Movement as Language: Ken Nakajima and Emillie Storey Interviewed by Millie Norman

How might movement stand in for, or transcend, language? How is a practice founded on connectivity operating in a socially distant world? In this interview, we speak to movement practioners Ken Nakajima and Emillie Storey about how their roles as choreographers and performers intersect, translating cultural storytelling into movement and where they hope to take their work next.

Ken Nakajima

MN: What are your backgrounds in movement?

ES: I started dancing at the age of four, predominantly training in ballet, and then, at around fifteen years old, I discovered Contemporary dance. Dance has always helped me to express myself in a way that feels much more natural to me than talking about my feelings using verbal language, which means that movement is extremely important to me and my development as an artist.

KN: I started my training in dance and drama from the age of four in Tokyo. When I moved to the UK, I carried on with my training and became a competitive dancer, and I joined a dance crew. I then discovered Open Dance Choreography, which is a subculture of Hip-Hop which originated in the Asian and Black communities in Los Angeles: a style that focused on the experimentation of musicality and texture. I was then exposed to contemporary dance, and when I was 17, I took A-level & BTEC Dance, where I was introduced to the works of Akram Khan, Pina Bausch and Sidi Larbi Cherakoui. From that moment I was completely possessed by movement. I started to experiment with blending dance with theatre, especially through my BA course in Theatre Arts. Around that time, I joined a theatre collective (State of the Art): their performer training focused on vulnerability and induration, which allowed me to push my body to the physical limit, expanding my awareness of my own body.

Emillie Storey

MN: Both of you use movement as a conduit through which you explore aspects of philosophy and the human condition - what aspects of the human condition are you most interested in exploring and why do you think movement helps you best articulate these ideas?

KN: I would say my exploration deals with the sad beauty of the human condition. Often we feel so alone in our suffering and pain - it’s easy to say you’re not alone and there’s millions of people feeling this way, but, at the same time, the suffering you endure is so unique to you that you can’t always deal with it like everyone else has. It’s a new discovery or a strong sense of rebirth when you come out of that experience, almost as if you’re ‘awake’ again: generating art from this experience became my way of therapizing myself, but when the spectators sees my work and connect with it, that’s something special for me.

To answer the rest of the question, I see the body as a navigator of energy: whether it's an exterior force or an energy that's coming from within. Often, when I’m troubled or feeling great, channeling this energy (good or bad) helps to circulate the tension, but also releases it when necessary.

ES: For me my personal process is similar to what Ken has mentioned; I am fascinated by the connection we have as artists with suffering and the need to release inner emotions and experiences through art whether it's physical, permanent, temporary or ephemeral. I have previously focused on the human condition through the body in its physical sense and it’s ‘architecture’, but I am also deeply interested in the idea of presenting the inner self in a way that is accessible to view from the outside and exploring this idea in itself - can the inner self be represented through the outward body? And are these two entities in fact separate at all?

Movement for me is my habitual method of exploration and expression because I know nothing better than my own body.

MN: Both of you are choreographers/directors as well as performers - how do these two states interact? Do you ever feel a tension between the two?

KN: I think having experienced both sides, you tend to find it easier to navigate through a creative process. That’s if you’re working with another individual or an ensemble. Working with yourself is a whole other ballgame. I often find myself more observant of everything that I do, almost becoming pedantic, trying to sculpt myself to perfection, which is absolute bullshit. There is no perfect way to do anything, it's trying to find the balance of acknowledging refinement of one’s movement but accepting its flaws.

ES: I agree that having accessed both perspectives of choreographer and performer helps significantly with understanding the creative process and with being able to offer yourself wholly to the work which you may be a part of. I would say that it’s less of a tension created and more of a fusion - where you can step aside from either role and approach it with new eyes and a refreshed attitude.

Ken Nakajima in 'Gilgamesh'

MN: Ken - when we last spoke, you mentioned that movement has the capability to transcend language. How does movement allow you to communicate across linguistic and cultural barriers? Does it help you access other representations of the human condition through others’ performances that you would not otherwise be able to understand?

KN: I always say there’s more to it than words. Movement for me is the only way to communicate the feelings and experiences that we often can’t describe in words. It’s a universal language we share with the world. From ‘communicating’ through our bodies, we tend to expand our movement language as well, finding new ways to articulate. I think the more you work with people from different cultures and movement styles it becomes easier to communicate with others through our bodies.

ES: I definitely agree, I think that there’s something so special and unique about dancing with people who might not share your language or culture but are able to relate to each other in this way through moving together and sharing a moment in movement. I’d say it’s one of the best things about dance altogether.

MN: What role does understanding movement in this way play in your development process or in working/collaborating with others?

KN: It’s important to begin with knowing what your body is capable of. During a process, I tend to begin with ‘breaking the body’. It sounds a little violent, but what I mean is, allowing yourself to break out of how you move normally, or how you think you move. Almost rewiring the brain, to give you a repertoire of movement options, but also letting loose. It's often quite liberating to just forget what you know and just move like you’ve lost the plot.

ES: It helps significantly because you always know that you can relate to anyone you might be working with and you don’t have to be worried about language barriers. You also know that whoever you might be working with shares the same passion as you and there’s something special about that which always helps with the collaborative process.

