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Toronto Artist Noriko Yamamoto: Artistry in Motion - Part 1

Choreographed by Meredith Thompson for Dusk Dances; Withrow Park; Toronto 2019.

“I think the meaning of art is difficult, and it’s different for everyone. For me, art is the finished work of a creative process that involves perception, then internalization, interpretation, and finally expression in a public forum. I feel the uniqueness of the finished work and vulnerability of the artist are byproducts of this process.”

—Toronto multidisciplinary artist, Noriko Yamamoto

It is rare that an artist slides between different media over the course of their career as Noriko Yamamoto, a Japanese artist living in Canada, has done so successfully as a dancer, mime-dancer, mime, ‘silent storyteller,’ choreographer, visual artist, and Nia instructor.

As I watch videos of her dance performances, there is a vulnerability and charm that meld together creating a synergetic, mesmerizing effect, a dynamic flow, and swirl of movement that sparks a certain intrigue. The viewer is irresistibly drawn into her art.

That same dynamism is evident in her visual artwork too (which can be seen on her website), starting from 2005, one can follow the evolution of how Noriko searches and discovers that same flow in different forms of expression: sculptures, paintings, and mixed-media creations. Forms meld together, perspectives are revealed.

Immigrating to Canada from Tokyo in 1994, Noriko lives and works in Toronto. Life for her as an artist began as a seven-year-old child learning ballet. She's been growing, creating, and teaching in the arts ever since.

* * * * *

To begin with, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I was born in Mito, Ibaraki-ken, Japan and lived there with my sister, two brothers, and parents until we moved to Tokyo when I was 10 years old. Much later, I moved to Toronto in 1994. I stopped all my work, got rid of my belongings, and brought my son, Hiro, my cat, a few suitcases, and a rice cooker across the ocean. I’m a Shin-Ijusha. I’m a cancer survivor of almost 10 years. As an artist, I suppose I wear a lot of hats, but I feel that these branches have the same roots.

What is your relationship with Japan now?

I return to Japan for two to three months every other year to travel, perform, and exhibit, and of course, to see my family and my school, mime, and dance friends. Despite the rapid changes in Tokyo, I keep a finger on the pulse of this city by maintaining close contact with its people.

Excerpts from Omoide (dance improv), Tokyo, Japan; February 2020. Video by gki

What do you miss and not miss about Tokyo?

Other than family and friends, of course, I miss the food and small local shrines. I don’t miss the busyness and the hot, humid summers.

How did your relationship with dance begin?

At the age of seven, I fell in love with ballet after watching my friend in a ballet class. I soon enrolled at a local ballet school. I can still vividly remember repeatedly playing the Swan Lake LP my dad bought for me. I’d create my own choreography and dance all the parts. My parents watched me, and were fully supportive in all the decisions I made so long as I was happy.

Are you from an artistic family?

My mother was an ikebana teacher. She also did Japanese calligraphy and once won an award at a prefecture competition. My dad took up oil painting as a hobby after retiring and became quite good. My sister taught piano for a little while, and one of my brothers is a member of two community choirs, one as a singer and the other as a conductor.

At university, I joined the creative dance club, which was led by Mieko Nishida sensei, and upon graduating, I joined her dance group and started to teach at her sister’s dance school. It was during this time when I learned and got experience in all aspects of dance, from choreography and dancing to costume design and stage work.

How did your relationship with mime begin?

Somewhere along the way in Japan, I realized there was something missing in dance for me. I felt a need to interact with the audience more. With dance, the dancer dances and the audience watches. However, with mime, there is more of an interactional relationship. Because of this, I joined a mime school run by renowned mime, Mamako Yoneyama, who had just returned to Japan after a decade of performing and teaching in the US.

During and after my time at her mime school, I performed with her, with others, and solo at a variety of venues and events throughout Japan for many years. I also got hooked up with an agency which provided work at corporate events, on television, and commercials.

I had also opened a small ballet and mime school in my studio. I ran this school for eight years until I decided to move to Toronto.

How did you meet your Canadian Sansei husband?

I was a part of a theatre group in the early ‘90s and we were scheduled for some performances in the UK. Another group member and I were also planning to do a little busking at London’s Covent Garden while there. So for this, we thought it would be necessary to learn some English before going. At a language school, I met my future husband.

Did your husband tell you about his family’s WWII internment experience as Japanese Canadians? Were they interned? Where?

Yes, he did tell me about this piece of history. I even visited some of the internment camps a few years ago with my husband and father-in-law. My father-in-law wasn’t actually interned as he was 18 years old at the time, and instead worked at a road camp. His family was interned at Sandon, B.C., while my mother-in-law and her family spent the war at the New Denver camp. I created a piece called Internment Camp and performed it at Momiji Seniors Centre for the 75th anniversary of the internment.

What was the personal impact of that visit and learning on you as a Japanese person? Was it a surprise?

It really reminded me how war has such a life-changing impact on people who aren’t or shouldn’t be so directly connected with it. This type of event has replayed itself over and over again throughout history, and sadly, I think it’ll continue. I learned that being a visible minority, like the Japanese Canadians were at the time, can put you in a very vulnerable position. To see the camps, like the one in New Denver, first hand was surprising and sad. It was possible for me to get a very small glimpse into what these victims went through. This produced a scar on me that will forever remind me of those difficulties and injustices.

Can you describe the piece, Internment Camp, that you created?

It’s my interpretation of the internment camp story. It’s set in Vancouver from just before the beginning of the internment camp process and continues to the end of it. Some of it is based on stories that I heard from my parents-in-law and from what I saw and learned from visiting the museum in New Denver and some of the other camps, while the rest is from my imagination.

Who were your main influences?

Of course, Mamako Yoneyama and Mieko Nishida had a huge impact on my life as a mime and dancer, respectively. I love the skill, creativity, and whimsicality of Charlie Chaplin. But it was my friend’s father, an author, and haiku master, who had such an impact on my life. Kureo Manabe was a person I loved speaking with when I was in middle school. I learned how he saw and evaluated things. I saw how he ‘lived’ life. He never taught or preached to me. It was through our conversations how I learned to examine and find the essence of something. This skill is so important for me now whether I’m creating movement or visual works.

Part 2 >>


© 2021 Norm Ibuki

artist dancer Noriko Yamamoto Toronto