Sumi Ryoko writes,
I have been dancing all my life. I went to Sarah Lawrence College, where I majored in dance and philosophy, and although my philosophy teacher asked me to stay on and be his graduate assistant and get an M.A. in philosophy, I decided to go to New York City to dance.
There I trained and danced with Merce Cunningham (and John Cage—his partner personally and professionally). Together they changed the whole face of modern dance. They were intimately influenced by studying Zen with D.T. Suzuki. Merce became interested in taking personality and narrative out of dance. He used chance methods and other ways to develop choreography that had more possibilities and openness to the moment than perhaps his own ego could see.
My experience in my dance work with them led me to Zen practice. I danced in New York professionally, and then a severe accident led me back to school to get an M.A. in Dance and start practicing Zen intensively, starting in 1976. Maezumi Roshi and Prabhasa Dharma Roshi both encouraged me to develop a Zen Dance.
Maezumi Roshi gave me a practice to bring Zen and dance together like bringing two hands together in gassho. He asked me to create 33 pieces for each of the different manifestations of Kuan Yin/Kanzeon. I have been creating Zen dance for several decades now.
I do workshops on dance and meditative movement in New York, Colorado, and Texas, and have taught at Naropa University and CU in Colorado, as well as at the University of Oregon while I was getting my MA. I taught in London and also had my company there. Most recently, I have taught at Radford University and James Madison University in Virgnia.
My dance company is called Komo Danceworks, and its mission is to bring Zen and dance and meditative movement practices into manifestation through performance, practice, and ritual. I have established the Zen Shinji Centre here in Austin. It is home to the creation of work that I take all over the country.
On October 24th, in Liverpool, England, I will receive lay transmission from my Zen teacher, Abbot of the Yokoji Mountain Center in California, Charles Tenshin Fletcher, Roshi. He has authorized me to teach these practices of meditation, movement, and the mindfulness-based arts of dance and Tai Chi Chuan and Chi Kung. My studio/Zendo is affiliated with Yokoji Mountain Centre (Zen Mountain Center).
Just This asked Sumi questions about her experience in Zen Dance.
JT: Were there other ways Merce Cunningham was influenced by Zen and passed the influence on?
SR: Merce (and John Cage) changed the whole fabric of dance, not only through Merce’s choreographic methods but also by altering the way people viewed art. Merce did not use narrative or story line and instead let the dancers dance and the piece be whatever the viewer saw it to be. The artists—dancer-choreographer, musician, lighting, set—all were separate and equal.
The coming together was bringing different forms into co-existence in time and space. This was very revolutionary and demanded an awakeness in dancer and viewer.
JT: How has doing this kind of dance (and the process of creating it) changed you?
SR: Every time I go into the studio to move and create, I attempt to be awake in the moment to what is and be present...to possibility. Sometimes I may start with chanting a sutra and moving, sometimes in silence.
JT: Has your understanding and approach changed over the years?
SR: I am always experimenting and most recently, in the last year, I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with Deborah Hay, who offers an outside eye and keeps me honest and clear. The lack of pretense and personality in performance is one of the things I am looking for.
JT: What makes Zen dance different than other kinds of Zen? what is its heart?
SR: In most of our practice of Zen, we have the formality of zendo and prescribed rituals and chants. I started with Zen moving, which takes Zen off the cushion into movement and awakened practice. I also believe, from my own experience, that there is a diamond body of light that is awakened from our practice...and that can be brought out through Zen dance and the space of the heart. It is bringing forth from the kikai point to the heart-mind energy of Shin. This can allow us a space from living only in the intellectual, sometimes rigid world of Japanese Zen.
JT: How do we find the feminine face of Buddhist practice?
SR: It is possible that the grace and power of moving Zen and Zen dance can bring flow, grace, clarity, and an energy of emptiness to our practice. Both Maezumi Roshi and Prabhasa Dharma Roshi saw that the way for me is creative energy through dream and dance and bare attention movement. Perhaps like tea or archery, Zen Dance can be another Way of practice.