Correspondence with Bill T. Jones

Correspondence with Bill T. Jones

Below is from Bill T Jones's Blog posts that carried part of our Email conversations and Bill's notes.

Bill T Jones Blog
September 4, 2015

August 6 and 9: I am embarrassed to say that the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have slipped by my awareness were it not for my longtime friend and colleague, Eiko Otake of Eiko and Koma engaging me in a conversation around the publication of Trinity to Trinity (published by Station Hill of Barrytown) by Kyoko Hayashi that she translated. The book is a fabulous read both for Eiko’s probing introduction and for her moving translation of Hayashi’s – a “hibakusha” i.e., survivor of the Nagasaki bombing – recounting her pilgrimage to Los Alamos, NM and the Trinity Site (where the first atomic test occurred).

trinity

Here is an email I sent Eiko shortly after receiving the book:

“I received your very lovely translation of Trinity have read the introduction and started reading the poetic text. I am very interested, but have some questions. Here is a paragraph from my recent blog that I edited out:

‘Time and space are malleable.’ Eiko said this to me at the lovely gathering ADF Director Jodee Nimerichter threw in honor of Eiko and the BTJ/AZ Dance Company following our respective closing performances at this year’s Festival.

Eiko was saying that the idea of space and time being ‘folded’ was brought home to her when she learned that the subject of our latest work “Analogy: Dora/Tramontane” uses not just another Holocaust story (there are thousands of them says Eiko), but that our subject – Dora Amelan – is alive and, what’s more, Bjorn Amelan’s mother.

Curious: why does a character in a work like Dora/Tramontane gain more dimensions/validity by being alive if this work is based on oral history of a person of extreme age?

There will certainly be a time when the subject is no longer alive. Will the work lose validity as a result?

I look forward to continuing this conversation.

Now, having plunged into the book and understanding more about this great writer and survivor of Nagasaki, I am interested in talking with you about what this means to your work and what my trilogy of characters might mean to my own. I propose a casual email exchange where we ask and answer each other’s questions.”

It is a first attempt at starting a conversation with Eiko on the subjects of memory, history and time, which we are both addressing in our works at this point. Eiko has graciously agreed to start this dialog that I hope to report on in a future blog and, perhaps, make the subject of a future Open Spectrum at NY Live Arts.

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November 5, 2015
Conversation with Eiko (part 2)

This blog will be largely devoted to a conversation I am having with Eiko Otake of Eiko and Koma. Our email exchange with each other has already proven to be probing and voluminous (as Eiko says in describing herself “chatty” and I am as well).

The bulk of this conversation will be in the form of email exchanges between us. This exchange will continue in future blogs…


August 11, 2015
Dear Bill,

How  nice to hear from you.

I am deeply grateful that you are giving your precious time to From Trinity to Trinity, a book that is dear to me.

I have been in Japan and have watched many documentaries and news coverage on Hiroshima, Nagasaki and World War II as this year is the 70th year anniversary. The average age of the current survivors of the A bomb passed 80. Surely the day will come when we will hear the news that will announce, ” the last surviving victim from the atomic bombings has just passed away.”

I was interested in how you chose to work on Dora now… not before not after… but now.  I imagine Dora’s age might be a factor.  The World War II precedes our generations’ direct experiences, but we have lived with, and in many ways were formed by, the people for whom the War left such a mark. We did not experience that war, but we have experienced those people who experienced the war. They will die, many of them before us perhaps, and the only place their lives will remain are in the minds of us who knew them, unless we make such effort as to tell their stories as our own or in our own way, which you do. In a small way I have done that, too, in the Trinity book and in my teaching. I teach one college course a year about the atomic bomb and am concerned how we can personally and collectively remember what we did not live through.

Thanks for your invite to correspond…

Let me briefly try to answer your question:

… I am not saying that because Dora is alive your work that utilizes her oral history is more valid… There is this story of hers, beautifully rendered on the American Dance Festival’s stage in Durham and there is another connected story–her body that currently exists in France and holds her memories. There is this distance of TIME between the story two and more stories, one on stage and one of her body then and now.  But the way your work covers a span of time, the distance between the time of existing Dora and the time that is depicted and talked on stage changes, expands and shrinks.

