Multidisciplinary work will shed creative light on Japanese American internment

When Japanese Americans were taken to internment camps in Manzanar, California, during the Second World War, fragments of memories and hastily gathered keepsakes were sometimes all that tethered these American citizens to their ancestral pasts. 

In 1942, by presidential order, more than 125,000 Japanese American lives were dismantled as families were abruptly taken from their homes and placed in euphemistically labeled “relocation centers.” Inspired by this difficult period, Sankei, a multilayered and thoughtfully developed extended reality exhibit/dance/film experience, is being presented at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts. This union of technology and grit sheds light on powerful stories of Japanese diasporic histories and runs from September 16 through October 28. 

Kambara+ dancers create a powerful scene in IKKAI.

A community building dance performance by San Francisco-based contemporary dance company KAMBARA+  kicks off the installation with a work titled IKKAI means ONCE: A Transplanted Pilgrimage, on September 16.

Tickets for either of the two dance showings may be purchased here, while all other components are free and open to the public. 

“Many senses will be engaged,” choreographer Yayoi Kambara told ArtsATL recently. Given the green light from Aaron Shackleford, the Ferst Center’s former director, Kambara has been developing the project for two years, working with her own company and collaborating with Georgia Tech faculty, staff and students. Kambara was born in Japan and moved to the United States with her family when she was 6.

For those able to attend the weekend performances, IKKAI will act as a pilgrimage — a gathering. Though Kambara’s original desire was to deliver the work in an incarceration site, the logistics of such an effort proved to be insurmountable. Regardless, Kambara knew the community should play a role in the work, which is why audiences will be seated on stage at the Ferst, surrounding the dancers as an act of solidarity.

The narrative work will weave together modern dance, Japanese folk dance and a score featuring taiko drumming and will conclude with an invitation to dance with the performers — a celebration of community. Divided into seven distinct sections, IKKAI reveals a journey through images borne from the devastation at Pearl Harbor,  the abject confusion of people being transported on trains to unknown destinations and the tribulations of camp life. Each component of the work is supported with live music and original  poetry.

The three-fold lobby installation supports the Ferst’s missive to bolster art through futurism, placing technology on equal footing with sensitive subject matter and to unite each element of this prodigious effort. Still, Kambara recognizes the need to tame technology, as it often invades personal privacy and consent practices. “We are always being monitored via ‘Ring’ doorbells, security cameras and listening phones,” she says. As such, Sankei provides an opportunity to harness technology so that these important stories could flood the senses — on our own terms.

Kambara suggests beginning the experience by entering the West Lobby of the Ferst Center to witness Out of the Dust, a 17-minute, multigenerational film told through the ghosts of lives that once inhabited the now-barren internment camps. The film, co-created by Kambara and Brian Staufenbiel, sets a somber tone, contextualizing the raw source material for the overall exhibit. 

Kambara+ at Georgia Tech
IKKAI premiered in Oakland, California, in 2018.

Moving along, audiences will discover reflective activities within the lobby exhibit titled Ni Do To (Never Again). The journey offers an encounter with a “creepy and amazing” prototype of the infamous Zoltar machine of the late 1980s. The pearls-of-wisdom and poetry-spewing fun fair relic will connect audiences with the peculiarities of early technology, while subversively shedding light on how far we have come with gaming and with artmaking. Case in point: Audiences can learn a traditional Japanese dance from a hologram.

There are other interactive games. One asks participants to fill a digital suitcase with what may feel personally essential for undefined uprooting, while another is dedicated to creating poetry and another perhaps more critical component is a reflection station. Here, one can process, ponder, share thoughts . . . find a sense of relatability.

Sankei lays bare the critical elements of history-derived art and sophisticated technology while underscoring Kambara’s point of view: “We do not want to be stuck in one place.” Through IKKAI as well as the film, Kambara hopes audiences will feel as though they have been invited into a Japanese home — to experience the warmth and generosity that defines her culture. 

Taken as a whole, the exhibit is likewise a cautionary tale directing thoughts toward the questionable reliability of social safeguards and protective “containers.” Could such an injustice happen again? For Kambara, the question is not necessarily if but, sadly, when. 


Born in Tehran, Iran, George Staib is of Armenian descent. He has lived in the United States since the age of 10, when his family was forced to flee the Iranian Revolution. He is the artistic director of staibdance and a professor of practice in the dance program at Emory University.

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