The Next Generation of JC Leaders: Jennifer Aoki

I met Jennifer not too long ago via email when she was in the beginning stages of proposing a heritage-based short dance film that centered around VJLS-JH. The project’s goal is to “[physicalize] the school’s architecture and energy [and] embody experiences of obstruction, pain, and trust” from our history. We’re currently working with her to make sure she gets the funding to create it! I chose to interview Jennifer as she is a leader within the Vancouver artistic community in addition to being an emerging Nikkei voice. Her passion for her craft radiates from her and we’re so excited to get to work with her this year and follow her through her journey!

Photo by Michelle Moore

Can you provide a brief summary of who you are!

My name is Jennifer Aoki. I’m 38 years old. I have two cats that I love: Monie-Love and Indiana. I’m an auntie – a really proud Auntie! I have four nieces and two nephews. I’m a very family-oriented person. I grew up in North Vancouver. I connect really well with nature. It’s a huge part of my identity. I love to travel. I’ve been really lucky in that through my profession, I had the opportunity to live in Sweden and Berlin for a couple months. Currently, I teach dance at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts. I’m also a Langara student enrolled in the recreation leadership program and I have a BFA from SFU in Dance.

Photo by Angie Winona.

What are you currently up to these days? What are you pursuing or doing in 2021?

On top of my heritage-based research, I am also working on some really exciting projects! I am thrilled to be part of #LoveVancouverBubbleProject. It’s a unique, socially distanced live installation intended to spread love and joy around the city after dark. It’ll be popping up in and around Vancouver! I am also the co-Founder & co-Artistic Director of the Body Orchestra. We are a collection of independent dance artists with a mandate to create accessible, collaborative ensemble works set to original music. Interdisciplinary collaboration is at the heart of it, and I enjoy how we work with dancers, musicians, and lighting designer to make meaningful work. Additionally, this summer at Vines Art Festival in August, I will be involved in two projects that will be presented. The first project is a partnership between the Body Orchestra and It’s Not a Box Theatre to create a pod-play: audiences will walk along a route, equipped with earbuds and their smartphone, and they’ll have access to live music and text that will be paired with 8 [dance] solos along a walking tour.  The second project is a collaboration with dance artist Harmanie Rose to create a duet that explores sameness in different bodies. I also recently stepped into a role as co-artistic director of a dance company called Voirelia: a non-profit dance hub integrating dance psychology and philosophy. I am working on a project with Voirelia called Imaginarium which explores relationship with nature.

It’s so cool that you’re doing so much!

I didn’t realize how much I was doing until I wrote it down! I’m actually also a part of The Shadbolt Centre for the Arts 2021 season for various projects. Drone Dances in Deer Lake Park is a dance film that takes the audience on a 360-degree bird’s eye view of beautiful Deer Lake with some other contemporary dance artists performing in natural settings throughout the park. Shifting Spaces, my first dance film that I created while in lockdown was presented as part of the Covid Chronicles with their programming. I am an artist in residence at the Shadbolt creating a new solo work entitled …awkward inspired by the music of Vienna’s Dysfunktional Message Control which will premiere later this month.

What’s your relationship like to the Nikkei Community?

I feel like I’m an emerging voice within the Japanese Canadian community through my artistic practice. It’s really exciting – it’s very freeing. It’s only been in the past couple years that I’ve really acknowledged my Japanese identity – and having a place within the Community. I find it’s really interesting that I never really felt validated to be like, “Yeah – I am a part of the community. I’ve always seen my grandparents as Japanese Canadians. But for myself – there hasn’t been a lot of cultural connection. I’m choosing to honour it now. That’s kind of why I say I’m an “emerging voice” – it’s like I’m coming out of the shadows. Even though it’s always been there, I wasn’t aware of the light that was there.

How did you become involved at VJLS-JH?

Excluding the heritage-based project I’m currently working on; I had always heard about VJLS-JH through my family! My very first time truly connecting with VJLS-JH was when I performed as part of the Powell Street Festival last summer. I had the privilege to dance in Tomoyo Yamada’s Emergency as well as work with Company 605, Onibana Taiko and community dancers in Paueru Mashup Dance. I remember just walking in and feeling this energy – like, “I’m home!” This deep sense of pride and my inner child being like, “Yes!” And then I did the Powell Street Walking Tour led by VJLS-JH this past fall. I learned about the hidden history of the neighbourhood prior to World War ll and display of strength by the Japanese Canadians during internment. The people who led it were just so nice, so open and I felt so comfortable. It was so refreshing. 

How would you describe your involvement as a type of leadership?

I have a very democratic approach towards leadership that is rooted on mutual respect. I believe everyone’s voice needs to be heard. Hearing people’s voices helps inform me and this helps me attune my path to the needs of the group.  I am taking a form of leadership in that, having an idea or vision and being an advocate for it. There is excitement and nervousness when I step into the role of leadership. There is fear and worry within the process.  But it’s having the courage to move ahead and speak out, see who’s there, who wants to support and be involved.

What would you tell your 20-year-old self?

Be yourself! The world needs you to be you. Celebrate your perceived flaws and embrace them with dignity. Trust is allowing yourself to be vulnerable and this takes courage and strength. You are enough. You are strong. Self-compassion is a skill I encourage you to practice. Know that you are not alone and that the universe is in your hands. You can do anything. Basically, be yourself! That’s what I’d tell my 20-year-old-self.

Photo by Valerie Hider

Who inspired you or inspires you today?

In my formative years as a contemporary dancer, it was dancers and choreographers Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch. For Merce Cunningham, he was very cutting edge in the time by developing a new forms of abstract dance movement and was intrigued by the potential of random phenomena. When I was first introduced to his work, I was in my early 20s and up to that point I really felt that I had to fit into the mold of “what a dancer is”, and I never really felt like myself. When I learned about him and that he developed “choreography by chance”, a technique in which selected isolated movements are assigned to sequence by such random methods as tossing a coin, it was liberating! It encouraged risk-taking and playfulness – you can just literally roll a dice to make decisions – it was really exciting!

For Pina Bausch, she also pushed the envelope for what I perceived dance to be by creating work that is provocative and unconventional. She brought dance, theatre, and German expressionism together to deconstruct the binaries of dance and drama. Her work is like the hidden language of the soul and it inspires me. I enjoy the raw quality, vulnerability and the power…her fantastical sets… it’s so cool! I found her work encouraged me to be authentic within my own self and listen to my own voice.

In my personal life, my mother has been a supportive and inspired me to always keep going. My commitment, work ethic, and dedication come from her. Her life story inspires me: regardless of where you come from, you have the strength to make decisions and carve your pathway; building something really beautiful.

Photo by Chris Randle

Any goals for the future?

I would love to have success in obtaining the necessary funding for my future projects and endeavours! Otherwise, definitely to travel back to Japan and Europe. It would be a dream to live in Sweden for a year to immerse myself in their culture, collaborate with some Swedish artists, and create a new work while in residency at Dansens Hus. Basically: keep dancing and making art, and travel the world; absorb cultures and meet people!

Favourite food?

I’ve got five things! Ramen, French fries, Japanese food in general…. beef and veggie chow mein and BBQ fried rice. It honestly depends what mood I’m in!

Jennifer Aoki’s information can be found at

By Mika Kobayashi Embury
Community Programming Coordinator