Interview with Ami Skånberg Dahlstedt
Tell us a little bit about yourself, your childhood, background, and current occupation.
My name as a kamishibai performer is Amimaisha Kamishibai. In Chinese characters (亜美舞者紙芝居), it means a person who loves Asia and dances and tells stories. I was told that I could also use the kanji 網 for Ami, meaning “net.” Amimaisha--a dance network!
I was born and raised in Kortedala in Sweden. Kortedala is a multicultural suburb of Gothenburg, so I grew up with children from many places: Estonia, Finland, Croatia. Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia. At the age of 10, I joined the local Croatian folkdance group and sang and danced with them in different festivals for several years. My father worked in a tobacco shop in the city, and my mother worked for the State telephone company. My brother was a punk and played in several bands.
My mother once told me that as a child I could sit for hours looking at a picture and create dialogues and stories around it. I loved reading but was a very quiet child. My teachers were convinced that I would become a writer, but I really wanted to become an actor. I was so shy that no one could understand why I wanted to be on stage, but at age 11, I finally wrote my first play and performed it together with some classmates. It was a Russian drama, and I was a tsar with a moustache!
Today, I still do various kinds of writing: articles on dance for dance magazines and travel stories. In my dance-theater pieces--When I became Japanese (2002), I must dance! (2004), and Ballerina (2006)--I develop a script; there is a story taking place on stage, presented with dance and also music, songs, and text. In 2001, my article about showing my film in Alexandria, Egypt, was published in the book, Days of Doris, an anthology of Swedish female filmmakers. In 2010, I published my first book, which is an autobiographical account of our lives as parents to a child with Type 1 diabetes. For this I created a dance based on blood sugar curves and my husband Palle, who is a composer, developed the music for it.
I have always greatly admired the character of Pippi Långstrump, or Pippi Longstocking, in the Astrid Lindgren series. There’s always a bit of Pippi in my stage characters. Pippi invents in her own way the things she feels are needed here and now, without asking permission.
How did you become interested in dance?
At the age of 14, when I began inquiring how I could become an actor, I realized there was no theater training available, so I started to take dance classes: Jazz, contemporary and ballet. I fell in love with dance and thought dancing would make me become a better actor. In Sweden, my ballet teachers said it would be impossible for me to become a professional dancer starting so late. (I was 15 years old and was told I was too old already!). Around this time, I was offered a travel grant to study French, and I used it to take a dance workshop in Bretagne. My French dance teachers encouraged me to become a professional dancer, so I applied to the Ballet Academy, a fulltime dance program in Gothenburg from 1988 to 1991. It was very tough, more technical than artistic, and I hurt my foot badly and had to have surgery. I have had to learn to dance in ways that would not stress my injury. During this time, I made my debut as a choreographer, creating dances for the play, The Wind in the Willows, at the National Theater in 1990. I have since worked with other choreographers creating both abstract dances and dance theater pieces.
At the same time, I have worked with children’s theater touring as a dancing actor in plays written especially for children. In 1994, I attended a seminar on dance film at the Stockholm Academy of Dramatic Arts and after that I made my very first film, not knowing very much about the medium. Together with three cinematography students from the School of Photography at the University of Gothenburg (Laila Östlund, Joel Olsson, and Kicki Niemi) I made a film that received an honorary mention in Paris in 1995. In 1996 I wrote and directed a 50-minute fiction film called “The dancer—a fairytale.” It premiered in 1999 and was shown in many film festivals around the world (Egypt, U.S., Europe, Japan) and on Swedish Television. From 1996 to 1997 I studied video art at Valand School of Fine Arts, and I made more dance videos on my own, several of which were selected for international competitions.
