Rachel Wishkoski of the Ohio State School of Music presents lecture, "To Become Something New Yet Familiar: Curatorial Moves, Embodied Histories, and 'Re-membering' in Seattle Buddhist Church's Bon Odori Festival."
Based on fieldwork completed in the summer of 2013, this talk will explore embodied ways of remembering the past and performative processes of "re-membering" in the present at Seattle Buddhist Church’s Bon Odori festival. This annual two-day event, also known as the "Gathering of Joy," is part of a larger period of mid-summer religious observance (Obon) during which the souls of one’s ancestors and departed members of the community are honored. Participatory Bon Odori dancing engages a wide variety of social actors: the very young and the very old, the expert dancer and the complete novice, the Japanese-American temple congregant and the casual non-Buddhist and/or non-Japanese-American attendee.
Bon Odori has been a key point of community cohesion for temple members and for Japanese Americans in the Seattle area during its century-long history in the region. In contemporary practice, curatorial and choreographic moves by festival organizers and dance leaders shape a process through which a relationship with that history can be learned and performed. This dancing with the past in the present effects a "re-membering" among participants, a term writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o uses to describe a cohering of community in the present through an active recalling of the past. As both participant demographics and preferred aesthetics change over time, the Bon Odori festival offers an annual opportunity to (re)inscribe community ties and (re)negotiate boundaries of inclusion. Bon Odori is, in the words of Rev. Masao Kodani of Los Angeles’ Senshin Buddhist Temple, always in the process of “becom[ing] something new yet familiar.”
The festival space – in which participants create combinations of religious, social, ethnic, and cultural meaning – is therefore an important site for identity politics negotiation. Festival performance also mediates the community’s relationship with the city of Seattle through a longstanding affiliation with Seafair (a citywide series of summer events with local and national sponsors). By remaining open to the participation of members of the public, Bon Odori can foster moments of intercultural, interethnic, and interreligious understanding and misunderstanding. The festival continues to be an opportunity to strategically perform identity in an act of self-representation and claiming a space in which to dance.
Rachel Wishkoski is a third-year graduate student in ethnomusicology at The Ohio State University. Her current research interests include the politics of culture and representation in festival performance. Her work on Bon Odori in the Pacific Northwest was supported by an Ethnomusicology Field Research Grant from The Ohio State University in the summer of 2013.