Ian Wen, the Astoria-based butoh dancer and performance artist who is co-founder of de novo, a new company featuring a motley group of musicians, actors, dancers, and composers. Ian, who has performed off-Broadway, is an adjunct assistant professor in Brooklyn College’s theatre department, teaching MFA acting students movement work based on butoh and animals. Additionally, he is a 2013 SPARC artist-in-residence.
So, tell us what you’re currently working on.
I’m working with my partner, Irina Kom, on a dance theater piece called Houseguest. It’s the inaugural production of our company, de novo. It’s a piece incorporating butoh and belly dance, live and original compositions, and explores themes of hibernation, transformation, and awakening. It runs June 7th-9th at the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance in the West Village. I’m also incredibly blessed to include some of the seniors I’ve met through my work in the SPARC program. Ultimately, it is a piece about spirituality in these times. And last, but not least, we’re getting married during the run of the show.
What are your earliest memories of performance art? Were you always interested?
I was always interested in world events and far-flung places. I thought I would devote myself to public service or become a war correspondent; I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Political Science. After graduation, I returned to the city in part to be closer to my grandparents, who helped raised me. I began working in the theater—mainly experimental—almost by accident, and quickly became busy and had opportunities to perform internationally. I really enjoyed performance but it was not a conscious decision; I didn’t set out to be an ‘artist.’ Over the years, I would continue to have an internal debate over whether performing was enough for me, whether it represented the kind of service I still felt I needed to do.
My graduate school years at Brooklyn College were the most formative in terms of being an artist, perhaps as a response to the more traditional curriculum offered. Beginning around 2001, I began to explore performance art, including durational work, dance theater, and documentary performance. I was also incredibly fortunate to have been given a teaching fellowship. These developments converged with my discovery of butoh dance in 2003.
When did it click for you this was your destiny?
It would probably be watching my first butoh performance, Ko Murobushi and his company, at Japan Society in 2003. I was struck by how viscerally I was being moved without necessarily understanding what was happening on the stage—invisible forces acting upon me. It was an ‘out-of-the-box’ moment, and I decided right then and there that I would have to study and dance butoh.
Why do you feel compelled to do what you do?
I believe it is connected to my sense of public service. My favorite Latin saying is ‘Uti non abuti,’ which means ‘Use me, don’t abuse me.’ That sounds a bit funny and somehow very New York, but it somehow reflects my personal belief. My time here has to be about serving others, helping others in a way that most resonates with my sensibilities and my humanity.
Where do you find inspiration?
It can be literally from anything or anyone. I love the medium of painting; I can lose and find myself in one. I would also say nature—specifically my seeming inability to be around more of it.