And there is another distance– physical distance on this earth, how many miles between two places– her body in Europe and the American Dance Festival (ADF) stage.

These many years and many miles distances, however, are not always felt the same, though the distance of, say Durham and her house, stays the same. There seems to me some punctures, penetration. This sense of malleability, puncture, and elastic movement of the distance are important to me. The viewer’s recognition of how time and space are malleable puts us – viewers – in the movement and we make time and space move. What was once far can radically come close. This duality and malleability is sensuous.

Once the real Dora is gone, your work will continue to radiate. I have no doubt.  But again I think it makes a difference that you and your performers knew Dora as a real person. Future young performers will know someone who knew her.  So there is an evidence and insistence that she was there and here.

So it seems to me, from the audience perspective, that the fact you started this work while she is alive is significant because her existence is an anchor now and that now will becomes an anchor in the future.

Sorry, I feel like I cannot say this clearly enough, but I think this is a tender time historically and that makes our generation a conduit.

Thanks again for who you are. Love,

Eiko

***

September 23, 2015:

Dear Eiko,

It is my hope we will be able to “swap questions” and start talking to address any number of issues that will frame our conversation such as:

How do the specifics of our persons affect and inform the work we’re doing?
How the reality of time and place affects us and our work?
Does a “universal” in life and art really exist?
My first question will deal more with you than your subject of Kyoko Hayashi’s From Trinity to Trinity. In the beginning of your introduction you say “Hayashi’s work quietly and brilliantly chronicled the experience of hibakusha…”.  (Hibakusha is the Japanese name for survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) Later you describe what you admire in Hayashi’s writing, “…straightforwardness, perseverance, dark humor and profound quietness.”

An anecdote: My brother, an aspiring Zen Buddhist, who was living in San Francisco at one point and meditating daily at the Zen Center located literally in the “hood” largely populated by Black people, asked his teacher why the Zen temple was not more involved in its surrounding community. His teacher responded that Zen is about quiet and Black people are not quiet.

My question is: Is quiet inherently Japanese or is it a learned quality? How does this question live in your work and life?

Warmly,

Bill

To be continued

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January 12, 2016
A Conversation with Eiko (part 3)

Dear Eiko,

When the idea of our casual email conversation occurred to me out of my reading your introduction to and translation of Kyoko Hayashi’s From Trinity to Trinity, I thought it would be easy to find our back and forth, digging into our various work-methods, responses to issues of identity, memory, history, ethnicity and feelings such as disgruntlement or anger. Boy was I mistaken!

I had never considered just how much emotional and logistical efforts must go into creating my work with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, supporting New York Live Arts’ administrative team and Thomas Kriegsman its Director of Programs.

Likewise, I could not have foreseen the stress of a premiere of a “pièce d’occasion” A Letter To My Nephew for our tour in France and most certainly I could not have imagined how the world would change as we finished our first performance at Créteil’s Maison des Arts in Paris and walked out to witness this important city reeling from a Jihadist attack in its vibrant center. And then, making my first solo in 8 years, I had forgotten how much one must shut out the world even as one listens to hear what this naked ritual of creation needs in order to find truth. Yet, the New Year finds me full of optimism at the prospect of restarting our conversation.

Picking up where we left off in Blog #7…

September 23, 2015:

Dear Eiko,
It is my hope we will be able to “swap questions” and start talking to address any number of issues that will frame our conversation such as:
• How do the specifics of our persons affect and inform the work we’re doing?
• How the reality of time and place affects us and our work?
• Does a “universal” in life and art really exist?
My first question will deal more with you than your subject of Kyoko Hayashi’s From Trinity to Trinity. In the beginning of your introduction you say “Hayashi’s work quietly and brilliantly chronicled the experience of hibakusha…”. (Hibakusha is the Japanese name for survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) Later you describe what you admire in Hayashi’s writing, “…straightforwardness, perseverance, dark humor and profound quietness.”
An anecdote: My brother, an aspiring Zen Buddhist, who was living in San Francisco at one point and meditating daily at the Zen Center located literally in the “hood” largely populated by Black people, asked his teacher why the Zen temple was not more involved in its surrounding community. His teacher responded that Zen is about quiet and Black people are not quiet.
My question is: Is quiet inherently Japanese or is it a learned quality? How does this question live in your work and life?
Warmly,
Bill

From Eiko, September 23rd, 2015

Thanks Bill.

