On the CreativeGround with Michael Sakamoto

Portrait of Ohno Yoshito from Michael Sakamoto's portrait series

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CreativeGround highlights the people and places that contribute to New England's thriving creative economy. This month, Michael Sakamoto shares his experience as an interdisciplinary artist active in dance, theater, performance, photography, and media. Sakamoto is currently the Associate Director of Programming and Director of the Asian Arts and Cultures Program the Fine Arts Center at UMass Amherst, and serves as an advisor for NEFA's National Dance Project. Read on to learn about Michael, his influences, and his inspirations.

Screenshot of the CreativeGround profile for Michael Sakamoto including descriptive text, images of his dance work, and contact information.
Michael's CreativeGround profile demonstrates his extensive body of work.

CreativeGround (CG): What is a typical day like for you as a performing artist in New England?

Michael Sakamoto (MS): A typical day for me involves a lot of reflection. Because my work examines intercultural dialogue, I focus on questions around how corporeal, cultural, and racial identity is affected by the different environments in the region. I get into conversations with locals and other professionals around what the performing arts mean on multiple levels in New England. Also, because I work in multiple integrated disciplines (primarily dance theater, but also photography and media, mixing them altogether), I'm inspired by New England's landscapes as well as its rich history of dance, so I like to drive through back roads and small towns.

CG: Can you tell us about some of your favorite projects you've been involved with in New England?

MS: I just moved here in Summer 2019, so I'm still getting acquainted with the various artistic and cultural communities. I will be presenting Nikkei-Chan, my latest solo dance about Japanese American identity, in Boston in April 2020 as part of the new Boston Butoh Festival. I am scouting various locations for my latest performance photo essay, MuNK, which I've been working on for three years.

CG: what do you do to stay inspired? What fuels your work?

MS: My work engages intercultural politics, race, history, and the body. Unfortunately, there's always too much happening in the world to inspire my creativity.

CG: If you could collaborate with any New England creative business, cultural nonprofit, or artist, which/whom would it be and why?

MS: Given that it's New England, an historically and predominantly white population, and I'm a POC artist telling stories with my body about privilege and risk, I'd like to work with any space or creative collaborator willing to take a chance on subverting audience norms. I like to do what's unexpected because that gives an audience member a chance to see things in new ways and open themselves to other people's perspectives.

Two performers on a dimly lit stage; Michael is in front of Rennie performing a butoh-inspired movement while dressed in hip-hop attire.
Michael Sakamoto and Rennie Harris in "Flash" a butoh/hip-hop duet

CG: What was the last New England creative business or cultural nonprofit you visited and what did you see?

MS: I'm a programmer at the Fine Arts Center at UMass Amherst, so I'm seeing shows in our theaters all the time. One of the most recent was the dance company, Rubberband, led by choreographer Victor Quijada (and curated by my predecessor). Their originality and commitment to a highly physical and emotionally deep aesthetic was mind-boggling. Best performance I've seen in years.

CG: What are you currently reading or researching?

MS: I'm a practicing scholar as well as artist, so I have a huge intellectual nerd side. I'm always plowing through too many books, films, and photo essays. Right now, what stands out in my mind is James Baldwin's "The Devil Finds Work," his essay about cinema. Among many things, it's a biting and vulnerable examination of how mass media imagery affects race and the body. Fred Moten's writing is astounding as well. I'm always blown away by how dense and layered his texts are, yet the human experience embedded in his words is always palpable. Carol Mavor's book, Black and Blue, affects me in the same way, though not through the other authors' racial politics, of course. Simply because she writes so eloquently and personally about a book and three films that have deeply affected her, which happen to be the same ones that have altered the course my life as well.

Michael squats next to a Japanese shrine resting his head on his hand in a somewhat distraught emotion.
From Michael Sakamoto's photo essay "MuNK"

CG: Name three New England artists, creative businesses, or cultural nonprofits we should all know about.

MS: Alissa Cardone, a wonderful dancer and teacher based in Boston who is a professor at Boston Conservatory. We collaborated ten years ago, and I'm so glad we'll be in the same festival this spring.

The Dance Complex in Cambridge, MA, of course, which I discovered decades ago. It was the first organization to make me realize that there's a way to make contemporary dance a part of community and everyday life.

I also want to give a shout out to my performance and cultural studies colleagues in the region, especially three powerful women of color who are working for cultural equity like nobody's business: Munjulika Rahman at Williams College, Adanna Jones at Bowdoin College, and Shamell Bell at Dartmouth College.

CG: What's your 2020 vision for your creative practices? What's your 2020 vision for creative New England?

MS: My 2020 commitment to my practice is absolute authenticity. Nothing held back, and no unnecessary filters. The older I get, the more I realize how precious every moment and every shared experience are.

A dimly lit, shirtless dancer performs a butoh full body twist
Photo courtesy of Michael Sakamoto

CG: How does CreativeGround serve you as an artist?

MS: Even though I've been a working artist for over a quarter century, I'm brand new here, so CreativeGround seems like a perfect way to get acquainted and onboarded, if you will, to the New England arts scene. I'm looking for dialogue with my new community as much as getting gigs.

CG: Why should New England artists, creative businesses, and cultural nonprofits be listed on CreativeGround?

MS: Because the life of the communities where we live and work feed our practice, whether we like it or not. In my view, participating in one's community is as much a right as an obligation. Contribution and sharing go hand in hand with opportunity and equity. We are inseparable, and services like CreativeGround work best when they nurture not only what's best inside us, but between us as well.

CG: Can you tell us about any projects you're currently working on?

MS: I am currently developing George/Michael, my latest dance theater work, a collaboration with theater, dance, and film artist, George de la Peña. It's an autobiographical, two-man show, comparing and contrasting elements of our life stories as immigrant family Americans from Asia and Eastern Europe, as well unpacking aspects of male and gender privilege in the dance world.

Thank you to Michael for generously sharing himself and his work with us! Tune in soon for the next update from "On the CreativeGround with..." Until then, explore CreativeGround, or email creativeground@nefa.org to recommend an artist, cultural organization, or creative business whose story you'd love to dig into.

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