Kana Sato – actor, dancer, physical performer, choreographer, and teacher of movement – talks about how her love of dance and her fascination with movement led her on a journey from growing up in Sendai, Japan, to becoming an inaugural member of the acclaimed Shen Wei Dance Arts to teaching at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio.
TKS: How did you come to be an inaugural member of the famed Shen Wei Dance Arts?
Kana: I grew up in Sendai, Japan, and was determined to study dance in college. There were few options in Japan: only a couple of all-girls colleges offered degrees in dance, and I had gone to all-girls schools through high school. I knew that what I wanted was in California, so I moved there, even though I didn’t speak English at the time. I ended up graduating from California State University in Long Beach with a degree in dance. After graduating, I won a scholarship to the American Dance Festival, where I was selected to perform in a dance choreographed by Shen Wei, then an up-and-coming choreographer. The dance was so well-received that Shen Wei secured the funding needed to start his own dance company. I was invited to join the company in New York City and stayed with it – performing around the world – for nearly a decade.
TKS: That must have been an exciting experience.
Kana: It was exciting and grueling – and hard to sustain. We were performing all over the world and doing spectacularly creative work, but the financial realities of performing for a startup dance company – no matter how acclaimed and admired – was that between tours, I was waiting tables at a restaurant in Chelsea. Fortunately, I was very good at waiting tables, too.
When I left the company in 2016, I became certified in pilates, but I missed performing, so I decided to pursue acting. I enrolled at the William Esper Studio, where Terry Knickerbocker was then teaching. A friend of mine – an actor who had waited tables with me – said, “If you want to study acting, you have to study with Terry.” She said that it had been “life-changing” for her.
TKS: So, you studied there with Terry?
Kana: I went for an interview and was going to ask to speak with Terry, but he had already been assigned to conduct the interview. I was excited – and terrified. I had excelled as a dance performer and knew that would count for something, but now I would be judged on my acting potential, and English was not my native language.
I was accepted, and I studied the Meisner technique with Terry for two years. They were the toughest two years of my life because you explore all parts of yourself, including ones that you didn’t know existed. You have to be willing to show all of yourself. Having been born in Japan, I had been raised to be reserved, taught not to reveal my feelings, and told not to take up too much space in a room. That approach is the opposite of the Meisner technique, and it took a lot of adjusting on my part.
Even in dance, I had been trained to be a machine on stage – doing amazing things to illuminate abstract concepts – but I would be corrected if my dancing became “too emotional.” So, when Terry said, “Be human, be messy,” that invitation was something I had long been waiting for. At the same time, it was both alien and frightening to me. It was also transformational.
After the initial two years, I continued to study with Terry, taking his scene-studying classes for four years. I became fascinated with combining my experience with dance and my commitment to the Meisner technique – and understood well how they connected, even though they had seemed so different at the outset.
When Terry decided to open his own studio, he approached me about teaching movement. He allowed me to shadow two brilliant movement teachers, Nate Flower, and Julia Crockett, so that I could become familiar with how they teach. I became fascinated with and immersed in their teaching and now reflect that in my own approach, drawing as well on my own experience. I’m so fortunate that they have become both my mentors and my colleagues.
TKS: What’s it like to teach movement as an actor vs. movement as a dancer?
Kana: Dancers train every day to perfect a technique so that it appears flawlessly on stage or on camera. The challenge is: How can I be a more perfect visual version of myself? Training for actors is almost the opposite: You have to unlearn your conditioning and embody all your flaws to be a whole person so that you can grow as a person and as a performer. Yet everything in acting happens in the body, so movement is still at the center of the performance. But the movement is in service to the acting rather than technical perfection.
Understanding the conditioned body – the dancer – gives me awareness of the listening body – the actor – and lets me see when people are trapped in their habits. In teaching movement, I strive to help students unlearn their habits so that each student can treat the body as the performance and, in doing so, realize the full dimensions of the character being portrayed.
TKS: What do you find most satisfying in your work as a teacher of movement at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio?
Kana: I find enormous satisfaction in seeing my students have breakthroughs, in enabling them to approach movement in a way that equips them to become more compelling, versatile, whole-hearted, and authentic performers. By teaching movement, I get to engage in theater every day. It’s as captivating to me now as dance was earlier in my career.