Storyteller Brenda Wong Aoki and Emmy-winning jazz composer and bass player Mark Izu are the wife-and-husband team behind First Voice, a group known for its music and spoken-word performances. In their latest piece, "Mu," premiering this weekend at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, Tony-nominated choreographer Kimi Okada joins them, making a Japanese-American creative troika.
"Working with live musicians is always a treat," says Okada, citing one of several reasons she signed on to the project. "There's also a real Japanese element in it, which appealed to my roots."
The musicians are skilled both in jazz and with classical Japanese instruments. One player will alternate between the shakuhachi, a type of flute, and a saxophone. The popular koto, a string instrument, and taiko drums are also featured.
The musicians also have movement roles to play.
"It's very ambitious," Okada says. "I've done a lot of theater with people who are 'movers' but not dancers. The great thing about musicians is that they are innately rhythmic."
Okada, who has worked on Broadway and in films with notably physical actors such as Bill Irwin, Geoff Hoyle and Robin Williams, says they bring "a different set of challenges."
"They are the most wonderful, inventive, creative movers, but they are not dancers and don't remember things the way dancers do. So trying to get them to do the same thing twice was always interesting."
The story of "Mu" follows a young man who goes exploring under the sea.
"It's based on a Japanese fairy tale," Okada says, "but done in a very contemporary way, and mixes the two sensibilities. It's kind of an Atlantis myth mixed with a green ecological message."
Skipping the usual practice of holding auditions, Okada handpicked the five dancers in the show.
"I picked people that I thought would be up to the movement," Okada says. "They have to shape-shift through the whole thing. Each dancer plays many, many different parts."
There are also many, many costume changes, described as "wild" by Okada and created by local designer Beaver Bauer, whose work has graced Teatro ZinZanni and most major Bay Area theaters.
A nice reunion for Okada — whose day job is directing ODC School, the Mission district-based training component of the ODC Dance Commons — is working with two former students.
"I picked two boys who graduated from the Dance Jam, our teen company. Having these two young men whom I knew as teenagers come back and dance for me is just totally wonderful!"
IF YOU GOMu
Where: Jewish Community Center, 3200 California St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Contact: (415) 292-1233, www.jccsf.org/arts