the first time (“everybody was premed”)—yet her activities set her apart. “I scheduled my classes to make sure I could hit my dance teacher’s classes Monday, Friday, Saturday, and my karate classes Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. While I was going to karate and dance, my friends were studying their butts off. They’d go out while I was studying, so my path diverged from everyone else’s.” One day, in frustration, she said, “Why do I have to be a doctor, Mom?” Her mother replied, “No one told you you had to be a doctor.” 

So Lin became a physical therapist instead—and continued to dance. “The only time I missed the annual performance was in grad school, because there was no way. When I became a physical therapist, half the time to break the ice with my patients, I’m talking about dance. It’s this ‘super hobby’ that’s all you do. When you go home, you’re doing dance.” As she rose through the ranks at Shubukai, she assumed more responsibilities—”coordinating performances or calling and making arrangements or stage managing”—and eventually sought her professional stage name with the intention of continuing her teacher’s school. 

“The Fujima school operates under a headmaster system, like most cultural arts in Japan. Usually it’s a family. The headmaster controls the knowledge and certifies the teachers that then teach that style. When you receive your professional stage name, you’re a representative of the school.” Following a training process that can only be completed in Japan, recipients of the Fujima name acknowledge their professional status with the performance of one of three hour-long dances—the white heron maiden, the lion dance, or the temple maiden (“your teacher will choose according to your personality”). “I didn’t realize it cost a lot of money. My parents were against it because there’s no future in it. I refinanced my condo and I got my professional name against my parents’ wishes. But, being stubborn, I was like, ‘Well, I guess I’m just going to do it,'” she says. “I’m still paying off my stage name”: Fujima Yoshinojo, which acknowledges the lineage of her training by combining the name of the school with the names of her teachers. 

But before Lin could officially teach or choreograph, she still needed to acquire a grandmaster license, which requires years more training and an arduous exam before the headmaster. “When I got my grandmasters license, then I was able to do Beyond the Box“—her first self-produced show at Links Hall in 2017, which included duets with Ayako Kato (Swathe) and Lenora Lee (Anger and the Bell), a piece with her students in collaboration with composer Eric Leonardson (Quantum Monk II), and a solo (Mai Ougi). Beyond the Box 4.3, an iteration of Kurokami developed in collaboration with puppeteer Tom Lee, continues at Links Hall this May. 

Quantum Monk IICredit: Courtesy of the artist

The ten years between stage name and grandmaster license—during which she “scrambled and had different grants and begged and borrowed”—allowed Lin’s choreographic voice to simmer to the surface. “I don’t have the typical body type to be a Japanese dancer—to even be Japanese,” she says. “I remember when I was five, they’d be like, ‘You’re kind of fat!’ When I started training for the exam, they’d say, ‘You’re sweating too much!’ That’s a dealbreaker, if you’re sweating. But I’m living! If I think about it, I’m going to sweat! Seeing all these boundaries and all these walls and having things told to me about my body type and my natural stance—’Why are you dancing it that way?’ ‘What do you mean? I’m as small as I can get!’—all these questions throughout my training, I thought, ‘What if I do it in a way that’s more applicable to myself, to the times, to differences?’ My body type is my body type. I excelled more in the male dances. And I did karate and all that, too. It was an opportunity, as fate would have it, that my male teacher who excels in women’s dances was teaching me when I’m good at male dances.” 

These observations of boundaries, boundary-crossings, and the ingenuity of necessity began with and extend to her teacher Fujima Shunojo and the Shubukai school, prompting her to launch Revitalizing Tradition, an annual program in its 14th season this April (with a year skipped for the pandemic).

“If you’re in Japan, you have a professional wigmaker, costume maker, makeup artist, musicians. But I grew up watching him do everything. Traditionally, the teacher does the first and last dance. Here, he does the first and last dance and changes everybody in between. I started helping with the dressing, makeup, wigs, and props—and thought, ‘Good grief, I wish I could just watch my teacher dance for once!’ So I proposed to him, ‘How about we do a program where only you dance, and we have some time to talk about it?'” For the first program, her teacher performed two dances, one “male” and one “female” (she notes that these performances of gender were invented by men: “The classical dance aesthetics were coming from kabuki, the male ideal of a woman”). After the first year, her teacher invited Lin to dance as well—he would continue to perform female roles, and she would dance male roles—and guests including lecturers, calligraphers, and students could contribute to the program as well. “This year we’re flipping it for the first time—he’s going to dance a male [role]; I’m going to dance female.” 

Lin views the virtual reality edition of Kurokami (scheduled to premiere in summer 2021) and its continuing evolution with a particular focus on the freedoms and constraints of the futuristic medium. Virtual reality, like film, “makes you focus on certain things,” she says. “You are given a sense of freedom, but it’s not really there. You’re forced to perceive and think of [certain] things, even as you might not realize you don’t have a choice. I think it’s a good example of the model of life. One of our hashtags is #chooseyourreality.” It’s a revealing perspective for an Asian American choreographer bridging centuries of tradition with emerging technology in a lifetime of navigating choice and fate. “How you live your life appears in your dance.”