With ambitious new piece Reading the Bones, Kokoro Dance distills the work of three decades

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      Kokoro Dance has been inextricably intertwined with the life of singer and musician Joseph Hirabayashi since he was born.

      His parents’ legendary butoh-infused Vancouver company is 33 years old, and so is he. As his father, Jay Hirabayashi, tells it, “Joseph was born about a month before we started Kokoro Dance.”

      “I just remember being at the studio and sleeping in the tech booth and being totally bored, to be honest,” the younger Hirabayashi, frontman for off-kilter, guitar-driven noise-pop band Jo Passed, remembers with a laugh. He’s on a conference call with his father and his mother, Barbara Bourget, from Kokoro headquarters at KW Studios. “Butoh isn’t the most captivating when you’re five.”

      Well, the zombie-slow, eerily primal Japanese dance form featuring white-caked, near-naked performers is definitely not the stuff of Saturday-morning cartoons.

      But Joseph’s perspective long ago changed, of course, and he now sees the major impact of being exposed to his parents’ work, especially its avant-garde scores—“My exposure to weirder music,” as he puts it. “Arguably, I was more into contemporary classical music when I was younger, as a kid, and I feel fortunate to have that artistic experience.”

      All this brings us to Reading the Bones, Kokoro Dance’s ambitious new creation, which distills and reimagines choreographic highlights from the entirety of the company’s existence. Joseph Hirabayashi has a key role in it, creating the score in just one of the piece’s intentional cross-generational collaborations. The age range of the five dancers—who include Molly McDermott, Deanna Peters, Salomé Nieto, and Katie Cassady—spans an incredible 50 years. Jay Hirabayashi directs.

      Kokoro Dance reimagines highlights of its entire history in Reading the Bones.

      Playing with the fragments of old works in her studio, Bourget started researching the reading of bones—the ancient practice of scattering bones to divine information—as an apt metaphor for what she was attempting to do.

      “It turned out a lot of cultures have this practice as a way of fortunetelling or understanding the past or what was happening in their lives,” Bourget explains. “So it was this taking the remnants and seeing where they land.”

      Contemplating the highlights of her long career in dance, and reviewing them on video, she was struck by the sheer volume of Kokoro’s output—particularly when so much of it had been created when Joseph and his three siblings were small.

      “Looking back, I’m amazed at how prolific we were! We did have four children, and now five grandchildren,” she marvels. “For me, it’s been a wonderful process of remembering my strength in those years and now what it feels like doing it in this body at 68.”

      Bourget stresses that, in the new context with the new music, Reading the Bones feels like its own creation. Jay adds that it has become a series of group pieces with the five dancers each following their own path, and then solos set against the group. Dancers are painted white, striking in black dresses against red ribbons and the red brick of the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre. Devoted fans may be able to spot the fragments of works such as 1996’s Truths of the Blood, 1998’s Embryotrophic Cavatina, 2001’s Crime Against Grace, 2007’s Bellatrix, and 2009’s F.

      For his part, Joseph drew inspiration from the original scores by Robert J. Rosen—Kokoro’s long-time go-to composer—whose sounds and rhythms must have embedded themselves early on in his young head.

      “We did school touring for Rage and Joseph would come with us,” Bourget recalls of a mid-’80s, Rosen-scored piece. “He would fall asleep on the gym floor to the drums.”

      Reading the Bones takes its name from an ancient form of divination.

      Joseph dug deeper into Rosen’s music to compose his own Reading the Bones score, gaining a new appreciation for how cutting-edge his predecessor’s computer sequencing was and then setting about creating his own computer-driven sounds for the piece.

      Jay is happy at how all the choices, including his son’s songs, have meshed. “For me, it’s just wonderful to watch how each dance reflects the music differently,” he says, “either through strength or virtuosity, or, with [Kokoro veteran] Salomé and Barbara, through how the body has to adjust to the music.”

      As for Joseph, he’s at an age when he can fully embrace what his parents conjure on-stage. In his side gig as a video director, he's even included a section from the work, in which his mother dances solo, in a new video for one-time Mother Mother member Debra-Jean Creelman.

      “I like the piece,” he says simply of Reading the Bones, “and I like everything my parents do now.”

      Kokoro Dance presents Reading the Bones at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre from Wednesday to Saturday (September 18 to 21) and September 25 to 28.