In 2000, I visited Kyoto for two months because my husband Palle was doing a project there. My son Toste was 2 years old and I was pregnant with my son Egil, who was born one month after we came back home to Sweden. I performed a dance solo, entitled Bird, fish or Woman? at various theaters and art centers in Kyoto. I also looked for a dance workshop that I could attend while we were there, and I found out about Traditional Theater Training (TTT) at the Kyoto Art Center created by director Jonah Salz from New York City. When I called to ask if I could study Noh, with which I was a bit familiar, they told me there was only one space left in nihon buyo, Japanese classical dance.
This class changed my life! How difficult and wonderful it was, so graceful and spiritual (though very strict). The new techniques forever changed my own way of thinking about movement. My sensei (teacher), Nishikawa Senrei, encouraged and supported me. My whole family returned to Japan in 2001, this time thanks to a grant I received from the Scholarship Foundation for Studies of Japanese Society, to study more Japanese dance. We returned again in 2004. In 2011, I went back to Kyoto to make a film about Japanese dance, in collaboration with filmmaker Folke Johansson, and to interview my sensei. The name of the film is “The Dance of the Sun.” It will premiere in 2012.
How did you find out about kamishibai?
It was in an Irish bar in Kyoto with my husband and the director Jonah Salz. I told Jonah-san about my Japanese culture classes for children. He told me about different storytelling techniques and mentioned kamishibai as something he himself was very interested in. I searched on the internet and found two books that I read with great interest: Eric Nash’s Manga Kamishibai and Tara McGowan’s outstanding, The Kamishibai Classroom. Then I applied for a grant, which made it possible for me to buy the stage and some fairy-tales. When I came to Kyoto with filmmaker Folke Johansson, I visited the Kyoto Manga Museum and entered a beautiful kamishibai class for children with storyteller Rakyumon. The children would not let me go before I made my own story. So I drew and told my very first original kamishibai story (in Japanese!) in a stage on the back of a real kamishibai bicycle! I donated my story to Rakyumon and have decided that this experience was meant to bring me good luck.
What made you want to start performing kamishibai?
When my sons were smaller, I loved to dramatize fairytales with them and sometimes added props when telling them stories. I also taught them Japanese children’s songs. So I really love fairy-tales, and I was so happy to find kamishibai and also finding how very generous people in the kamishibai world are. From day one, I found it easy to reach out to people involved with this art form and received a lot of helpful hints. My artist friend Carmen in Argentina just started kamishibai too, seeing my photos. I wanted to add kamishibai to my Japanese dances and to perform the Japanese folktales I love in a new and interesting way. Tara McGowan’s original stories, especially the one about the Tea Ceremony, made me realize kamishibai can be used for any story. I thought about developing a street performance with dance and storytelling, but I personally don´t like shouting for peoples’ attention. However, I love performing outdoors.
As a freelance artist, I often make guest appearances at theaters, dance spaces, libraries, and museums in Sweden. At the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, I have had three performances of kamishibai. I started with a dance, and then told the history of kamishibai, showing the hyoshigi clappers and the book Kamishibai Man by Allen Say. I also told three different tales in a calm and peaceful way. The frame is the magic because the framed picture creates focus. With this, I, as a storyteller, can pause the story, I can make the audience look at the frame but also look at me. I can hide behind the frame or stand next to it. Of course, it reminds me of working with film, only instead of using the scissors or the edit button, I use my hand to change the scenes.
In 2004, I created an o hanami (flower-viewing) class for children ages 6-8 in the Botanical garden, arranged by the city of Gothenburg for all the schools in the city. I give 10 classes each spring and since 2011 I also give 10 classes in the autumn to celebrate Jizou Obon Festival. This is an outreach workshop created by the advisers of a program of dance and architecture for children, called Stadens Rum (Rooms of the City). I teach children the song and dance called “Sakura” (Cherry Blossom), the slow Japanese walk (suriashi), and they also listen to Noh and Kabuki music. I end the program with a playful samurai dance, and we all have a sip of green tea, along with the reading of a tea poem. We enter a different world, an invented peaceful Japan with beautiful flowers, mystery, and special music and dance. I tell the fairytale Kasajizou, for this performance, and this year I used kamishibai, and it was a great improvement. I ask the audience to try the hyoshigi for their own experience. I usually have to give people in Sweden a lot of background about kamishibai, since it is a new medium here. I have now done this class for nine years, each Swedish o hanami season. I have taught this class at a primary School in Melbourne, Australia, when we stayed there for 3 months and also taught in Egypt, where I’ve had several collaborations with the library of Alexandria.
