Meet East Village ‘conceptual artist’ Yoshiko Chuma, crafting unique shows and exhibits for more than four decades

the ever observant Yoshiko Chuma
The ever observant Yoshiko Chuma
Photo by Bob Krasner

For more than 40 years, one woman has been responsible for approximately 500 performances involving more than 1,500 performers in nearly 50 countries. From her East Village storefront home Yoshiko Chuma has been constantly creating – involving dance, choreography, film , music, painting and whatever else she deems worthy in works presented by her group, ‘The School of Hard Knocks’.

Her performances — which can range in size and scale from Chuma doing a solo improvisation on a NYC sidewalk to her “Unfinished Symphony,” which put 400 performers on a stage in Japan — have put critics to the test while trying to describe her work. Dance Magazine once posited that “one might call her a postmodern choreographer,” but Chuma dismisses the notion.

“I am a conceptual artist,” she states.

“She has the ability to synthesize many ideas in a performance,” notes Jan Schmidt, the retired curator of the Dance Division of the NYPL at Lincoln Center (where Chuma’s archives are likely headed). She has seen Chuma perform since the 1980s and notes that the artist “incorporates words , music and dance forms from ballet to traditional African to post-modern dance in a significant way, taking it to a different level than the others.”

Chuma is hesitant to relate the details as to how she got there, but will commit to one fact about her early entry into performance art: “Everything I have been is by chance.”

Feeling unfocused in her native Japan, she took a friend’s suggestion and came to New York City in 1976 on a student visa. By 1979, she had performed solo in the garden at the Museum of Modern Art.

Yoshiko Chuma, center, at the Gene Frankel Theatre in June of 2021Photo by Bob Krasner
He plays, she disrupts. Christopher McIntyre, trombonePhoto by Bob Krasner
Yoshiko Chuma in performance with her portrait , painted by collaborator Elizabeth KreschPhoto by Bob Krasner

The year 1983 saw the premiere of ‘Five Car Pile-Up’ at the St. Marks Church, a collaboration with Christian Marclay. He provided the soundtrack, a sound collage for a piece that involved 63 performers. The New York Times called it “positively exhilarating.”

Marclay, who worked with Chuma on numerous projects in the early 1980s, sums up what makes her special. “Yoshiko Chuma is a maverick. Utterly unique, a ‘one-off,’ as the British say. Gifted with great personal force and intelligence, at heart she has been an experimentalist and a fierce explorer with a profound sense of structure.”

Her collaborators — her team, as she likes to call them — have varied over the years. “Eighty-five percent have become prominent in their fields,” she claims.

What is certain is that everyone who has worked onstage with her has walked away with more than just memories.

East Village artisté Heather Litteer, who has a history of working with Chuma and recently appeared in “A Blind Eye Cast Unknowing ” at the Gene Frankel Theatre, loves being part of the process.

“Yoshiko is a one of a kind exquisite being!” she exclaims. “I love working with her and living inside her shows. You never know what will happen — on a moments notice, she can change the choreography or the direction we could go. It’s thrilling. She is a force of nature!”

Nicky Paraiso, an actor, musician, writer, performance artist and curator who is currently the Director of Programming for The Club at La MaMa and the La MaMa Moves! Dance Festival, relates that he “can’t imagine my grown adult life without the essential lessons learned from working with Yoshiko Chuma and The School of Hard Knocks.” He commends her “tireless work ethic and brilliant creativity as well as her love, care and concern for so many artists.”

“She is always crossing boundaries both real and metaphorical, with a great curiosity and a burning passion,” he adds.

“She doesn’t rest,” observes painter Elizabeth Kresch, who has a longtime family connection with Chuma but only began collaborating with her three years ago.

Yoshiko Chuma and Jason Kao Hwang in performancePhoto by Bob Krasner
Yoshiko Chuma at home in the East Village

After painting portraits of her team onstage and off and participating in the epic “24 Hour Performance”, Kresch has gotten a good idea of one aspect of what Chuma’s constantly evolving oeuvre is all about. “Her work is about connection and informing,” states Kresch. “She wants people to take away a greater understanding of humanity — for people to see each other as human beings.”

“My projects always have a deep side,” Chuma muses. “Conceptually, I know what I want but I don’t know if people will get it. Sometimes they are a success and sometimes not. It’s a secret journey with an unknown destination.”

And, she explains, “My artistic vision is about observing. Sometimes I don’t know the difference between my art and my life.”

Yoshiko Chuma is on Instagram @yoshikochuma and will perform next at Pangaea on Feb. 24. Ticket info is here: showtix4u.com/event-details/61360

Yoshiko Chuma in still motionPhoto by Bob Krasner