Travelling halfway round the world to Kyoto, Japan, Allison Orr, an American choreographer would be the conduit for the worlds of art and sport to merge. As Japan is the only nation to have its own professional women’s baseball league, Orr, on a residency with the Kyoto Art Center arrived in August 2014, working with a team of translators, organizers and baseball players from the Asto Dreams (also known as West Flora) in order to execute a dance called Play Ball Kyoto.
A collaboration which involved Austin, Texas residents Allison Orr, who is also the artistic director for Forklift Dance Works, along with resident composer Graham Reynolds, the dance was staged to take place at Wakasa Stadium in late September. As a side note, Orr and Reynolds were also named the City of Austin’s Cultural Ambassadors.
In coming to another part of the world, Orr is also grateful for the efforts of several individuals that made the process not only easier, but more rewarding. Eriko Kamimura and Reiko Hagihara were primary contacts at the Art Center. A former student in Austin, Texas, Kayo was Allison’s translator. Currently a choreographer herself, she would understand what Orr was hoping to convey in her dance.
Orr found her way to Japan via the National Performance Network’s Asia Exchange Program. Intrigued by Japan’s cultural connection to baseball, known affectionately as America’s pastime, she wanted to create a dance that was inspired the movement and stories of the female players.
Of note, Orr had been involved with baseball once before. A performance titled Play Ball on Historic Downs Field was done with the Huston-Tillotson baseball team, helping showcase the importance of Downs Field in forging baseball in Austin, Texas.
In working with the Japanese Women’s Professional Baseball League, Orr is helping raise awareness about the sport’s growing impact. After women’s softball was removed as an Olympic sport following the 2008 Beijing Summer Games, it was a significant spotlight that no longer shone on the diamond. While softball and baseball now have a Women’s World Cup, there was a great feeling of jubilation in Japan as the host nation for the 2014 Women’s Baseball World Cup. Defeating the United States by a 3-0 score in the gold medal game at Sun Marine Stadium, Ayami Sato also earned Most Valuable Player honors.
Taking into account the impact that young women such as American Mo’ne Davis and Canadian Emma March had at this year’s Little League World Series of Baseball, the female game continues to expand. Orr’s effort could not have come at a better time.
Researching the international impact of baseball and the growing relevance of women playing the game, Orr has ensured that they are included in the creative process. Inviting the players to participate as dancers, it is a remarkable sign of appreciation that Orr has shown towards these female sporting pioneers.
The efforts of these women are helping to transform cultural norms, akin to what female athletes in other parts of the world are accomplishing through their respective sports. Like Canadian women in hockey or American women in basketball, Japanese ballplayers are showing that a socially treasured sport is allowed to be played by both genders.
While three to four hour days devoted to training is not uncommon in Japanese female baseball, it was such effort to commitment and perseverance that impressed Orr. Adding to their responsibility as ballplayers, the role of dancer and performer would show the pride they take in their duties as they arrived at rehearsals with material memorized and prepared. It is part of a culture where encouragement and honor are the cornerstones of a proud society.
Such pride has proven to be reciprocal for Orr. Participating in an artistic process that is outside of her language, let alone her culture, Orr utilized respect and care as the learning tools which helped her craft Play Ball Kyoto. As a side note, the Kyoto Art Centre staff told Orr that they felt she was very optimistic about people. Complemented by cultural attention, Orr found that she was welcomed into the world of female baseball with open arms, creating more than just good art, but building a substantial working relationship that has built bridges.