Q&A: Denise Fujiwara


June 1, 2019 at 8:00 PM, River Run Centre-Co-operators Hall 
Presented by Guelph Dance, in partnership with the EMWF

Denise Fujiwara is one of the most diverse talents to evolve on the Canadian dance scene; a sought after choreographer, dancer, teacher and impresario. Her adaptation of Christian Bök’s Eunoia, a book of conceptual poetry built on the notion of constraining language to one vowel per chapter, is a multimedia experience of dance, video, music and costume that employs similar constraints in such inventive ways that it has resulted in a groundbreaking performance lauded by audiences and critics alike.

Tell us about what drew you to Eunoia.

I wondered if it was possible to create a dance where I used some kind of text as a score similar to the way that choreographers conventionally use music.  For this, I theorized I would need a text that was meaningful and dense and not conventionally narrative.  I did not want to create a story ballet.  I let this idea accompany me for a while and then I remembered Christian Bök’s Eunoia, which I had read after it won the Griffin Poetry Prize.  I contacted Christian, told him my idea, and asked if he would permit me to adapt and perform his amazing lipogram as a dance.  Amazingly, without knowing anything about me, he said yes, and told me to let him know when it was done.  He emailed me to ask how it went a few months later, but it took me five years to finish the work.

You have said that “To dance is to journey into the secrets of intuition, memory, dreams; to encounter and express the mysteries of human nature as they are manifest in the body, before words”. Was it a challenge to create a multi-disciplinary piece with words as the starting point? 

Yes, it was a huge challenge.  Dance is a different world from verbal language.  It comes from and is received by different parts of our brain and nervous system.  I challenged myself to discover what a dance could do and express, that the text could not.  I also realized that we would have to impose the same kind of insanely strict constraints that the poet used and we hoped that choreography, music and design elements would survive the debilitating effect this might have on them.  Surprisingly, the constraints that terrified each of the creative collaborators at the outset served to push us towards fresh creative impulses.  They forced us to innovate with precision and specificity.  They sabotaged any inclination to interpret the poems in a literal way.  They pushed us to create a parallel world, a pataphor, that is abstract and separate but that still relates to the poem in surprising ways.

Eunoia is the shortest word in the English language to contain all five vowels. Can you describe the ways in which the five vowels structure the performance?

We used the same univocal restrictions that inspired Bök and structured the work into five chapters with one vowel per ‘chapter’.  We applied the univocal vowel constraint to the choreography, the music, video components, everything in the performance.  Nothing in the piece is random.  For example. In Chapter A, I constrained the initiation of movement to A body parts; arms, back, palm, jaw, calf, etc.  You’ll notice the use of dance forms like salsa, kathak and tap. The music uses ‘A’ instrumentation and songs are appropriately titled.  The video pans and flashes.  The dancers are in their pajamas. Those are some of the more obvious ‘A’ references.  Everyone gets some of them, but nobody discovers them all.

Our composer Phil Strong became delightfully word nerdy and created a score full of ingenious univocal references.  He transposed the idea of the 5 vowels to the 5 black notes on the piano keyboard creating a different set of musical modes and lending a different character to each chapter.  He also had much fun inserting pop culture references.  Listen in Chapter O for the Moog Solo from Doctor Who.

This piece, alike Bök’s, has been described as playful. Can you tell us about this element of the performance, and why it was important for you to capture?

Reading Eunoia, one marvels at the virtuosic skill of the writer.  Each poem is so dense with unusual vocabulary and content that you can only read one or a few at one sitting to fully appreciate them.  In creating a 75 minute presentation featuring 35 poems, I did wonder how we could pull this off without everyone’s brains exploding.  The solution lay in the wit and playfulness that is also in the text.  Bök and the poems inspire playfulness.  Each of my collaborators are also incredibly smart and funny and this permeated the work.  Eunoia as performance is layered with wit, wordplay, visual puns, pop culture references, engaging performances and audience interplay.

What can our audience expect from this performance?

Bök’s Eunoia is a singular work of literature.  It is simultaneously esoteric and conceptual, while accessible and fun.  These qualities, which we usually consider to be mutually exclusive, are what allowed Eunoia, a conceptual poem, to become a bestselling book.  Like the book, the performance by turns tests word nerds, shocks prudes and delights children.  Unlike the book the performance adaptation of Eunoia dances, is theatrical and alive.  We play games, you win prizes.  It starts before you’re ready and it finishes before you know it.

Photography by Jeremy Mimnagh