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Oh. Oh OK. I remember when I first started teaching thinking. I wish I had. A specific thing to say what it is that. What is it about dance that. What is it that's my style my technique not my the Grahams not going humans not most Cunninghams. But what is it that I can bring to the dance that it's. Really uniquely me. What do I believe in it. And it's it's taken me. Years and years to do. To come to the place where it. All has come together. And it has to do with the human spirit I think in. Me back you didn't know that the being. That needs to come out. That can come out and that needs to come out I think. Not just dancers but. Everyone. Join me for a conversation with June and modern dancer. After raising three children and recovering from a debilitating back injury she
founded her own dance company. Her innovative work which incorporates movement music stage design and video is deeply influenced by her Japanese American heritage. Today at age 51 she is considered by colleagues and critics to be one of the most dynamic performers and. On the dance faculty at Mills College in Oakland. She continues to share her unique vision with new generations of dancers. You started dancing again after a time when everyone said this can't happen. What got you go. I think when someone begins dancing at the age of 40 it's because you have to deal with it and it's it was almost a new discovery at that time for me. And it's amazing that it took me 40 years to realize how much I loved dance
and was you were teaching dance. I was teaching dance but I was not performing. And it's one thing to teach and to give in that way and it's another thing to really be participating in it yourself. But I thought it was you know just you know teaching and until I ruptured my I had an injury never up to three discs and it was at that moment when I was crawling on my hands and knees I I think for the first time in my life I realized how dearly I'd love movement. When you're crawling on your hands and knees from the ruptured disc. Yes. And I couldn't walk and it was not even a matter of walking again. All I knew was that I had dance. And even if it were to be just for one more time what did it take to recover from your back injury. Well. Just sheer will and determination because of that. I had dance again.
I didn't want to walk again I decide to dance again. I didn't want to go through surgery so because this was a time when I was just acknowledging the fact that I really did want to go back and dance and begin creating work. So because of that I didn't want to go through any surgery so I went to. Canada. To get an injection of camel pap pain which was very common practice and in Canada but not allowed in the United States. And so I dissolved two of my discs and coming back I had to go through this group therapy and my back was in a great deal of trauma. I began dancing and I should have dance then I was told at that time you know you really need like a good nine years to get over an injury like this. You know at least three. But I kept thinking I was running out of time because of my age and I thought I had her even do this because I doubt in 1998 1980. I was just
beginning my career when all this happened and somehow I kept getting the feeling that it was going to come to an end unless I would hurry up and do this. So I started taking class and I was in pain for a good two years and. But it was some time where. I was running out and I had to do that then. So I pushed very hard to strengthen my body. So I could dance again. And I think the thing that may have helped me was when I was in the hospital. I took three of my dance tapes with me and I played them every night. In tearfully I go through the dance you know internally and visualize a dance dance tapes of yourself there. No no no audio tapes music. I would play the music and go through the dance internally as I heard the music and it was. The only thing that that gave me strength I think to. You know. Get on and recover. I just had one goal.
It was worth it. I'm so glad I experienced it in a sense because. All that did was confirm how much how deeply I love dance and how important it was in my life. And I don't know that had I always participated in the dolls years I would just you know it had just been another part of my life as another appendage. And. I think it was very important that I felt that pain and that I felt that kind of commitment. And you don't and it's funny about life that it that these moments of tragedy or despair or whatever we go through I mean those moments are really really critical in terms of our personal growth and if we can just get through those moments knowing that there's a lot you know in the other other side what is this love of motion. I don't know. It was a child. The thing I really truly love before I ever dance was music and and that's how I started dancing was because I love.
I wanted to take piano lessons and I love music so much and Im going to take my mother took me to. A neighborhood studio where they taught dance and you know music in this name Mr. O'Reilly I still remember him with his white hair and his navy blue suit. He said well why dont you dance to taking piano lessons and I don't know what prompted him to say that. And I had not even ever thought about dancing and so somehow we ended up dancing and I never got back to my piano lessons. Ive heard so many women talk about being subjected to ballet lessons as children and come away feeling awkward and ugly and stead of the whole. Some of the most beautiful moments I've seen people dance are the untrained dancers. If they can feel a connection about how they're moving it is so beautiful because then learned it was like the unlearned piece of choreography that I watched in my
elementary class. It was so. Organically expressive. But there was form and structure to it. But that it was unlearned it was that raw natural state of being. That had. A formal definition but it was not learned. I like to encourage people to experience this feeling of movement because I do feel such joy at times like you say now listen you your at this age you should you know dance like someone of your age but I do feel such an exuberance in terms of movement. How does one dance like someone your age does that well you know it's just predisposition about what one should be like when you get to a certain age you suppose and. I'm part of I think I say this because my work's my choreographic works tend to be. Heavier. They they're come from very much
of a deep deep place. So I think in terms of the movement material it's it's wonderful to experience that kind of exuberance it doesn't quite come out in my work. Because I think my the materials in which I dance about. Are not necessarily about these wonderful feelings about life. I remember when I first started teaching thinking I wish I had a specific thing to say what it is. What is it about dance that. What is it that's my style my technique not Martha Graham's not going Newman's not Merce Cunningham but what is it that I can bring to the dance that it's really uniquely me. What do I believe in it. And it's taken years and years to come to the place where it all has come together and it has to do with the human spirit I think and in me back to the day that the being the self that needs to come out. That can come out and that needs to come out I think and not just dancers but for everyone.
