Shinichi Iova-Koga's work is grotesque, beautiful, and funny. As a dancer he is never less than mesmerizing ephemeral like smoke, limpid like a vernal pool. And yet he is an accidental dancer. The son of two painters, he was initially drawn to photography; at age 12 his bathroom doubled as a darkroom. Then, at San Francisco State University, he became a film major. "All the while," he says, "I was involved in theater, but I thought my main line was behind the camera."
The Oakland-born Iova-Koga also trained in Tadashi Suzuki's method for actors, through which he was introduced to Butoh. Another influence was the investigative method of Ruth Zaporah's Action Theater. His most formative teacher, however, was Butoh dancer Hiroko Tamano: "While we were making rice balls one day, [Tamano] asked me if I wanted to join Harupin-Ha [Butoh Dance Theater]." After a while, like many of Tamano's pupils, Iova-Koga needed to strike out on his own. He traveled to Japan and Germany to study and work with other Butoh masters and, not incidentally, learn to adapt the genre to his expressive needs.
Thanks to these shifts in focus, he has developed a personal form of mixed-media dance theater that integrates contradictory impulses the ancient and the technological, the chaotic and the formal, nature and nurture. He might be called a dancer at the edge. To Iova-Koga, this may well be a compliment; he has said that "only a dance at the edge reveals the honest life." His process blurs the distinctions between categories of thinking, being, disciplines, and performing. He likes to dig into both humorous and horrible subjects. The resulting works have taken him around the world.
One of his early works, 1996's Desert Body, showed dramatic flair but not much personal voice. Ironically, he says, "I first started with Butoh so that I could be a better director. Now by chance I am a dancer." He is very precise about what this means to him. Dancing, he has said, means "focusing on the body being danced. To mentally construct a choreography that ignores this is to create a false dance."
Iova-Koga is an avid solo performer as well as a collaborator; he is often inspired by the people around him. His harrowing Tasting an Ocean influenced by his father's having lived through the atomic bombing of Nagasaki at the age of five kept a 2003 audience at the tiny Noh Space on the edge of their seats. His most recent, highly acclaimed solo, Milk Traces, which he has performed in Europe and Japan, was prompted by the birth of his daughter. He calls her his main teacher now: "I follow her without questions."
In ensemble pieces such as Heaven's Radio, an adaptation of a Samuel Beckett radio drama, and this summer's Our Breath Is as Thin as a Hummingbird's Spine (cocreated with Nanos Operetta), Iova-Koga has worked with other Bay Area theater artists (Nils Frykdahl, Ken Rudstrom, and Allen Willner) and Butoh dancers Tanya Calamoneri and Leigh Evans. The duet Ame to Ame, featuring Yuko Kaseki, another Germany-based frequent collaborator, finds the two playing out a riotous male-female relationship in terms of both meanings of the word ame, Japanese for "candy" and "rain." The absurdist Cockroach casts Kaseki as the ghostly wife to Iova-Koga's husband; she dances through his tea-slurping last moments. His newest enterprise is C(h)ord, which he's collaborating on with Seattle's Degenerate Ensemble. It premieres at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on April 24, 2008.