Our conversation had started when we spoke in Jodee Nimerichter’s house, I think…
It was indeed new to talk to you eye to eye.

Can you give me some context to your second and third questions? I feel I know where the first question and your last question about “quiet” come from. But the second and the third questions are more abstract and I do not even know how to start…
Can you tell me why and how you arrive at these questions and why and how you address them to me? Or are these a set of questions you generally carry and ask of others as well? Are these your recent questions or decade long questions?

love eiko

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From Bill, December 21, 2015

Thanks Eiko.

“Why you and why now?”

As I read your translation and its introduction, I was struck by the contrast between the notion of “quietness” and Ms Kyoko Hayashi’s (and yours?) controlled sense of outrage.

Your choice of translating Hayashi’s disturbing report of being a victim of America’s atrocious military gesture coupled with the prejudice she experienced as a “hibakusha” (the Japanese word for victims of the atomic bombings) at home, allowed me to see you – perhaps for the first time – as a Japanese artist offering a specific worldview as opposed to the “universal” one we “downtown artists” have been encouraged to adopt as a sort of passport of neutrality.

I felt you were, with the most gracious politeness, objecting and drawing attention to what separates you from the downtown, race-blind, class-blind world that gave us our artistic identities. You are using history. You are stressing the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This made me wonder if anyone in our progressive, well-educated field had dared ask you about your feelings about the war and if you would be willing to speak out frankly in the complex emotional way Kyoko Hayashi has done in her writing.

I was also able to look at how I, like many others who appreciate the work you (and Koma) have done over the years, tacitly attribute its “strangeness” to your “otherness”, your “Japanese-ness”.

Now that this country’s discourse is yet again racked with questions of race and its never healed wounds, I am critical of the avant-garde’s smug confidence that we are all “the same” and can teach the world how to “get along”.

Yes, I can honestly say I have always carried these questions and yet, recent events around police violence, Black men, Black people and others have made these once again fresh and urgent.

To be continued…

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February 3, 2016
A Conversation with Eiko (part 4)

Dear Eiko,

It was a remarkable evening we shared last week. Sitting in the dinner theater audience at Michael Feinstein’s 54 Below with you and Bjorn watching Ben Vereen seemed almost dreamlike at the time and certainly more so with the steady stream of events, personalities and places we live through every day.

Your and my email conversation continues in this blog post and it will frame the entire entry. Why? I am not quite sure. Perhaps the general themes of our exchange: time, place, memory, racial and ethnic identity always present, are even more pressing in this winter season, this election season…

What about Ben Vereen? As I mentioned to you some writer back in the 1980’s (was it for the Soho News? A dance publication?…) described me as “a cross between Trisha Brown and Ben Vereen”. I was flattered to be compared to Trisha, whom many of us love for her silky spontaneous movement and her agile systems-devising mind. Ben Vereen, on the other hand, the triple-threat, break out star of Pippin, Hair and many other popular theater works was more difficult at first. His over-generous presentational style projecting warmth, humor and good times was for me – a young, Black, male dance artist, deeply hazardous in the downtown scene of that time (has it changed?). Seeing the introductory clip, a survey of his dancing, singing and acting career, drew attention to what I love about the comparison to him in his prime. He was also silky, though athletic, sexy, strong, yet unafraid of vulnerability. Never threatening, he was young, gifted and black in that way that has fed and informed American pop culture since the days of Master Jubilation dancing in New York’s notorious Five Points District or for Queen Victoria in the Nineteenth Century.

He is still strutting, smiling and giving the people what they want (and what they need?). I enjoyed sharing the fan ritual of going back stage to see a bona fide Broadway star. I enjoyed watching you listen with your intense expression and your whole body. And I enjoyed too finding out your love for Nina Simone who Ben Vereen’s performance seemed to evoke for you!