One of your dancers is about. Your experience in the Japanese internment camps. That. Took almost nine years to finally come to a place where I felt it truly was speaking in the way in which I would like it to speak. It's funny that. As a nine hundred seventy nine when I did my first piece of choreography I did a piece called dot dot dot dot silently and had to do with the silent scream and I thought why am I doing this. I didn't know and. Subsequent after really after the first solo I created I keep thinking about. Images of. Searchlights barbed wire fence and a watchtower and I thought Now why does do images like that keep coming up for me. They were just coming to you not you weren't consciously working on that. No I was just doing that first solo.
That I then began having images of. In a wartime situation and I'd never been in a war zone I couldn't imagine why this was all coming out. And I realized as I began working on my very first group piece that. This probably had to do with the internment and it's something that we've never spoken about it at home all the years that you know I've grown up you know in Los Angeles my family would never discuss it it was just something that was. Not openly discussed and when it came time that I really wanted to address and really dig into the past. I asked my mother she would you know talk about it she says there's nothing to talk about. What was done was done because it had to be done and that was probably the way it should have been which is very Japanese in the sense that we live by these words. She cut she cut that guy which means it can't be helped and got mind means you know just grit your teeth and and withstand whatever needs to happen.
And I suppose those two elements you know prevailed in terms of their attitude so that we grew up without ever really knowing about it. And in some ways I don't know if that was good or bad because they try to make life as cheerful and as normal as possible you know while we were in camp. How old were you. I went when I was three and came out. About six. So I decide images and not too many feelings. I had some very good times and can the wonderful times you know in the snow and I remember going to the movies on Fridays and living somewhat of a normal life. But I think the problem with all this is that because it was never discussed I think you always knew there was a free feeling of every henchman there was tension there and I think it's almost more damaging when you don't know what is going on you know as a child. And.
So I suppose a lot of this just sort of came up. Perhaps you know through my first dance that I created. Because my pieces come from such such a personal place I think oh my goodness I really should be dancing about this because it is coming from a personal place. But I hope that my dances are. Of a universal make a universal statement and I think that. I'm finding that from the response I am getting that people are. Are being reached and that the works become a vehicle. For themselves to tap into themselves and perhaps other
experiences in life and if anything. That the dances is a vehicle to speak about issues in. Someone had talked about a Mayan term and had had just seen him and he's and said you know it's one thing to know about it and read about in history books and read the papers. But she says you know in seeing the work it just brought her so much more closer to to the reality of what really happened and and regardless of what form it takes it's very important that through the arts that in various ways that that things get communicated. And here's a body of silence. It's such power. You spent 17 years rearing your children. In some way silenced self-imposed silence. But then I. Spoke out again. I think I feel so grateful. I. I do have very grateful that I was able to.
Find my dance. Because I didn't know I didn't know how much I loved it. And I just feel very very grateful and privileged that. At my age now and in 1990 that I can be. Not just dancing but also creating work that had to come out of me. But truly that creative spirit must be cultivated. I just I think that's important for the survival of humanity. Imagination imagination feelings intuition and somehow we really need to build that into our educational system. Through perhaps getting back to motherhood because this is who are raising our next generation. I'm interested in the time you spent rearing your children and what it was like for you Do you regret taking away from your growth as a creative artist. I was attending because they were first of all I literally
was not involved in it that intensively. I never felt as though something had been taken away and I know this is true of some my friends who had really. Were very immersive in their work and suddenly they had to you know divide their time with family and children. But for me it was just something I was going to do I never had. I had never planned to dance or have a company so I just knew that this was the next step in life which was to go and have a family and eventually you know become teacher that the teaching has always been very strong in him. And my. Connections with dance more so than in actually performing or choreographing. Did you ever get the impression that people thought you were lost to the world because you chose to have children instead. It's you know it's funny because when I mention to some friends that I was so surprised that I ended up dancing again they said we're not
surprised. And I have a feeling that people perhaps thought that I would always be connected but that in some ways and actually and I did never really ever give it up. I'll though I was not performing myself or really dancing. I would attend concerts and I think as I think back in my mind was always in the world of dance ever in the world of art or theater. And so in a way I give it up physically doesn't mean that you give it up. It's still there. If it's inside of you and I guess it has to do with this thing where my son once said to me Mom I don't think you'll ever really be lonely. And I said What do you say that colonies is because you always seem to be thinking about something and he says How can you be lonely when you know you. So there's something going on inside of you all the time. Hopefully through the arts I think the arts are certainly one way of speaking out of tapping into individual so that they can tap into themselves into their own own lives
and to find some kind of spirit that they can bring out of themselves. There seemed to be a time where. There's a great spiritual need. And I'd feel very grateful that it's you know been through the arts that way. Through dance that I've been able to not speak for myself but through my teaching it's just been very very inspiring that getting people to a place where they can tap their inner self. Everyone needs to be spiritual to keep going. Yes and my need to release needs to be replenished either through nature. I think people need to know how to find other ways of replenishing their spirit. It's something we don't think about that in terms of as part of education. But that's an important part of education is called survival basic.