I wear kimono for my performances because it is so important for the movements in nihon buyo (Japanese dance). Teachers and children appreciate kimono and ask many questions about Japanese traditional clothes. They address me in a different way than if I’d worn a sweat suit. I also act differently wearing a kimono. It adds dignity to what I do and is integral to how I wish to transmit Japanese culture. I wear different kimono, trying to embrace the seasons. Kimono with sakura for hanami, kimono with star leaves for Tanabata, wool-kimono for Jizou Obon and sometimes just happi and hakama-like pants. I think kamishibai knits together my love for visual arts, for fairy-tales, for Japanese culture, and Japanese dance. I find it particularly rewarding to tell a kamishibai story and then relate the story to something I can do together with the audience, like a craft of some sort, and then to teach them a Japanese dance. I did this when celebrating the festival of Tanabata (the Star Festival) for the first time this past July 7th (2011).
I told the kamishibai story Tanabata Monogatari, now and then adding a bit of drama by using my kimono sleeve to speak as princess Orihime. So I can really use my Japanese dance training for storytelling. I managed to do some origami for Tanabata, thanks to the kind help of Tara McGowan. My son made beautiful fishing nets, and we decorated the pavilion in the garden with fishing nets, Teru teru Bouzu, samurai helmets and tsuru (cranes). Then, after they had hung their wishes on bamboo branches, we sang the Tanabata song (from the songbook released by Kamishibai for Kids - I translated one verse into Swedish). Finally we ended with a circle dance, the Zoran Bushi from Hokkaido. Gothenburg has many fishermen´s stories so I thought Zoran Bushi would be great. (I also have a special childhood connection to that song because when I was eleven, a friend of mine and I recorded it from the radio. We had no idea it was Japanese, but we had a boy in our class called Zoran from Serbia so we related the song to him and sang it!)
This was a really heartwarming experience, because both young and old could take part. Many Japanese families came, and this made me particularly happy. I took all the tanzaku from Sweden to a priest in a shrine in Matsubara, Osaka prefecture, on my next visit to Japan, and he blessed them all.
This year, I created a new Japanese culture class called Jizou Obon, which I also conducted in the Botanical Gardens in Gothenburg. I tell Kasa Jizou (Hats for Jizos), and then the children bring their own stones and paint faces of the Buddha, Jizou-san, on the stones. Some children find the stones so beautiful in themselves that they are reluctant to paint on them.
While the stones dry, we dance Zoran Bushi. Thanks to the story Kasa Jizou we can talk about how we celebrate in different countries, such as Christmas, Japanese and Persian New Year, and the Arabic Eid al Fitr. Of course we also talk about having nothing and still being able to give something. We can talk about different alphabets. Children like very much to create the sound effects for the story and to sing together. I added the Oshogatsu (New Year’s) song, half translated into Swedish. Teachers and children were amazed because they got to use all their senses: Listening, drawing, singing, and dancing. Many teachers wrote to me afterwards about how the children kept their Jizou close to them after the program, and the parents are also very interested to know more about Japanese culture. So, I think this is one way for me to work with kamishibai.
Do you make your own stages and do you make-up your own stories? Do you have a favorite story or kind of story?
