Kimiko’s Pearl: A ballet forged across generations

Kyra Soo © Alex Heidbuechel
Kyra Soo © Réjean Brand
Yayoi Ban, Kyra Soo © Alex Heidbuechel
Kyra Soo, Liam Saito, Rachel Gibbs, Yue Shi, Chenxin Liu, Yayoi Ban © Alex Heidbuechel
Yue Shi © Alex Heidbuechel

A tribute to the strength and resilience of the Japanese Canadian community

The internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II is the inspiration behind Kimiko’s Pearl, premiering at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines on June 22. Supported by the National Creation Fund and produced by the Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts, this new ballet tells the story of the Ayukawa family over four generations, and honours the strength of the Japanese Canadian community.

As founders of Bravo Niagara!, Christine Mori and her daughter Alexis Spieldenner have long been committed to amplifying underrepresented voices in the arts. With Kimiko’s Pearl, the two co-creators wanted to celebrate their Japanese Canadian identity while inviting the healing of their family and community.

For Alexis and Christine, the history of the Japanese Canadian internment camps is personal. Alexis’s great-grandfather Shizuo Ayukawa and his family were interned at the New Denver camp in British Columbia. As Alexis and Christine delved into this history, they learned of the existence of a trunk built by Ayukawa, during his internment. They also found a poem written by Alexis’s great-aunt.

“It really touched and inspired us. We felt strongly this could be developed into a production, and so we began assembling our creative team. It’s now been in development for over three years,” said Alexis.

The trunk is currently in the collection of the Canadian War Museum

“It is very moving for us to pay tribute to our family in this way,” Alexis confides. “This ballet is part of our intergenerational healing journey.”

A legacy for future generations

The ballet’s story is told through the eyes of Kimiko, a 15-year-old Toronto girl who discovers an old family trunk containing her great-grandfather’s diary and other precious keepsakes. As Kimiko reads the diary, her family’s tale comes to life.

“The story is told through the eyes of a fourth-generation Japanese Canadian, known as Yonsei. We feel that it’s important for the next generation to understand and preserve this history,” says Alexis, herself a Yonsei. “We hope to encourage others to start conversations about their own families’ pasts.”

Kimiko’s Pearl sheds light on a dark and little-known chapter of Canadian history. And it’s the first time the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II has been told through a ballet; the creators hope it will raise collective awareness of the subject.

“After the war, there was a lot of shame and distancing from Japanese heritage and culture in an effort to blend in and assimilate into mainstream Canadian culture,” says Alexis. “Growing up my mother never really learned about her parents’ internment. Those stories were not shared. This is an opportunity to acknowledge the past. It helps us move forward and understand our own identity.”

A vibrant multidisciplinary work

The support Kimiko’s Pearl received from the National Creation Fund made it possible for the company to undertake two residencies with their full creative team, visual artists, and dancers. During these residencies, they developed and finalized the video and projection design, as well as an enhanced lighting and immersive sound design.

“These residencies allowed us to bring together our collective creative vision and work in the actual space where the premiere will take place,” Alexis explains. “With this support, we were also able to commission original works of art from three generations of Japanese Canadian visual artists: Norman Takeuchi, C.M., Lillian Yano Blakey, Emma Nishimura, and Miya Turnbull. There’s a real synergy between the music, dance and the visual art. And through the Fund’s investment, we had the time to integrate these artworks, to refine the projections and bring the story to life in a new way.”

Emmy Award winner Howard Reich wrote the story of Kimiko’s Pearl, inspired by Christine and Alexis’s family history. The ballet comes to life through original music by Kevin Lau, choreography by Yosuke Mino with dancers from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Coastal City Ballet, and Boston Ballet, and three generations of Japanese Canadian visual artists and musicians. 

“It’s been a dream to have the support of the National Creation Fund to help share this story,” Alexis concludes.

Following the ballet’s premiere, the Fund’s investment will also support the creation of Kimiko’s Pearl Symphonic Suite, a new orchestral work composed by Kevin Lau, which the Toronto Symphony Orchestra will premiere in April 2025.

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