Attending Ben’s performance with you, rehearsing daily at the Apollo on 125th Street, brought some of the themes of our conversation back to me. Composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph and I have been rehearsing our Opera of Philadelphia premiere of We Shall Not Be Moved, an experimental opera in which we use spoken word, opera and dance to weave the story of fictitious family of runaways squatting in shabby housing built on the site of the 1985 devastating firebombing of the radical Move Collective. It’s a work about how the education system has failed these runaways and how they turn instead to the OG’s, the ghosts of the seven children who died along with many of their parents at 62nd and Osage Ave., a Black working class community.

Leaving the rehearsal on the Apollo’s sound-stage, stepping into the cultural stew of the traditional heart of Black America, now rapidly gentrifying (or simply evolving?), before heading downtown to join you for an evening of popular entertainment, was a thrill and a curious one as you are not Black, not white, but Japanese!

Continuing our conversation, you wrote to me:

On Sat, Oct 3, 2015 at 1:47 AM, Eiko Otake wrote:
“Race:

I noticed for the first time that I did not mention History Professor William Johnston who is a photographer collaborator of my project, A Body in Fukushima, is a white person. I have introduced him many times before as our photo exhibition travels with my solo tour, but I never wrote that he is white and did not notice that until I was writing to you. I failed to fully recognize and thus address that ours is an interracial collaboration… He speaks better Japanese than I do English, is a Buddhist and I am not… He behaves in some ways more respectfully of what little remains of Japanese culture, much of which I am critical of as an insider. So we do not carry a normal role-play of two races. Just by having the experience of living far from where one grows up physically and metaphorically, one might develop imagination and a curiosity for the other. This in turn could encourage one to invest ones body and time in being among others.

But perhaps I did not mention his being white because I might have unconsciously assumed that people would think he is white unless I specify otherwise. That assumption is clearly a product of white people’s majority rule in the US for a long time (though it is in the process of changing in response to the growth rate of different populations and the influx of new immigrants. This rate of change is not even throughout America). As the downtown dance world is a part of t his America and I am a member of that community, do I add ethnicity or color only when someone is not from white America?

You asked how did/do I feel about being an Asian couple in the mostly white downtown dance world. My answer to that is: I was and still am a foreigner, not only nationality-wise but also from the point of view of dance style and dance vocabulary. Koma and I have stayed and worked here and made a living as artists (by doing so I, perhaps, began to see myself as an artist). Because of our desire to not use the same language/aesthetic as the American modern and post-modern, however, Koma and I did not dress in international dancewear. We danced naked or wore strange Japanese fabric. So to a degree we continued to look a bit different perhaps which is important to me.

I do notice however that those I became friends with are often those who have travelled far and have slept in strange places. They speak in a way that acknowledges a listener who is not a native English speaker. I could appreciate that we humans could now somewhat (I need often to insert that word) communicate. That did not happen in the Japan I grew up in. In that Japan racism lingered. It was often aimed at Chinese and Korean people as well as other minority groups such as the Ainu – native people of northern Japan. So I grew up in that majority Japanese society sensing “wrongs.”

As you pointed out, the downtown dance community we arrived in and the presenters we worked with have been mainly white people. As a result, Koma and I do not have many African American friends, the kind of friends who gather for a meal and a long talk. I do have a handful…. Koma and I collaborated with our longtime friend, Sharon, on a piece titled TREE SONG. She told me the first thing she thinks of when seeing an image of a tree is lynching. I realized how our memories, real and culturally imbedded, are so different.

The only time I was surrounded by black people was when Koma and I worked on WHEN NIGHTS WERE DARK. This DARK was not about the skin of our collaborators; the title came long before the collaboration started. We wanted to remember the long time ago when nights were very different from daytime, filled with awe and fear, when people huddled together for stories and songs. We, different people of different skins and different languages were not that different as humans then. Our good friend/singer/composer Joseph Jennings, who grew up in South Carolina singing in church, composed music (with no words) for 5 gospel singers from Brooklyn. Without him we would not have met nor connected with these singers. So that is telling. It is through one’s friend of a different race or culture that one gains access to a different people. Once we meet, become curious about each other, getting to know takes its own course.