So far, I have mostly told published kamishibai stories from Japan, like Kasa Jizou, Tanabata Monogatari, and Kaguya Hime. I also copied a Japanese story from a book about a Sakura Tree so that I could perform it for my o hanami classes. I also love How the Years Were Named, Momotaro, and The Mouse’s Wedding. With Momotaro I add a playful Oni (demon) mask, and I also wear a headscarf. Here I can really use my love of kabuki dance and movement. Because the medium is so new to me, I have decided to get comfortable with a few fairy-tales and then add more to my repertoire as I learn them. I have bought Japanese kamishibai each time I visited Kyoto, but I need to translate them before telling them. I am studying Japanese part time at Gothenburg University.
I am working with visual artist Anna Kraft, who has made beautiful costumes for my dance theater pieces. She makes drawings for a book I have written and she now makes them to fit the kamishibai frame. Gerd Karlsson who has made many great set designs to my dance performances has created a beautiful fairy-tale cloth, so I now have a piece of art to put the kamishibai-stage on. This work was supported by the City of Gothenburg.
I am not so skilled with my hands, but I am thinking of asking my father to make the paper kamishibai-stage from the book The Kamishibai Classroom. One workshop I would like to do is to have children with juvenile diabetes make their own blood-sugar theater with kamishibai.
Whom do you see as your audience for kamishibai? And what do you think kamishibai offers to them?
For now, my audience is small children, schoolchildren, and families. People tell me, listening to kamishibai helps them to remove their stress and enter a different world with a slower pace. I think that happens to me also. The frame of wood is really a magic frame. The pictures become alive, the story is supported, and the storyteller is supported. I am so used to trying to use all my power to create this magic with my body, so storytelling makes me surprised–I have a focused audience and I don’t even move that much. I don’t invite them into my feet or shoulders, but into the frame and into my hands and face.
The coming together is also important, the gathering of young and old around something that becomes alive. Knowing a story might be 1000 years old but still recognizing in it the values that we shouldn’t forget. Or sometimes discussing old-fashioned values that are no longer current–in many old fairy-tales, for example, daughters are forced to marry. The story gives us an opportunity to discuss these subjects. Doing the sound effects together, singing, learning and thinking of Japan together, taking part in a ritual in a warm and welcoming way, learning Japanese words, such as MUKASHI MUKASHI and Ojiisan, Obaasan, Jizousan. Oshimai. Oshogatsu. The directness of sharing the same space and time together is also valuable--just as in any performance, whether it is dance or theatre or music.
How is kamishibai similar to and/or different from other storytelling forms that are available to you in your country?
There are storytellers, who read for children from books in libraries, and I have seen tales being read and pictures shown at the same time on a TV-screen. But I think the pictures did not become alive, but rather more distant. There is a similarity with puppet theatre, and there are some really good puppet theatres in Sweden, for example Teater Sesam, http://teatersesam.se/ run by Nasrin Barati from Iran. Ingmar Bergman is said to have played with a European miniature theater, as a child, and he claims that this theater got him involved in film!
What are your plans going forward for performing kamishibai or making them available to others?
I am currently investigating the lives of the street performers called shirabyoshi, and I will add kamishibai storytelling to this performance. Shirabyoshi are the almost forgotten female street performers who danced and sang, and dressed like men with a priest’s hat and sword. They are said to have inspired Noh. I wish to honor and acknowledge them by recreating their dances and their music. Because they were street performers like kamishibai artists, they have something in common. This summer I studied a shirabyoshi piece about the heroine Shizuka Gozen, who was a very brave shirabyoshi dancer, and a very popular figure in both Noh and Kabuki.
I think I am on the right path, combining dance, film, and kamishibai, and my love for Japan. I will continue to visit schools and hospitals and bring the magic of kamishibai to other people, and I plan to find a venue to conduct storytelling workshops. I am currently developing a workshop in Japanese dance, this time for adults. To achieve all this, I need to find more funding and to become part of an institute or organization, so that I can find more consistent support for my texts, films, and performances. Or maybe I’ll just create my own institution, like Pippi Longstocking would have done!
Kamishibai for Kids ~ Cathedral Station ~ PO Box 629 ~ New York, NY 10025