Arts & Culture, Campus, spotlight

Mr. Ryuji Takes A Bow

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Mr. Ryuji Yamaguchi announces the end of his tenure on the faculty of King’s Academy—for now—at the conclusion of last Wednesday’s annual Dance Showcase

The last piece was the most intense. Between Philip Glass’ “The Photographer” playing in the back (a piece of music that almost everyone confused with an alarm clock), the random yet eerily structured intonation of numbers, and the fluid movement of the mechanical dancers, the entire auditorium sat in a trance as the King’s Academy Evening Dance Ensemble leaped, pounced, attacked, and retreated on stage at Yoshiko Chuma’s command, who narrated the numbers from a microphone in the center of the audience. The entire scene was improvised, and so was the scene that followed.

As applause erupted in the auditorium, and as the audience slowly got to their feet to recognize the dancers, Mr. Ryuji first descended from the control booth upstairs, then ascended to the stage. Freshmen, sophomores, juniors, seniors—artists and dancers of every age and genre—hurried to Mr. Ryuji’s side as they celebrated their revered dance teacher. That evening, on the stage, the audience saw Mr. Ryuji in his natural habitat—not Mr. Ryuji, the Dean of Residential Life, the voice at the other end of SOC phone calls, the harbinger of bad news in unexpected room checks, and the administrator of weekend midday check-ins. This night was special. The dancers, the students, and the audience were celebrating Mr. Ryuji the mentor, the choreographer, the visionary, and the artist.

And after everyone surrounded him, and the first bouquet of flowers, and the second, reached his hands, and he held the microphone, Mr. Ryuji’s remarks (which, he admitted later, was completely improvised) resonated throughout the hall. Mr. Ryuji began by telling the audience how he came to join King’s. He talked about his mission, and thanked all the dancers. Some of the students thanked him. And then, it happened. Mr. Ryuji announced that he will not be returning to King’s next year. The audience was shocked. Hearts skipped a beat, tears were jerked. Mr. Ryuji then spoke of his plans for the years to come. Later, someone brought him yet another bouquet of flowers. But before all of that, nine years ago, at the very beginning, a wrestler-turned-dancer and alumnus of Deerfield who studied East Asian history at Harvard came to Jordan and helped start King’s Academy.

Mr. Ryuji has been on the faculty at King’s since the school officially opened in August 2007, but his first real encounter with the school was in the summer of 2006, when he taught at the Summer Enrichment Program on campus. He conducted a dance workshop with 50 middle school boys and girls in the dining hall. They went through the usual IPA motions: exploring the space around them, moving their body, making loud noises. At one point, he taught the class how to do handstands, but a student came up to him, showed him his missing hand, and told him that he couldn’t possibly stand on his hands. Mr. Ryuji looked at the the young boy—who eventually went on to become a King’s Academy student—and told him, “Well, excellent! You can do a one-handed handstand!” And nothing, of course, is cooler than that. In Mr. Ryuji’s words, “Somehow his limitation—you could call it a limitation, what he thought was a limitation—when he accepted it, and explored that, within his parameter, he became more confident.”

This episode probably summarizes best what Mr. Ryuji has been doing at King’s and in Jordan—pushing students to do one-handed handstands, and other unimaginable feats that transgress whatever limitations they think they might have. He does this everyday as an administrator and teacher, but also, and most importantly, as a dancer.

Shortly after the SEP program, King’s enrolled its first batch of students, and the Dance program was launched. King’s started with 100 freshmen and sophomores, and Mr. Ryuji started with half of them. These were the 50 kids in his Introduction to Performing Arts  class. In the Dance co-curricular, there were about 7 dancers. This was the first group of burgeoning artists that Mr. Ryuji started working with, and they got right into it, with students learning to perform a variety of contemporary dances.

Then, in 2009, Hisham Khreisat ’12 and Hamza Sarhan ’12 approached Mr. Ryuji with an interest in dabkeh, and soon enough, the dabkeh program was established. Mr. Ryuji brought in some professional dancers to coach the students, and the dance program started picking up some momentum. Then, in 2012, Mr. Ryuji approached a local artist, Faisal Al-Mamun, in order to start a Hip-Hop dance co-curricular. That program has also grown over the years. Mr. Faisal started with two dancers, and the program has now reached almost a hundred students.

