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Choreographer Denise Fujiwara adapts words into the score for Eunoia at Firehall Arts Centre

Eunoia
Performers lead with specific body parts in Eunoia to reflect vowels. Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh.

The word eunoia is rarely heard in everyday conversation. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, it means “a feeling of goodwill”, especially between a speaker and an audience. Eunoia is also the shortest English word with all five vowels.

All of this led Toronto sound poet Christian Bök to embark on a fascinating experiment. Inspired by a French writers’ group that embraces literary constraint, Bök spent seven years writing a book-length poem called Eunoia. It won the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2002.

As a result of his self-imposed constraints, all of the words in each chapter had the same vowel. According to the publisher, Coach House Press, the different vowels for the five chapters took on their own personality.

Several years ago, Toronto choreographer Denise Fujiwara was so enchanted by Eunoia that she obtained Bök’s consent to adapt his poetry into a full-length multimedia dance show.

“I wanted to create a work that used words as a score similar to the way that choreographers use music as a score,” the artistic director of Fujiwara Dance Inventions tells Pancouver by phone.

Eunoia premiered at Harbourfront Centre’s WorldStage Series in 2014, earning three Dora Mavor Moore Award nominations. Dance critic Paula Citron described it as clever, witty, and engrossing. According to Fujiwara, the poet, Christian Bök, also loved it.

Eunoia has since toured nationally, with its next stop at Vancouver’s Firehall Arts Centre from May 8 to 11.

Eunoia
Eunoia will be at the Firehall Arts Centre from May 8 to 11. Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh.

Taking risks with Eunoia

Fujiwara acknowledges that adapting the book into a dance work was full of potential pitfalls.

“It’s really deadly to try to literally express in dance what the words say because that’s redundant—and not very interesting,” she states. “But if you can’t do that, what do you do? That was a large part of the research.” 

Fujiwara challenged herself as a choreographer by working with constraints—just as the author had imposed restrictions upon himself. In her production, dancers could only initiate movements from body parts that had the same vowel in that part of the production.

“Each of the chapters has a short list of body parts that we could use,” Fujiwara says. “So, it was really very limiting.”

In the “A” section, for example, performers could lead with the jaw, palm, calf, the scalp, and even the amygdala. The amygdala is an almond-shaped part of the brain linked to emotions, including the fight-or-flight response to stress.

Fujiwara also chose to focus on verbs in the poetry. And she decided to have performers speak the text rather than relying on a voiceover, even though dancers don’t normally interpret words.

“That was a huge challenge,” Fujiwara states. “Our processes involved training in vocal practice and also in text analysis.”

Denise Fujiwara Eunoia
Denise Fujiwara convinced members of the creative team to impose limits on themselves in developing Eunoia.

Creativity from constraints

In addition, Fujiwara challenged the rest of her team to embrace constraints of their own. At first, she says, they were reluctant to do this for fear that it might undermine the quality of their work.

However, in the end, she believes that these constraints forced them to be more creative. That’s because they couldn’t rely on their usual approaches to achieve success.

“It created synergy between all of the design aspects of the work, so it ended up being something greater than we expected,” Fujiwara reveals. “All of my collaborators were amazingly gifted and I’m so grateful for what they put into the work.”

The Vancouver production of Eunoia will be performed by Sylvie Bouchard, Brayden Cairns, Jen Hum, Mayumi Lashbrook, Lucy Rupert, and Gerry Trentham, who is also in charge of voice direction. Meanwhile, Phil Strong oversees composition and sound design; Justin Stephenson did the video design; and A.J. Morra is responsible for stage and production management.

Fujiwara says that she has learned important lessons from putting obstacles in her way in the creation of Eunoia.

“It taught me that you should dream big,” the choreographer declares. “And don’t worry if you don’t know if it’s possible, because maybe you’ll discover lots of new things about yourself and the world.

“If you have a positive attitude about your obstacles, you’re probably going to have a better and more interesting life.”

Powell Street
The view of Vancouver’s Paeru Gai (Powell Street) in 1928. Photo by Dominion Photo Co./ Vancouver Public Library Accession Number: 21774.

Returning to Paeru Gai

Fujiwara has presented works at the Firehall Arts Centre in the past. The most recent was No Exit, which is based on Jean-Paul Sartre’s play of the same name.

“It’s about people in a small room who pretty much only talk,” Fujiwara says, “So I did it with people who actually don’t talk but just move.”

For Fujiwara, returning to the Powell Street neighbourhood of Vancouver—where the Firehall Arts Centre is located—carries a special significance. Once known as Paueru Gai (the Japanese translation of Powell Street), it’s where her father was raised before he and more than 22,000 other Japanese Canadians in B.C. were incarcerated during the Second World War.

The government seized their assets. Furthermore, they were forbidden from returning to the Pacific Coast until nearly four years after the war was over.

Fujiwara says that her father wound up in the Slocan internment camp, where he built shacks that housed community members.

“After that, he was sent to work camps in the north, doing logging,” Fujiwara reveals. “I guess the one shining light of the experience was that when he was in Slocan, he met my mother.”

After the war, the couple moved to Ontario and built a life together.

Fujiwara’s mom was born in Duncan on Vancouver Island and lived for a while in the nearby community of Paldi. Last year, the town’s diversity was celebrated in a Heritage Minute.

Her mom received a scholarship to train in dance in Victoria. However, it was cut short when she was sent to the internment camp.

“She never got to fulfill that dream,” Fujiwara says. “She gave me opportunities, if I wanted, to do what she had wanted to do. It was open to me. And I’m very grateful to her for that.”

Event details

The Firehall Arts Centre will present Fujiwara Dance InventionsEunoia at 7:30 p.m. from May 8 to May 11 at the Firehall. For tickets and more information, visit the Firehall website. A post-show talkback will take place on May 9.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.