Kokoro Dance's Jay Hirabayashi and Barbara Bourget on the challenges of surviving as an artist in Vancouver

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      By Jay Hirabayashi with Barbara Bourget

      Barbara and I were destined to be artists. Artists are people that engage in deliberate subversion of quotidian complacency.

      We live and work in Vancouver, a capitalist city in a capitalist province in a capitalist country. Capitalism is an economic system that relies on the exploitation of one’s fellow citizens for personal gain of wealth, fame, and power. Capitalism divides the populations of capitalist countries into the rich and the poor. Dance artists are usually relegated to the class of the poor, although there are some who have navigated the capitalist system to emerge in the class of the rich.

      These dance artists create a product that only the wealthy can enjoy. We are not part of that class of artists. Capitalist systems rely on bureaucracies that have complex rules and regulations that confine and restrict access to wealth, to the wealthy. To survive as an artist in Vancouver, you need to understand how to navigate and circumvent those rules and regulations.

      “But to live outside the law, you must be honest.” Bob Dylan said that. I spend most of my time filling out applications, final reports, and posting financial statistics. I work seven days a week and am lucky if that includes eight hours of dancing.

      In 1986, we decided to leave EDAM to form our own dance company. Our son, Joseph (Jo), was about to be born, to join Bodhi, Daniel, and Kai as their baby brother. Barbara and I had met each other in Paula Ross’s studio in 1979. Paula is one of Canada’s best choreographers and was a mentor to us.

      We told Paula that we wanted to call our company “Kokoro Dance” and that we were going to pursue butoh as our dance aesthetic. She told us that if we took that name, we would never get Canada Council for the Arts (CCFA) funding because that funding agency was racist. She advised us to call our new company “The Barbara Bourget Dance Company.”

      Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi with their children Bodhi, Daniel, Kai, and Joseph.

      In 1986, there was not a single dance company that did not have a French or English name, and only white dance companies received funding.

      On July 7, 1986, Jo was born, and on July 31 we incorporated Kokoro Dance Theatre Society as a non-profit society in B.C. We phoned the CCFA to see if our new company could get funding and were told that we would first have to have an administration, hire dancers, and produce a show, have that assessed, and to wait a year, and then we could apply—all of this without any funding support.

      We began to think that maybe Paula was right. We successfully applied for an Explorations Grant, and we created a musical, Episode in Blue – A Cantata from Hell, where Barbara and I sang and danced, actor Ian McDonald and composer Jeff Corness also sang and danced, and 16mm film projection by the late Scott Haynes added a visual component to the work.

      The piece was one of the best works we have ever done, but it was a disaster at the box office. We lost about $5,000 producing it. Still, it met the CCFA’s initial barrier to funding access, and so we applied for a company grant. We weren’t successful in that application, nor were we successful in applying for company funding for the next four years.

      We then wrote to the CCFA and informed them that we would no longer be applying to the CCFA. By that time, Kokoro Dance had performed more than 260 times across Canada, in Europe, and in the U.S.A., many of them with Jo in tow. He would fall asleep when the taiko drumming started in our school show, Rage. Maybe those pounding rhythms had some subconscious influence in his eventual choice to become a musician.

      When we informed the CCFA of our decision to no longer apply, we were told that our last production, Sunyata, had received an excellent assessment. We asked if that meant we could receive a company grant. The answer was “no”—we needed to receive three excellent assessments. However, we were also told that if we applied again, we could give the CCFA the names of people that we did not want as assessors and suggest individuals who we would be happy to view our work.

      We decided to apply one more time and told the CCFA that none of the artistic directors of CCFA-funded dance companies were allowed to assess us. Instead, we would be happy to be assessed by anyone from the theatre, music, opera, interdisciplinary, or visual arts disciplines.

      The CCFA sent two theatre directors to see our work. They gave us excellent assessments, and in 1992 we received our first company grant. It was $20,000 instead of the normal $50,000, because prime minister Brian Mulroney had cut funding to the CCFA that year.

      Bats by Kokoro Dance.

      For the next 18 years, we continued to live below the poverty line. There was one year when we had to go on welfare; others where we would work for six months and go on Employment Insurance for six months.

      In 2000, without any funding, we started the Vancouver International Dance Festival. We have never received a salary for producing it in the past 22 years. Believing that dance should not just be accessible to those who have the means to buy tickets, we have made it a policy to never let lack of funds bar anyone from attending VIDF events.

      Kokoro Dance’s performances and classes at the 2023 festival are free to anyone who wants to attend. 

      Jay Hirabayashi and Barbara Bourget are co-founders of Vancouver’s Kokoro Dance. They are also the creators and curators of the Vancouver International Dance Festival, which runs this year until March 25.