Which brings us to the present, 2016. Today, the dance program is one of the most prominent, diverse, challenging, rewarding, and growing programs on campus. Students from all backgrounds are learning new forms, techniques, and traditions that allow them to explore their space, and their place within it.

Jianing Zhao ’16, for example, was a new sophomore from China when she thought it might be cool to try dabkeh. She joined the troupe, and went on to perform in every single Dance Showcase since.

The program is great, the choreography is fantastic, and the performances are a lot of fun, but Mr. Ryuji’s program is not really about the dance. It’s about the mission and the vision. And as Mr. Ryuji said in his remarks that night, the King’s Academy mission is all about “individualism,” about recognizing our uniqueness, and asking ourselves: “What can I bring to the table?” Mr. Ryuji continues, “I don’t fit into one category, none of us do, and dance is a great opportunity to see that mixture.” Setting up the dance program was important, and once students were skilled enough to learn dances and perform them, Mr. Ryuji took the program to the next level: making sure students are choreographing their own dances, and dealing with this question of individualism, on their own.

In order to do this, Mr. Ryuji introduced improvisational dance.

“The greatest change,” said Jianing, in reference to the dance program, was the introduction of improvisational dance to the curriculum, which brought forth a focus on quality and self-expression. In Jianing’s words, “We’re not just dancers, but choreographers. Before, it was just [Mr. Ryuji’s] moves. With improv, it’s about exploring ourselves. I never would have imagined myself choreographing dances in my sophomore year. I just did the movements, that’s it. Now it’s not just putting in my own flavor, but creating my own movement.” Last week’s showcase was a testament to this, with six of the twelve performances completely performed and choreographed by students of all ages and levels of expertise. “What I think Mr. Ryuji does here,” says Jianing, “is build dancers, not just dances.”

Mr. Ryuji is pushing boundaries within the school walls, but he’s also trying to make a difference in Jordan. He’s led several projects outside of King’s, with the goal of spreading dance, and breaking down borders between people.

The most notable project is the Jordan Youth Dance Exchange. This national dance program was Mr. Ryuji’s idea, and in collaboration with Faisal Al-Mamun, and other important Jordanian dancers, the program was launched in 2014 in order to allow students all over Jordan to learn about dance, learn how to dance, come together at an annual conference, learn from dancers and artists in collaborative workshops, and perform their work. In the first year, there were 64 dancers from all over Jordan, and since then, it has grown.

Another initiative was the Living Room Project, in partnership with Yoshiko Chuma (the prolific Japanese dancer who is not Mr. Ryuji’s mother, as many have assumed during her near-annual visits to campus). Yoshiko started the project in 1996, and when Mr. Ryuji came to Jordan, he continued her tradition by staging improvised dances in people’s living rooms after sharing a meal. Mr. Ryuji, Yoshiko, and several other dancers performed in nine Jordanian houses after having lunch with their hosts (usually mansef). The goal was to break down cultural, linguistic, and other barriers between people, and explore the uniqueness of cultures with the space of a living room.

The dance showcase, last Wednesday, was the culmination of all of this work. Students came together to cross borders by participating in cross-cultural dances, choreograph their own performances, and express themselves through improvisational dance. We saw nine years’ worth of work on the stage, and to crown all of this, a third bouquet for Mr. Ryuji, with the crowd on their feet, the dancers and artists gathering around affectionately, and the undulations of applause, laughter, tears, rogue and raucous whistling. Mr. Ryuji sent the audience on their way, and then he and the dancers took a group photo.

When former headmaster Dr. Eric Widmer first called him, Mr. Ryuji initially rejected the offer to come to King’s. 9 years, 9 showcases, 9 living rooms, God knows how many weekend duties, and 3 bouquets later, we all realize it was it was one of the best decisions of his life.

Written by Rami Rustom