With any kind of art, you don’t necessarily need to speak the language to understand the emotion conveyed. Dancer-choreographer Cameron McKinney built on that accessibility when he began combining dance and Japanese culture in a way he hopes will make a mark on the landscape of professional dance.
On a recent Saturday morning McKinney, 26, talked about his contemporary dance company, Kizuna Dance, by phone from New York, and the performances he’s bringing to Highland Center for the Arts, at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Aug. 17 and 18.
“I first got into Japanese through music when I was 13,” McKinney said. “It kind of blew my mind.”
It was an artist named Hikaru Utada, one of Japan’s better-known pop artists, who inspired him to go to the library and teach himself the language as much as he could on his own. Soon after, he learned about a summer immersion camp in Minnesota.
“Basically, you’re out in the woods, they give you a Japanese name, take all your technology, and speak nothing but Japanese to you for a month,” McKinney said.
He fell in love with the language, the culture and the study of it, and the hobby became a passion. At Middlebury College a few years later, he discovered something similar in dance.
“So now I try to blend the two together,” McKinney said.
“I would say I’m fluent by American standards, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be fluent by Japanese standards,” he said about learning what is considered one of the most difficult languages to learn. “But it gets easier once you get started. I’ve taken Chinese, too, and it’s a lot easier than Chinese.”
The crossover from music to language to dance fell into place naturally, and the ability of both movement and foreign languages to articulate aspects of the human experience uniquely is what his performances are aiming for.
“In one of the works at the Highland Center I’ll be using an old Japanese country pop song,” McKinney said. “It’s about one man and how lonely he is, but he sings about it in a very upbeat voice.”
For another piece he uses an actual club song the title of which translates to “until the day we meet again.”
“I blend the works of Japanese pop artists and often use the work of Japanese classical composers,” McKinney said. “I try to mix it in terms of music.”
Choreographically, he says, he’s still finding his voice, “but for the most part, I start off with just pure movement. That’s really what got me into dance and what keeps me addicted to it. The generation of moving material becomes more and more complicated and complex with each piece.”
But it always centers on creating work that celebrates aspects of Japanese culture. His company, Kizuna Dance, is named for the Japanese word meaning bonds or connections between people. It encompasses McKinney’s movement style blending Japanese influences with aspects of capoeira, street dance, and contemporary floor work, something different in modern dance, “because I’m trying to actually break away from that and work toward a different aesthetic.”
“In terms of choreographic choices of how to move an ensemble from one end of the stage to another, or how to make a piece interesting for longer than 10 minutes, those kinds of things I do pick up when I see other performances,” he said.
But there’s another aspect to his brand.
“A lot of contemporary works are pretty dark and dramatic, so I try to allow moments that are just about fun,” McKinney said.
His goal is ultimately to further the role dance has to “speak to parts of the human experience that we don’t get to address or that we choose not to address” through a new kind of street dance and contemporary dance fusion that embraces the good and the bad in life.
“I hope that further down the line, it’ll be something that is unique,” McKinney said. “And will set my work apart from the rest of the field.”
Highland Center for the Arts
Highland Center for the Arts presents Kizuna Dance, directed by Cameron McKinney, at 2875 Hardwick St., Greensboro, at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Aug. 17 and 18. Tickets are $30 and $35; call 802-533-2000, or go online to highlandartsvt.org.