We were working on that piece with them on the 91st floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in 2000 for our BAM premiere and tour. We ate together and joked, though they often had to explain the context. Introducing all family members was a ritual of respect and warmth for them. Koma and I were strangers to them. I realize that when people cannot really communicate in details, due to the different we grow up, we get together around our commonalities. A good lesson, perhaps. In WHEN NIGHTS WERE DARK there was a sound “HENNNNNNNNN” in one section of the music. But the singers heard it as “HAAANNNNNG”. That possible interpretation, “HANG”, gave different layers to the music.

I have been a foreigner in the US and that has allowed me to be somewhat nonchalant. I feel this in reading your charged email. Travelling the world, I have slowly we discovered being (and becoming) an Asian.  The more I thought about myself as being Asian, the more I had to realize that I happen to be Japanese. Japanese soldiers and power were aggressors until 1945. That recognition has taken a lot of energy for me to think about and behave with… How do you deal with being American knowing how America behaves and is seen abroad?

From the time of my involvement in Japanese students’ movement (1968-1971) I have been antagonistic to many of the realities of contemporary Japan (forgetfulness, lack of individuality) and to its corporate ways. LEAVING Japan was more important to me than becoming American.

Also because Koma and I wanted to be free from labels and teachers, we were shy of identifying ourselves as part of any group. Walking away was liberating, but now, after so many years, how do we keep walking away? It seems I am not walking away much any more…”

I know I have not quite anwered your question, but please know these are my immediate, unprocessed thoughts upon reading your email. I was a socialist-influenced Japanese youth who left the movement as it got violent and isolated from the general population. Knowing you and I were born in the same year and same month, I am curious about your experiences in the late 60’s and early 70’s politically and philosophically.

To be continued…

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March 9, 2016
A Conversation with Eiko (part 5)

Eiko,

I have been following your Platform series through the committed coverage of the NY Times. You are extremely photogenic. I am, as always, moved by the picture of you sitting alone in an uninhabited room or against a graffiti’ed wall in a South American city. You often project pensive, internal sadness in your photos. I look forward to seeing the only one of your performances my schedule allows on March 17.

A-propos to our conversation, I am struck with how the writers seldom mention your ethnicity. They do comment on what you call your “old Japanese clothes”. I believe this clothing, these poetic rags, are a sort of “envelope of safety” for you, the “perpetual other”. I attribute their power to the unspoken contract we in the US have with the complex history of post-war Japan. You become a sort of cinematic or novelistic phantasm, ghost or projection. We can look at you with compassion tinged with anxiety and regret. There is a moral authority in your otherness.

You call your solos “A Body in Space”. Are you “just another body in space?” or “any body in space?” I don’t think so. Firstly, you are an accomplished master of the persona you project, but you are – likewise – firmly established as “the other” in our imagination.

When I imagine what my costume would be like offering me a place in the American mythic imagination as you have assumed, it would be a basketball uniform or a rap-artist’s drag circa 1983, or elegantly and impeccably dressed like Miles Davis circa 1961. However, I feel the mythical Black man’s garb I could best employ to match your effect, as this ghost/survivor would be simply naked, or near so, ready for the slave-block, the workhouse or the hanging tree.

And how would my ghost move? … Most likely he wouldn’t!

Your last contribution to our email conversation ends asking me about my own political activism during the 1970’s. Well, I did lead a walkout in my high school fueled by our teenage outrage at a dress code that said that girls could not wear pants. I did refuse to stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance with my hand over my heart at the school’s assembly program. My parents made the self-conscious political choice to name our pathetically underfinanced, mismanaged attempt at opening a restaurant in our small, conservative town “The Kennedy Inn” because, as my mother Estella said, “These biggity (!) white folks don’t like this man because he wants to give the black man a fair break!” Later, I marched in at least one demonstration lead by Caesar Chavez in support of migrant farm workers. But mostly, I indulged in a lot of predictable posturing, as I never had to burn my draft card or flee to Canada to escape the draft during the Vietnam War. Still, I felt I was living a highly charged and political life. Was it asking a white girl to the prom? Was it dancing slowly with Arnie Zane as the only outwardly gay and interracial couple at the Black students’ extremely heterosexual gathering at the State University of NY Binghamton? Was it walking brazenly hand in hand with Arnie Zane into a Department of Sanitation’s warehouse full of leering working class white men who were to be our colleagues for the day in Johnson City, NY to do our monthly roadwork garbage detail that qualified us for food stamps and public assistance?

