Challenge the Act of “Seeing”: Technology and the East Asian Woman’s Body on Stage

Yukina Sato


In Spring 2021, Yukina Sato, a Japanese-native dance artist, and Yujie Chen, a Chinese-native dance scholar, created a dance piece titled “Body Negative.” This project was an intermedia live dance performance that premiered at the Motion Lab at Ohio State University. It utilized video projections, soundscapes, and live camera captures. This collaborative embodiment research examined the burden of representing the Japanese female body on stage. Through technology, we explored the expectation of stereotyped East Asian-ness and how the dancer challenges this gaze. Throughout the process, we asked ourselves, "How do we reveal the lived experiences of East Asian women in the United States through dance and technology?"


Growing up in Japan, the people around me spoke the same language, and our skin colors were the same; we were all Japanese. But when I arrived in Edmond, Oklahoma in 2016, , I became “different” — “the Japanese,” and the only international/Asian/East Asian/Japanese student in the dance department of my undergraduate program at that time. I was asked many questions about my ethnicity and culture, as though I knew everything about my country and everyone in it.

For example, peers would ask,”Could you show me Japanese dance?”  When I answered “No,” they were surprised. I would explain that “Japanese dance” is an oversimplified term. Indeed, there are various kinds and styles of "Japanese dance." Additionally, my training background is in ballet and contemporary dance. But these interactions spurred me to ask, if I dance, does it count as “Japanese” dance? Or does “Japanese dance” entail specific expectations or assumptions about cultural “authenticity” and tradition? This set of questions followed me everywhere through my undergraduate study and was the start of the project "Body Negative," a dance piece I created with Chinese-native dance scholar Yujie Chen that evokes the struggles and challenges with identity politics and East Asian-ness in the United States. In the following sections, I break down the creative process into three stages: Ethnography Fieldwork, Embodiment, and Scaffolding the Performance. I will explain each stage and how the project shifted in certain directions. Furthermore, I will discuss how my collaborator, Yujie Chen, and I are moving forward with the project following its realization in a performance at the Motion Lab at Ohio State University.

Auto-Ethnographic Fieldwork

In the Spring of 2021, I began to examine U.S. perspectives on "Japanese-ness" and how it is embodied through dance through archival research and a kind of auto-ethnography in which I walked the paths of a key informant whom I only encountered through the archive of her movement work. I researched Saeko Ichinohe (1936-2020), a Japanese female dance artist in the U.S. who blended Western concert dance techniques and Nihon Buyoh, a Japanese traditional dance, , as a case study. Ichinohe immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s and worked for almost 40 years as the artistic director of Saeko Ichinohe Dance Company, which she founded in 1970. I found her work at the Dance Notation Bureau in New York, then tracked down an archive of her work at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (NYPL, n.d.). I read all of her movement notes, newspaper articles, and her documentation of her dance company repertoires. I visited with my own feet all her dance company locations and performance venues to hope to sense her presence.  I imagined her walking around the town to rehearse, dance, and create. Also, I interviewed a couple of her former dance company members about her dance-making process and what impact she was creating through the dance. From this fieldwork, I learned that many of Saeko Ichinohe’s works were inspired by ancient Japanese folktales and literature such as Genji Monogatari and set to koto music in the style and aesthetic of 11th Century Japan. Dancers wore kimonos (Japanese traditional attire) to perform. I came to conclude that Ichinohe utilized her Japanese cultural identity to strengthen her artistic voice. She aimed to embody "Japanese-ness" to allow her audience, often in the U.S., to transcend to the ancient times of Japan.

From this fieldwork, I noticed that one way to embody a Western perspective of “Japanese-ness” is to be reminiscent of ancient Japan through movement, costume (especially kimono), and music.


After fieldwork, I returned to the Dance Notation Bureau and proceeded to embody and restage the excerpt from one of her works, “Chidori,” a duet featuring a female and male dancer that depicts a love story between a fisherman and a bird (Chidori). Labanotation scores, which are similar to music scores, record choreography using a complex system of characters and shapes. To decipher a five minute segment of the score (25 pages of Labanotation), I met weekly for three months with my duet partner, Forrest Hershy, and Labanotation notator Dr. Valarie Williams.

