Artist Profile: Performer Miles Butler
The Planet Connections Festivity is a socially-conscious arts festival in its tenth year. Each show highlights a cause close to the artist, raising awareness for an organization/topic of their own selection.
In partnership with the Planet Connections, Hapa Mag is highlighting some of the mixed-race artists of Asian descent participating in this year's Festivity.
Artist Profile: Planet Connections 2018
Performer: Miles Butler
Show Dates: Tuesday July 17th - Saturday August 4th
What makes you Quapa (Quarter-Asian)? How do you feel about the word? Is it how you identify yourself?
I’ve never heard the terms Quapa or Hapa before. So I wouldn't say it is how I identify (yet) but I am definitely going to try out the words and incorporate them into my vocabulary. I am a quarter-Japanese on my mother’s side. My mom's mom was named Saki Shiga. Grandma Saki died in the 1980's before I was born so she has a legendary, mythical status in my mind, because I only learn about her from pictures and stories told by my mother and uncle.
What was it like for you growing up mixed-race Asian? Do you think this has had any sort of influence on your identity?
I loved growing up quarter-Japanese. On a superficial level, I enjoyed the gifts—shirts, trinkets, snacks - sent from distant Japanese relatives and friends. I loved looking at the Japanese characters on the gifts even though I didn't understand. At home, my mom made rice and fish dishes that her mom had passed down to her. Delicious! Our house was sprinkled with Japanese art and heirlooms that my mom didn't tell me about unless I pressed her to. She never forced any culture on me. And, at school, I enjoyed being a chameleon, knowing I had Japanese blood and seeing if other kids could tell. It made me feel unique. Once, I remember telling a friend that I was part-Japanese and they said, "I don't believe you" and I said, "I'm serious!" and she persisted, "I don't believe you. You're lying," for months. I guess that was a reminder that I looked very white in a mostly white small town in northern Virginia. I still felt different though. I've only experienced positive attention for my Quapa appearance, unlike my mom who was teased and harassed for growing up Hapa in the 50's and 60's. So I feel very lucky to have grown up where and when I did and to have a healthy, pleasant relationship with my Asian-ness.
Do you feel being a mixed-race artist has shaped the way you approach theater?
Usually my approach to theater in general is very playful and buoyant but when I work on pieces like SHINKA, where I conjure up my ancestry for inspiration, I become very thoughtful and serious. I don't know why this is, but it's definitely a “thing”. I can think of more than a few instances where I've directly drawn on my Japanese heritage to create art. In college, I wrote a solo performance piece where I was speaking to my Grandma Saki and questioning, "what would she think of me if she met me now?" I love seeing deeply personal, autobiographical theater works and I want to keep contributing to that tradition. I think the way being mixed-race has affected me the most is displayed in my interest and appreciation for Asian art and artists. Having learned just a tiny bit of my Japanese family history over the years and seeing how that has manifested in my sense of self has made me crave more culture and history.
One of the best works of theater that I've seen (in 2018) thus far, is Hold These Truths by Jeanne Sakata. It's about the true story of Gordon Hirabayashi who refused to be sent to the internment camps in the wake of Pearl Harbor and fought the U.S. government in the Supreme Court. It's a brilliant, moving piece and everyone should see it if they have the chance! But honestly, I don't think I would have seen it had I not had a personal connection to it. And here is this man Gordon, with so many similarities to my grandma: 1st generation, Seattle-born, with family in camps. I felt I was learning so much about her through him, and yet I had so many more questions coming out of that show. I yearn to learn about my culture and I think art is a great way to do that.
What you made decide to get into the theater arts? And, how did you get started in movement, dance and Butoh?
I got into the theater as an 8 or 9 year-old dance student. My first show was a jazz & hip-hop dance version of The Nutcracker and the director asked me if I wanted one of the few speaking roles and I said, "uhh yeah!" After that, I started dancing less and less and became an acting fool! And now, I've come full circle by dancing more and tackling lots of movement theater. In 2016, I joined an amazing devising company called the Ume Group where I met SHINKA director, Yokko Usami. Together with Jordan Rosin, Yokko introduced me to Butoh dance, which blew my mind. For those who don't know, Butoh is a dance that started in post-WWII Japan as a reaction to Western dance and the A-Bomb attacks. Movements were inspired by the heavy body shapes of farmers from the rural Japan. Butoh has been described as the dance of life. Common characteristics of a Butoh performance include grotesque facial gestures, white body makeup, and hyper-slow, controlled movements. Boom. Done. Brief, unprompted Butoh history lesson complete. I think Butoh is a dynamic dance that is hard to explain. It's better just to experience it.
Tell us about SHINKA.
SHINKA is an explosive, unrelenting, balls-to-the-wall 70-minute movement piece. It's one of those shows that [reminds you] you're gonna have to remember to breathe every once in awhile. The word shinka means "evolution," "flaming heart," or "divine song" in Japanese. It explores the struggles and hopes of living beings in rapidly changing societies and ecosystems. SHINKA utilizes Butoh dance with inspiration from the animal kingdom, Dragon Ball Z, and sexy club music. And with the show being environmentally-focused, part of the ticket proceeds will go to the World Wildlife Fund. So please join us!