Ayako Kato and Jason Roebke
Ayako Kato and Jason Roebke Credit: JOHNATHON CRAWFORD

Ayako Kato decided to stop dancing at the age of 19, after 15 years of ballet training in her native Japan. “I wanted to be prima ballerina,” she says. “But you must win in competitions or that pathway is shut.” She thought, “If I cannot be useful as dancer, I should quit.” So she got a degree in international studies, married, and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where her husband studied economics at the University of Michigan. Divorced from him since 2000, she says she “tried to be normal Japanese wife.”

While in Ann Arbor, at 26, she began taking modern classes. Realizing that “it may not be too late to dance,” she enrolled at the U. of M. and earned an MFA. Now 41, she’s not only still dancing but runs a performance company called Art Union Humanscape with her current husband, bassist Jason Roebke, and a monthly performance series, the Epiphany Dance Experiment, at the landmark Epiphany Episcopal Church. A small woman with a gentle, self-effacing manner, Kato has become a powerful performer and, in the five years since she came here to marry Roebke, a force in the Chicago dance community.

Kato’s nuanced performances are mesmerizing. The simplest motion radiates meaning; the dance evolves and yet remains elusive. During our conversation, she demonstrates the movement of dropping an arm. “You can change how you do it,” she says. “You can change the speed, what you’re grabbing”—and she torques her arm, curls her hand, tips her head forward to look intently, with profound curiosity, at whatever it is she’s grabbed. “It’s not just movement, not just steps,” she says. “It gets deeper as we get older.”

Kato specializes in improvising, particularly with Roebke. But many disciplines feed her work. She’s acquainted with the techniques of Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Paul Taylor, and Merce Cunningham. After returning to Japan in 1998, where she lived again for six years, she studied butoh and Noh theater.

Kato vividly recalls her first class with butoh master Kazuo Ohno, whose approach she describes as “more cheerful, more mellow, more hopeful” than that of his provocative mentor, butoh originator Hijikata Tatsumi. At the class, she says, “We were asked to do jellyfish for two hours. Ohno went to New Guinea as soldier, and on the way back he sent out the coffin of a dead soldier to the sea. He said that man’s spirit became jellyfish.” She adds, “Your body is not always yours. It can expand to a role beyond yourself.”

From Noh, Kato says she learned “I can place myself anywhere. I can shrink myself into a cell, or I can expand into the universe. I can go to the place of war, I can sway in the wind.” The Noh stage is small and bare, so viewers and performers alike must use their imaginations to see, for example, that three steps can be a journey of a thousand miles, Kato says.

Kato discovered the cavernous, spectral Epiphany Episcopal by chance, drawn there by a wintertime farmers’ market. “I was fascinated by the space,” she says, “and looking for a place to produce Ten Nights Dream,” which she mounted in June 2008. She says the Epiphany Dance Experiment grew out of her wish for informal “dance gatherings.” Since she arrived in Chicago in 2004, she says, “the dance scene has been so generous, has opened so many doors for me. I wanted to be useful in the community.”