Emillie Storey

MN: Considering the understanding of movement as language, or as transcendent of language, how do you write/notate movement? Is it purely documentary for yourself, or is this process an important artefact alone?

KN: I usually write the movements descriptively when I know what I want but most of the time, I tend to just write simple phrases and keywords I can reference in the future, so when the time comes I can look back and talk to myself like “Oh so that’s what you wanted, thanks for the reminder”.

ES: I often don’t know how best to approach notation when it comes to choreographing, and I think this might be to do with my personal disconnect between movement and verbal language. As a result I don’t often write about what I want in terms of movement and end up just seeing where the physical exploration takes me, and maybe filming it as a way of documentation.

MN: To what extent is your notation fixed? What role does notation play in the experimental stage of the process?

KN: It’s so vital to keep notation of your process, even if it’s just imagery. You need to be able to look back ,but also it gives you an opportunity to adapt or refine an idea or an aesthetic. I tend to keep a notebook just to write anything down, whether it's ideas, feedback or just how I’m feeling that day.

ES: I would say that, for me, it’s more about collecting ideas and images and concepts, which I keep in a sketch book or a note book, and using this throughout my creative process to be inspired by, build from and to remind myself what I’m really interested in with a particular project - so yes, it’s very important, especially when as choreographers and dancers we can get overwhelmed with so many wild ideas!

Ken Nakajima

MN: Both of you mentioned much of your process is driven by observation. Could you tell us a little about this?

KN: It’s like I consume everything I see in detail and when the time is right, that particular memory (eg. texture, emotion, people’s actions) will serve me as an ingredient to create something. I don’t think I’d be able to produce the ideas without the exterior world.

ES: Yes as Ken said, whether it’s observation of the self or the exterior world, everything we see and experience we absorb and take it with us as artists. This makes observation vital for the creative process, and for developing as a person, and ultimately an artist.

MN: Have you found that this observation stage has become more introspective in a socially distant world? How has this altered or changed the movements you notate or explore?

KN: I think with lockdown (I really didn’t want to mention that word), it made it harder for me to observe the world like I normally would. However, it allowed me to look within and acknowledge that I had enough material in my head to generate work. It also gave me time to indulge myself into things I wouldn’t have had time to sit down and read.

ES: Introspection is probably the most key part of my personal practice: as an introverted individual, I often find that I can explore and develop my work within this more socially distant space. Being an artist in the current state of the world can feel isolating, but it’s really helped me to look deeper within myself than I’ve previously been able to.

Emillie Storey

MN: How does cultural mythology inspire your work? How do you interact, rework or collaborate with social narratives? I think movement is a really interesting way to interact with philosophy and cultural narrative - as our social interaction with it is also so kinetic (verbal storytelling, adaptations, critiques…)

KN: I draw a lot of inspiration from mythology and time. With mythology, I don’t see it as this dusty bookshelf of old stories. These stories, no matter how epic they may be, contain a message, a narrative we can all relate to in some way, once we understand it. You could argue that we haven’t changed at all in the last 3000 years or so. With time, particularly in my recent work SEMPRE, the idea of losing someone and the pain that generates feels like an eternity, as if time has purposely slowed things down so you feel like drowning, but it gives you enough time to heal and reflect. Time is our friend but also our worst enemy. What worries me now is that we have all of these technological advances that it's almost hard to keep up with; because of this fast pace, every now and then it feels as though we’re just stumbling in this giant hamster wheel. I want to slow down the pace, reminding myself and others that we don’t always have to keep up - sometimes it’s good to expose ourselves to the basics of simply putting down your phone and talking to someone, or checking within yourself, see how you’re doing.

Sempre - Ken Nakajima

MN: Both of you have worked with visual documentation as well as producing work for a live setting - how does this alter the work? What was this process like for you? Is the ephemerality of movement something that is important to your work?

KN: Alongside visual documentation, I think it’s important to get used to the space of your project. I’ve often spent hours just sitting in the space, walking around and visualising how the performance can look in the space. It helps with spatial awareness but also getting comfortable with the space. Often with lighting design, your designs may look great in your documentation but once you’re in the space and the lights are up you always spot a mistake or realising it doesn’t work at all. It’s a stressful feeling, but in return it gives you an opportunity to do something better.

ES: Personally, I never intend to visually document my work when I’m first forming my ideas, but every time it’s ended up coming about in such a natural way that it’s become an important part of my process. Ephemerality is really important to me when it comes to improvisation and letting go of binding ideals - it helps me to feel free from expectation and consequence. At the same time, I enjoy being able to capture the same feeling through film and photography, because it’s just another way for the work to be accessible to an audience, to exist in time and space.

MN: Where do you hope to take your work next?

KN: Coming from a background of international collaboration, I hope to carry this on and to explore the world, exchanging movement language. But I also think it’s time for me to produce solo work; I would like to form my own practice of movement that is unique to me and hopefully I can share that with the world too.

ES: I would love to take my work to a place where I feel as though I know my own process and the signature style of my art. However, I’m also really enjoying being in this place where I feel as though I can do and create anything. I want to explore other routes of expression that I havent been able to focus on as heavily during my contemporary dance degree - for example, fine art and the specifics of performance design. I’m mostly just excited to continue on this path of exploration, and creation as a by-product.