The physicalization process of the duet was challenging. With no video documentation available, we relied on the Labanotation and just two photographs. When we encountered difficulties in understanding the score, we interpreted and imagined what Saeko Ichinohe would do based on what information we had. The significance of this embodiment was the realization of movement restriction by the kimono. The female dancer wore a kimono and ballet shoes to perform the duet. The choreography was Western concert dance style, which tends to move beyond and elongate the body parts, such as the long extension of the legs and arms.

However, the kimono structure interfered with most of the movement. For instance, if I wanted to extend my leg higher than 90 degrees, the kimono that was wrapped around my leg stopped the movement or restricted the leg extension. Or if I brought my arms higher than my head, the sleeves smacked my face. The more I tried to achieve the movement, the more I felt confined inside the kimono. The funny thing is that I felt familiar with this physical dilemma, the frustration of being confined; categorized as a cultural representation, and trapped in the gap between expectations and reality.  

The more I attempted to shed my cultural identity, the more it confined me. Through this embodiment, I wanted to examine this physical dilemma through my choreography. I was curious to utilize the strings and band that support kimono to stay in place on the body.

Scaffolding the Performance

While I was exploring embodiment, Yujie Chen researched the framework of our project. We were inspired by Rachel Lee’s The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America: Biopolitics, Biosociality, and Posthuman Ecologies. Lee describes the refusal to be essentialized as just "Asian" or "American" using the term “fragmented body.” Describing the hybridity of existing in a liminal, in- between liminal space was important in our project, so we decided to fragment the performer’s body via technology. Yujie Chen introduced a negative mode, which was inspired by a Chinese Photographer, Xu Yong's documentation of the Tiananmen Square protestusing negative film. In interactive exhibits, viewers would have to use the cameras on their phones to invert the negative images. Utilizing the negative mode gives the audience the freedom to switch between different viewing experiences. Utilizing the negative mode offers the opportunity for the audience to reflect on what they see and what they do not see.  The last stage of the project was intersecting my solo and technology. Yujie utilized two web cameras to record my solo in live time and manipulated in a software called Isadora. This software could record the movement, invert the video footage to negative mode, and repeat it like an old tape recorder. We angled the camera to capture my movement by focusing on specific body parts and Yujie projected that video footage in screens behind my body. Intersecting live body and video footage creates multiple dimensions in a performance space and challenges the audience to choose which body they are watching. There were multiple projections and recorded voices echoed in space.  

We also added audience participation. We asked the audience to use their phone camera and turn on the inverted mode. Through the camera, the audience could see my live body in negative mode, while the projected video is in real color. By asking them to hold the camera, we encouraged the audience to consider the translation happening through seeing.


In conclusion, Body Negative served as a starting point for Yujie and me to produce a multimedia performance aimed at sharing the perspectives of East Asian female dance artists in the U.S. The feedback we received from the performance highlighted the unique approach of navigating the audience's gaze in a negative mode, with audience members mentioning the physical and mental weight of perspective while holding their phones. The heaviness of the phone symbolized the burden for performers to meet stereotypical expectations. Yujie's framework proved effective in questioning the audience's act of “seeing.” Inspired by the success of “Body Negative,” Yujie and I co-launched YY Dance + Media to continue our collaborative efforts. Our next iteration, “Motion of Seeing,” premiered at the Detroit City Dance Festival in September 2023, where we were honored to receive the National Exchange Award. We have been invited to the Regional Alternative Dance Festival in March 2024 and have plans to perform at more festivals in the future. Our aim is to continue evolving this project through different iterations, using artistic practice to explore our life experiences and questions at the intersections of dance and technology.

Works Cited

Lee, Rachel C. The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America: Biopolitics, Biosociality, and Posthuman Ecologies. New York University Press, 2014.

New York Public Library [NYPL]. “Saeko Ichinohe Dance Company Records.” Saeko Ichinohe Dance Company records. Accessed March 10, 2022.

Xu, Yong., Goodrow Gérard A., and Catherine Cheng. 2019. Negatives. Berlin: Distanz Verlag.