Every day, millions of people walk through the streets and parks of New York City, focused on their own destination. We rarely take a moment to absorb our surroundings or stop even for a few minutes. As our internal feelings and motivations drive us, we forget to acknowledge the external environments that we inhabit. Professional dancer, Kanami Kusajima, is a performer who pleasantly subverts this norm. Kusajima majored in dance at SUNY Purchase, graduating during the peak of the pandemic in 2020. Her career thus started in an untimely manner, limiting the opportunities open to her as a New York City dancer. After a few months of online performances, Kusajima craved in-person performance. In an effort to make the most of the time she had left before having to return back to Japan, she took to Washington Square Park as a way to share her craft. Upon arriving to dance there for the first time, she formed a connection with another fellow dancer performing there named Pinokio. He introduced her to the idea of dancing with ink on a canvas, an approach to the art that is now fully incorporated into her performances. From that very encounter on her first day in the park, Kusajima has continued to allow her environment to inform her art.
By the end of November 2020, Kusajima bought the same calligraphy ink and canvases that Pinokio used for his own dancing. While this aspect of performance seemed daunting at first, she says that “the first swipe of the paint [she] did on the paper was a breaking moment of her fear.” In that moment, her future as a street performer fell into place and she managed to set herself up as the Washington Square Park dancer so many of us know and love today. Over the course of the next few months, she wondered how her performance in the park would be impacted by a variety of factors, one of them being the weather. She worried that rainy days might hinder her ability to dance as much as she wanted to or that the cold would disrupt her ability to dance for hours on end. Despite the questioning and the hesitation, though, she showed up everyday, forming a consistency in her presence that has allowed her surroundings not to dictate whether she would dance or not, but rather how she would dance. On snowy days, the canvas loses its purpose, the snow forming a blank slate upon which her calligraphy ink can form shapes through her movement.
The weather is not the only thing that has influenced her dancing, though. This movement that park visitors have the chance of watching from day to day finds inspiration in small moments that occur around Kusajima herself. Although throughout her education she mostly performed set choreography, Kusajima’s park dancing is fully improvisational. She takes in her environment and moves from there. As such, the interactions that occur between people around her or even the breeze that strolls through the park are enough for her to derive movement from. Kusajima mentions the moments where a pack of birds flies over the Washington Square Park arch. In these moments, she uses this momentum to follow their movement with her arm and the rest of her body.
Kusajima also appreciates the interactions and reactions of those who populate the park as she dances. She enjoys noticing children observing her in confusion, grappling to understand what it is she is attempting to achieve, and cherishes those who come up to her post-performance and directly tell her how much her dancing has inspired them and touched their own life. These minuscule moments that occur within the park at large are an inspiration to Kusajima and her movement.
As the environment seeps into her dancing, her dancing seeps into the canvas through ink. Over the years, Kusajima has accumulated hundreds of paintings produced by her body moving in response to the environment. She mostly uses black ink because of its simplicity yet simultaneous power it establishes against the white canvas. However, on special occasions like holidays, for example, she selects specific colors. This past June is one such example. On the day of the New York City pride parade, Kusajima set her canvas up in the park as she usually does. Despite the intense summer heat and bustling parade crowds, she created her own bubble around which people started forming a circle to watch. In honor of Pride, she chose to dance with blue, yellow, and red ink, which, over the course of her performance, would mix together to eventually produce the entire rainbow. The excitement, joy, and honesty of that day permeated her movement and the painting she ultimately created.
Each and every one of the paintings Kusajima creates is a reflection of the park’s atmosphere that day: the crowd, the weather, the ambiance. As she takes in her surroundings and lets her body move accordingly, she encourages pedestrians to do the same. Park visitors always find reason to pause and absorb the space they are taking up, beautifully contradicting the typical hurried stride most New Yorkers exhibit. It has been nearly three years since Kusajima first took to Washington Square Park to share her art. Since then, those who occupy the park have found a way to embrace the surroundings we often forget about, similar to the way Kusajima does.