VANCOUVER — Award-winning choreographer and dance artist Shion Skye Carter‘s captivating solo, Residuals (住み・墨), pulls sonic, visual, and physical inspirations from Japanese calligraphy. As Carter moves across the stage, her body becomes an extension of a calligraphy brush, her motions changing as she imagines writing kanji with different parts of her body, moving among translucent pieces of paper.
Residuals (住み・墨) by Japanese Canadian choreographer and dance artist Shion Skye Carter runs at the Scotiabank Dance Centre from Friday, Nov. 4 to Saturday, Nov. 5. For tickets and more information, visit the Dance Centre’s website. Photo credit: Lula-Belle Jedynak
Carter began developing Residuals as a new graduate from Simon Fraser University, trying to find her footing as an independent choreographer and dance artist in 2019. Over the last three years, while creating Residuals, Carter has not only found her voice as an artist but connected to her culture, identity, and community.
“Calligraphy has felt like a portal for me to go back in time. That feeling of carrying out a task-based, meditative practice in a way that is so similar to how it would have been 1,000 or 500 years ago, it’s like muscle memory passed down through generations,” Carter tells Nikkei Voice in an interview.
Carter will perform Residuals, presented through the Dance Centre’s Iris Garland Emerging Choreographer Award with the Powell Street Festival Society, at Vancouver’s Scotiabank Dance Centre on Nov. 4 and 5.
Last year, Carter received the 2021 Iris Garland Emerging Choreographer Award, helping Carter fully develop Residuals with mentorship, funding, and guidance from the dance centre, leading up to the performances at the Faris Family Studio this November.
“I’ve seen so many dance shows at the [Scotiabank Dance Centre] by artists I admire or look up to and visiting international artists. I never thought I would be able to perform my work there, let alone, not for five, ten years at least,” says Carter. “I feel really grateful that I can perform in that space, where so many prolific artists have left their mark and contributed to the energy of that theatre space.”
The award was also a chance for Carter to learn about the technical and behind-the-scenes elements of producing a show, from marketing, editing trailers, writing press releases, and reaching out to media to making posters and programs.
“Now, I feel like I would be better able to tackle self-producing a show on my own in the future, and that’s a great learning experience for someone like me who is still an emerging artist and hasn’t done that before,” says Carter.
Carter wanted to extend this opportunity to another emerging dance artist and invited Juolin Lee, another young Asian Canadian artist and recent graduate, to perform her solo before Residuals.
“I also wanted to give another young artist, who might not have performed their work in a theatre venue before, the chance to perform as an opening act in the show. It’s like a double bill for this presentation,” says Carter. “I’m really excited to be able to share the stage with Juolin.”
Carter and Lee also share a commonality in their careers, working with the same mentor, Ziyian Kwan. The seedlings of Residuals first sprouted when Carter worked with Kwan through a mentorship grant in 2019. Kwan is also an Asian Canadian artist whose captivating work creates and tells stories that reflect her personal and cultural identity. Kwan’s influence and teachings have left an indelible impression on Carter as an artist.
Residuals explores and celebrates Carter’s Japanese culture, heritage, and identity. Carter extensively researched and practiced Japanese calligraphy, an overarching theme in the dance piece and its creation.
Calligraphy was also one of Carter’s first introductions to the Japanese arts. Carter first studied Japanese calligraphy as a child at the Gladstone Japanese Language School at the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre in Burnaby. Ten years after ending her lessons, Carter reached out to her former teacher, Yoko Murakami, and began to re-explore calligraphy. Connecting to the ancient Japanese art form has connected Carter not only to her Japanese heritage and culture but has been a way to find a common language with her Japanese family about contemporary dance.
“Calligraphy has been not only a way to connect to some Japanese cultural practices and bring them into the present day but also has opened up more portals for conversation for me with my grandmother in Japan and with my mother,” says Carter. “It took a long time for my family to think of me pursuing dance as an actual career, not a hobby… And to be able to talk about art and contemporary dance with them was more difficult before, so now I feel like it has been bridged a bit, which has been incredible.”
Carter’s grandparents and their home also became a major influence in Residuals. Born in Tajimi, Japan, Carter immigrated to Canada with her family at age six. Nearly every year, Carter visits her grandmother, who lives in the same home on the Japanese mountainside.
In Residuals, Carter pulled memories of her grandparents’ home, drawing out the floor plan of the house from memory and allocating different parts of the stage to be parts of their home. As Carter moves across the stage, she imagines moving through the home and embodies and reacts to memories from each room. Exploring these memories has revived connections to Carter’s late grandfather. Her costume, a zip-up jumpsuit, resembles the uniform he would wear to work at a paper factory, which was intense, back-breaking work. It also felt serendipitous to nod to his work, as paper is essential to calligraphy and the dance piece.
As Carter moves across the stage, she embodies her grandparents in the different parts of the home. Her grandmother’s bent back as she cooked in the kitchen, or her grandfather’s deep squat as he worked and smoked in the garden. Traversing through her grandparents’ home led to reliving fond memories of her childhood and her grandparents. But it also sparked a journey of self-discovery and unfurling identity. Embodying both her grandmother and grandfather in the piece also became a way to explore and understand her fluid gender identity.
“That’s been really interesting for me to explore more and figure out how I want to express myself to the world, how I want to label myself, all of these things, so it’s been a journey of looking inward,” says Carter. “The fact that my artistic practice in relation to this very, very old art form of calligraphy led me to realize these aspects of myself and have conversations with myself and with other people about gender and sexuality is very fascinating to me because those don’t seem to be in line with each other necessarily, the very old and then these topics that are the forefront in contemporary society.”
When Carter began creating Residuals, she was a new graduate from Simon Fraser University, trying to find her footing in the dance world as an independent artist. As she prepares to perform Residuals over three years later, she has made connections within the Japanese Canadian community with fellow artists and community members. Carter was approached to speak on various virtual artist panels, like an NAJC artists panel in 2020, about her research and work surrounding calligraphy during the pandemic. Through these panels, Carter began to meet Japanese Canadian artists in her home city of Vancouver and across Canada.
“I was flabbergasted at how flourishing the community is, how open people are, and how much everyone just wants to connect and make friends and collaborate with other [artists],” says Carter.
Since then, Carter has attended the GEI Art Symposium in Victoria. In her latest project, she collaborated with two Ontario-based Japanese Canadian artists through an AGO artists residency.
“To finish university and be feeling kind of lost and not knowing how I want to go about being an artist, and reaching for that anchor that calligraphy was from my childhood, that was a starting point for me to go all the way through these passageways of meeting people and unpacking new curiosities in relation to my Japanese and Japanese Canadian identity,” says Carter. “Now, I feel like I know so many more people, and it feels like I have a network of people I can reach out to or rely on if I need to. I am grateful that I can also say that I am part of a community where I can be that for other people too.”
Residuals (住み・墨) by Shion Skye Carter runs at the Scotiabank Dance Centre from Friday, Nov. 4 to Saturday, Nov. 5. For tickets and more information, visit the Dance Centre’s website.