However. The the. Dance you said about the human spirit by in specific one of your dances seems to be about feminine spirit. The kimono. Yeah. That. Came from a piece called Hey Ana and it was a medieval period. You know in Japan during which time.
Women wore layers and layers and layers of chemo Gnome and they were also always hiding behind the kimono and in behind screens they were not to be seen or heard. That period. Greatly reflects some of the turmoil as we go through in our culture in our society about roles and expectations and. Somehow that the layers of chemo know symbolized the bondage which we feel which we perhaps could of. Well I grew up and was a product of the 60s or the 50s. And so that I grew up with this image that I was just going to simply give my life to becoming wife and mother and teacher. And I sort of thought about that in terms of the bondage that I was feeling with the layers of chemo and also part of it had to do with my own heritage of being Japanese in the sense I'm sure I was never allowed to speak out and not encouraged to speak out and express my ideas and
so that that communal symbolized kind of the bondage that came from either culture or one's heritage. Very often we we almost sometimes have to go back to our heritage and in a way that perhaps is not quite right for us but to discover and find what that place is and then you find then find how that can fit into who we are at this given. Time and place. Always like my trying to go back to the no dance. And I studied it. The no work. At one point the no dance is called the she my and. The she my in the tide which is the singing is comes from the no drama. And those are plays that are. It's a very old. Classical form of theatre. In Japan and it's very much based on sort of. Buddhist zen buddhist. Thought of
beauty. And in life through a very formalized form of movement in song. And it tells stories about. Some of the logical stories and some tales about life in Japan. The the style is very austere. It's very inner and it's very slow moving. Did that affect you and you. This is something I did go back to just to study and. But it was it wasn't because I was interested in it as an art form. I was interested in it because it's something that my father had done and that this was something that I had shunned as a child and it was really somehow because of him that I needed to go and study the dance that was just to study it as an art form. But that became a way of perhaps my connecting with him and something that he lacked.
So I I studied that and what I feel now is that he also wrote haiku. He was a very. Artistic very gentle been very spiritual man. And I think this is my way of connecting with him. I. And I feel that the work I do now. I don't know why I don't do the no dance but I think it's found its way into my work and I feel very often that I feel the spirit you know in my work. Dance has the reputation of being one of the most disciplined performance arts though and you're talking about freedom breaking away but yet some of your students say that it's hard to work. Yes it's true. It had I do expect a great deal because I expect a great deal of myself. But yes you only get to freedom. Through Discipline. You get to freedom through this is to learn and that
discipline is very important. But it has to it's not this kind of. You know whiplash discipline. I think we so often think of discipline as being of that nature and I think that the discipline that comes from this inner concentration and it has to do with. You do so you just. It's this Japanese word got mine or she got his death which means you know you be strong. But being strong it takes a certain amount of focus and attention to what it is you're doing. And I've said to students that. You know you don't work for improving or you don't work for fixing things. You work on doing it so that that that that becomes your central source of concentration is is the way in which you. Do what it is you're being asked to do. And through that. Things get very shape defined and change begins to take place.
But the discipline has to do with being able to concentrate and it has to do with the hunger. There has to be an hunger for. Wanting to know more or wanting to discover or being all by new discoveries of exploring. And I mean that's what makes discipline possible because we do go through a great deal of pain. But to be aware to struggle with it consciously I really see art as a as being transformational. AS. Carrying somebody to another place. Discovering of. A place that people have. This is just wonderful you know.
It's just. You know. But with audiences and I get very depressed. Thank you. But members have combat experience. I know that some parts of it you know are working and that if they can do that then perhaps worth the work. This has been a conversation with Bettina.
The Creative Mind
Episode Number
June Watanabe
Producing Organization
KQED-TV (Television station : San Francisco, Calif.)
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KQED (San Francisco, California)
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This item is part of the Japanese Americans section of the AAPI special collection.
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The Creative Mind is a talk show featuring in-depth conversations with artists.
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Talk Show
Fine Arts
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Moving Image
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Producing Organization: KQED-TV (Television station : San Francisco, Calif.)
Release Agent: KQED
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Identifier: 1461;798 (KQED AAP)
Format: U-matic
Generation: Master
Duration: 00:30:00
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Chicago: “The Creative Mind; 115; June Watanabe,” 1991-10-02, KQED, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed December 5, 2023,
MLA: “The Creative Mind; 115; June Watanabe.” 1991-10-02. KQED, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. December 5, 2023. <>.
APA: The Creative Mind; 115; June Watanabe. Boston, MA: KQED, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from