|▲The way of the peaceful performance artist Photo courtesy Olivier Duong
She takes a sip from her espresso from across the table. She smiles, aglow with contentment and vulnerability, wrapped in a warm coat.
It’s strange. This happy sweetheart across from me is nothing like the fiery stage persona I’ve grown so familiar with.
I remember the last performance I saw. Her fearlessness as she took the stage - such a commanding presence. Fierce eyes, unshakable confidence, total control.
Anyone who frequents the festival circuit here on Jeju knows Aska Yamada. She’s a member of the art troupe Salgoce, as well as a regular at Art Scenic, a center for creative expression near Tapdong.
Originally from Niigata, Aska left Japan in 2011 to go to Australia. She sold handmade jewelry on the street. Over time, surrounded by a carnival of thespians, dancers, and streets artists, it eventually occurred to her, “Hey, I could do that.”
Thus started a career as a performer.
Since then, she’s spent time in India, Thailand, Singapore, and of course Korea. Along the way she befriended many fellow travellers, including Lee Sunny who told her all about Jeju - an ideal location for jewelry hawkers, travellers, and artists like herself.
After arriving in Jeju, she found herself performing with Salgoce as a last-minute substitute and it was the start of a long and fruitful collaboration.
The troupe was taking advantage of a massive opportunity on the island. With tourists coming and going, and street performances not being what they are in most other countries, they were able to become one of Jeju’s premier street performance ensembles.
Salgoce has built up a strong reputation for its silly antics and commanding fire performances. Working with this company, Aska has fleshed out her stage persona and tempered her confidence.
|▲ Aska is central to Salgoce's fire performance Photo courtesy Salgoce
However, it took time to find her place. Not only was she the only female performer, the other members of the group have many more years of experience to draw from.
Aska compensated by working with the largest implements during the fire performance - it’s hard to critique technical skills when the audience is distracted by a huge flaming staff rolling precariously along her arms.
However, her mastery expanded quickly to include not only more refined equipment, but also increasingly robust shades of artistic expression.
This is highlighted by her performance in Je Suis Née Elle, or “She is Born”, with Ruben Garcia at Art Scenic.
The concept was born out of an ongoing conversation between the two about society’s ridiculous and often aggressive expectations of women.
Aska exclaimed, “I wanted to explore certain feelings, to spill my own experience of violence on stage.”
“Our performance asks, ‘Where is this violence born?’”, Garcia added, “Women as mothers are the source of education for men, so where is this problem of violence toward women coming from? Je Suis Née Elle is like a trip through time - how a woman grows up and finally asks herself what kind of woman she wants to be.”
Their show explored the life phases of a woman, from birth to adolescence to adulthood. Aska performed in the nude while Garcia played various roles, representing parents, men, and society at large at differing times.
Aska discussed how the show first expressed the deep betrayal felt by women, as the nurturing adoration in childhood turns into sexual objectification in adolescence, and the constant, contradictory regulation of social norms and what is “ladylike”.
As a woman discovers her own sexuality, romance can turn into disappointment, and a man’s touch can feel dirty. With such experiences, a woman lets go of her innocence and suffers a surge of regret.
|▲ Casting light into dark places Photo courtesy Olivier Duong
Later in life, however, she finds redemption and an explosion of energy. It’s a time when women realize their own identities on a much more personal, autonomous level, standing strong, seeking justice for everyone.
Simon Powell, a violinist and artist who has worked with Aska, was a member of the small audience to one of only three performances of this extraordinary piece.
He stated, “It was an unflinching reflection of the darker side of societal norms. The performance itself was daring, uncompromising, and at times visceral. Everyone who saw it was visibly moved.”
And like the character in the feminist performance Je Suis Née Elle, Aska has come into her own.
She emphasized the personal significance of having overcome her stage fright. Before, in order to feel at ease on stage, she would go into a trance, into a different world where she couldn’t see the audience.
“Now I see the audience. Being uncomfortable with my stage fright helps push me to find who I am,” she reflected, “I want to learn how to express myself and to connect to the audience that way.”
It feels like Aska is on the verge of something big in her search.
As she heads to Japan for the winter, she looks forward to the future of her career and what will happen next for her on the island. Changes are already underway.
Salgoce recently downsized to three members - Aska, Garcia, and Ko Hey. Aska sees this as an opportunity to create a stronger foundation for the group so they can define more narrowly what they want to be. She looks forward to enhancing her technical skills and moving beyond tricks and fire dancing to new and more advanced levels of artistry
Jeju is the right place for a special individual like Aska Yamada. The local government is nurturing the arts to make Jeju a cultural hub and the island is evolving into an ideal collaborative medium for international artists.
There is no better time and place for giving voice to a woman coming of age.