So, in response to your question, I am tempted to say that my most consistent political struggle is reflected in the fact that taken how antagonistic the culture was to various aspects of my personal identity – I did not die! What do I mean? I spent a great deal of my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood hiding… Hiding my race, my class, my sexual dilemma. My worldview – my politics if you will – was forged in desire to be “integrated”. Yes, integrated and yet visible. I regret to say – though it hurts me like the ghost-pain in an amputated arm – I continue to do so in our era at once roiled by questions of gender, race and class. Even in this field we call the art world, which thinks itself free, color-blind and progressive.

—TBC’d

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Below is unpublished email exchange shared here with Bill T's permission

Email from Bill on March 18
And THANK YOU !dear EIKO for demonstrating once again the power of extreme concentration meeting great personal commitment to time, place and "the invisible" to literally create reality!
We felt privileged to witness, to participate. I was caught several times breathing with/for you. I was trying to be still so as not to distract but still found myself shuddering, swaying, even making "hidden sounds and gestures".
At one moment outside on the street a single daffodil on the other side of the chain link fence seemed to be reaching out to you.
I am not embarrassed to say I wanted to connect with you individually and was filled with emotion when you gave me the perfect flower(!) after having eaten ,decimated , scattered others among our group. I took it to NewYorkLiveArts and gave it to Rebecca Lazier and her lovely community of performers before the start of her second show. I regret I did not say it was from your universe and that I was simply the courier. 
Your bandaged wrist gave a dimension of urgency and "wabi"(?) to every gesture.
So many impressions ... So much sadness... So much wisdom and the unknowable. Your finally salutation to us and the sweet fleeting smile released me and sent me floating down the stairs, back into the street, ravenous full of appetite... We ate two plates of tasty Chinese dumplings and got mildly drunk on sake!!!

Please take a look at my latest blog on NewYorkLiveArts website. I have been speaking with you even as you have been in the magical whirlwind of this platform project.

I regret having missed the FUKUSHIMA marathon. Please catch you breathe and share what you can!
I join the daffodil reaching towards you....
Bill

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Email from Eiko on March 18
Wow. When I returned to the room you are gone and now you shower me with such eloquent kindness. wish i could join you to the dim-sum and sake!  I had 7 pm book club,  which became a wonderful activity sometimes attracting 25 readers.. it is unreal and necessary for them and for me to sit in the church sanctuary and discuss about stories from far places.
in four week of the book club we read  1. postwar Tokyo, 2. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, 3.Minamata, 4 America(my Trinity book and C.D. Wright poems)

Today is another full day so I just say I am so grateful that you and I have "met" again in these past months. Thanks for the posting. just read such two full writings, email and blog, from you and I feel breathless. I will write back.

Just a small note my project name is
A BODY IN PLACES. NOT SPACE.

space is more abstract thought.  Modern dance choreographers uses that for its "canvas" of creation. by giving attention to a "place" and by going to places that clearly feels more like "a particular place" than "space," ( a hospital, town office, a store, library) I want to say  an artist's choreography is not necessarily movement phrases of body in space but her willing to "go" to a "place," to be there, to see its function and characteristics,  and change the distance between that place and other places. When koma and I were touring theaters with sets, each stage once we opened the set became our "place' but now I go to other places and be there. I am a body in that place and at the same time audience sees my body as the body who went to other places( within east village in this platform, Fukushima, Hong Kong, Chile, and american towns and in each  of these places, I danced in particular odd places).  Also I see the place in order to see/show that  in one place there are more places. Fukushima is a place full of radiation but within Fukushima, there are many different communities and in one village, there are houses and in a house there are rooms each holding memories and losses of persons.

The place I performed yesterday was a senior citizen center. When i performed there the last time at noon,  so many seniors were there and watched me mingled with paid audience and they watched each other too. yesterday the same place felt different.

need to go now more soon and love.
EIko during the Platform