Shion Skye Carter learned Japanese calligraphy before she discovered dance.
The artist was a young girl and recent transplant to Canada when she took up the ancient handwriting art form in lessons at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby.
Carter was about 10 years old at the time, a student at the centre’s Gladstone Japanese Language School.
Her mother is Japanese and her father is Canadian. She was born in Japan, and the family moved to Canada when she was six.
“I did it for a few years and I stopped taking those lessons when I graduated from the Japanese language school, and then I went on to connect with dance and movement and I fell in love with it,” Carter told the Straight in a phone interview.
In 2019, she resumed lessons with her former calligraphy teacher, Yoko Murakami, after she completed her fine-arts degree in dance and kinesiology at SFU.
“I was transitioning from being a student in university to becoming a freelance artist, and I was really trying to find what I connected with from a very internal place with my art and what I wanted to create my projects about,” Carter said.
Dance and calligraphy come together
One thing that satisfied that yearning was her Japanese ancestry and culture.
With this, she emerged as a dance artist and choreographer whose practice is profoundly shaped by calligraphy, with other elements fused in as well, like sculpture, sound, and video.
“There’s a dance that takes place through the brush onto the paper, creating this beautiful shape of ink, and that shape is what I try to recreate in my movement when I bring my calligraphy practice into my choreography,” Carter said.
She explained that in their pure essence, calligraphy and dance share a common character: clarity and peace of mind.
“With calligraphy, there’s a gestural sense with the use of your hands and your arms when you are writing the calligraphy words out on the paper,” Carter said. “You’re really taking putting all your focus and attention into your hands and the way that you’re writing, how much pressure you’re applying with your brush onto the paper, all of these minute details, and dance is really similar in that way,” she continued.
The Vancouver-based artist noted that there are some other types of dance or choreography “where you’re kind of wild and you don’t have any control”.
“But I think the way that I’ve been interpreting calligraphy in choreography, there’s a lot of focus involved. It’s almost like I feel like I’m in a meditational mode, and I’m very particular about movements, especially what my hands and arms are doing,” she said.
In dance, Carter imagines the words she writes in kanji, or Japanese characters, and interprets them through motion.
“I create them with my body. So if I pretend that my hand is the brush, how can I write that word in the air or on the floor? Or how can I write that word almost inside of my body, and make it more an internal movement with my torso and my chest?”
The intersection between calligraphy and dance also extends to her daily routine.
“One thing that I personally fell in love with again when I [re]started calligraphy was this ritualistic, meditative aspect of the practice,” Carter related.
In calligraphy, one goes through a number of steps, starting from when a practitioner sits at the table, sets up the paper, prepares the sumi, or ink, and some more preparation before actually writing something with a brush.
“Thinking about those aspects,” Carter said, “with dance I feel like I have my daily routine, where I always have the movements that I use to warm up in the morning and before rehearsal or a dance class. I have this kind of ritual that I go through, and the same steps to get ready for the day.”
This year’s 33rd annual Dancing on the Edge festival, which opens on July 8, features a film package, and it includes a short feature by Carter and Vancouver-based Japanese calligraphy artist Kisyuu.
A new-year tradition
The film is titled “Flow Tide” and was done collaboratively from their respective homes, without the two meeting in person at the time because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I had my partner, who I live with, film my dancing,” Carter related, referring to Stefan Nazarevich, an interdisciplinary artist with whom she cofounded the “olive theory” duo.
“Kisyuu got her partner to film her calligraphy and sent it to me. I edited the videos together, and in my dancing, I’m responding to her brushstroke as I play the video and watch it while I’m dancing.”
Calligraphy is also a part of the new-year tradition in Carter’s family.
“On January 1st, we get together as a family and we all do calligraphy together—my parents, my sister, and I—and we write our goals for the year ahead,” she said.