Profile: Kunji Ikeda

Kunji Ikeda is a dance theatre artist and artistic director of Cloudsway Dance Theatre—and self-described ‘DIY Punk’—who joined Past Wrongs, Future Choices as a 2023 Artist in Residence. Beginning as a trained theatre performer in Calgary, Alberta, Kunji came to dance through theatre, which opened up new opportunities to explore movement and gesture in performance.

“Being able to say something in multiple ways and through multiple forms has brought me so much joy and opportunity and possibility. I can take dance and theatre and combine them together to see what the story calls for, or what the narrative asks to be. To have that ability has generated so much of my work.”

Joining Past Wrongs, Future Choices as the first performance artist in residence, Kunji worked on developing the first draft of a new performance which will take on a new contemporary direction to themes and performance explored in past work including Sansei: The Storyteller.

Created and performed by Kunji, Sansei: The Storyteller has been touring for ten years, earning praise and best-of-festival awards for its storytelling of Japanese-Canadian internment and Kunji’s use of performance in understanding this history as a third-generation Japanese-Canadian. It has been performed everywhere from major theatre and dance festivals, to middle schools and professional theatres, to sites including the Kohan Garden in New Denver, where Kunji’s family had been relocated.

Sansei: The Storyteller was my comedic look at Japanese Canadian internment, because if that didn’t happen I wouldn’t be alive. So it was kind of a reframing of that narrative in a safe way for me to tell the story, and for the audience to take in the information while doing some learning and growing together.”

In Sansei: The Storyteller, Kunji used historical audio in his performance—a voice clip from the radio of racist attitudes and views of Japanese Canadian citizenship. Through gestures and movement to this recording, Kunji combined performance with historical materials to build up a vocabulary with the audience to participate in the experience, storytelling and Kunji’s “personal experience of feelings.”

Using this as a way to build connection and participation with audiences to tell a story, Kunji notes that “there was also something about how I interpreted ‘primary sources’ [in this performance] in a way that academics have appreciated.”

Being able to develop new work in an environment and community of other artists and scholars with Past Wrongs, Future Choices, Kunji likens the residency to a nutrient-rich ecosystem. With people doing different types of work, bringing different expertise and experiences, it provided a lot of “access points and knowledge” to inform Kunji’s new performance work.

“It’s been neat to meet the artists and academics, compare notes, and how we do something similar.”

“I hope the program and people working on it know how helpful it is, because it is often difficult for these worlds to interface. It meant a lot to have the social network, creative network, and academic insight.”

During the residency, Kunji was able to develop the first draft of a new performance with the working title “Full Circle Joy.” The new performance work will continue to invite audiences in through storytelling and human connection, working with humour and forms of audience participation. Its next steps will be test runs at festivals, and looking toward bringing on other performers.

“Where I’m at now is thinking about performance as doing more than the job of ‘entertaining’. How can my work straddle that line to be fun and something everyone wants to go to […] while trying to do socially responsible commentary? My work is trying to do both: bring Asian Canadian joy together with Asian Canadian difficulties. And to make it fun!”

Folks can check out more of Kunji’s work at:

This article was written by Sarah Stilwell from a January 2024 interview with Kunji Ikeda, a 2023 artist in residence with Past Wrongs, Future Choices at the University of Victoria. All images of Kunji’s performance are courtesy of Ciel Dong.