The Asian-American choreographic voice: 2021 CrossCurrent Contemporary Dance Virtual Festival

Online, presented by Flushing Town Hall, New York
June 12, 2021

The CrossCurrent Dance Festival is a celebration of Asian American contemporary dance in the New York metropolitan area. Produced by Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company and presented by Flushing Town Hall (home to the Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts, and at the centre of the city’s largest Chinatown), this 7th edition again took place in virtual form. It proved something of a mixed bag, although mix of screendance presentations and film of stage performances certainly evidenced the increasing Asian-American choreographic voice. Not surprisingly, references to the pandemic were rarely far away, but neither too were issues of Asian and American cultures and identity.

That cultural dissonance is at the heart of the stand-out work, Tigress (母老虎) by Julia Foti. Her film explores her own experience as an adopted Chinese-American, specifically how she felt distant from her heritage; and the pressures, uncertainty and beauty found in identifying herself.

Julia Foti in Tigress
Still from film

Foti is helped by the superb cinematography and editing of Mason Gross digital filmmaking student Margot Maxwell. In the opening in particular, she hones in on a foot, an arm, Foti’s chest and head to great effect. As the camera moves around Foti, Maxwell also gets you right into the heart of the work in a way that is rarely achieved. As Foti, in beige and red leotard, dances in front of a piece of Chinese landscape art, the film manages to connect with her heritage while still feeling very modern.

The choreography itself is complex. Moments of calm sit easily within the otherwise often powerful dance that makes full use of the music (rearranged and edited from a Chinese film score). Her struggle to ‘find herself’ is emphasised as she moulds her face and eyes with her fingers. A surprise comes when the action shifts to a bamboo forest, which not only adds another layer, but almost feels like Foti has stepped inside that painting. With Foti now only in skin-toned underwear (a nod to casting off to reveal her true self, perhaps), the film flips back and forth in what suggests the conflicting identities in her own mind. My only doubt is the coloured smoke at the end.

Foti only graduated from Rutgers University this year, where she earned a BFA in Dance and BSc in Psychology. She speaks of hoping to pursue an interdisciplinary dance that pushes the boundaries of what Asian women are assumed to be. The future looks bright.

Marie Lloyd Paspe and Peter Cheng in LÚTALICA | WANDERER
Photo Melissa Wu

The opening VΛNISH by Maya Lam is an unpredictable film of fleeting moments and instances in time that flits between a park, a rooftop or an empty space where she is concealed in a bag. Her self-designed soundscape is unpredictable too, abrupt silences punctuating its scratches and scrapes. Very much a dance of the pandemic, all three locations feel oppressive and empty. Even in the open park and on the airy rooftop there’s an odd sense of the world closing in.

LÚTALICA | WANDERER by Peter Cheng, the Taiwanese-American choreographer and Artistic Director of PETER & CO, is a dance film that merges gesture, cultural identity, memory, and place (‘lútalica’ is Serbo-Croat for ‘wanderer’). Described as an exercise in catharsis and healing, it was filmed in the early-morning peace of Hunters Point South Park in Long Island City. With Manhattan and the East River as a backdrop (although, again, the emptiness pervades), Cheng and Marie Lloyd Paspe, the often gesture-driven choreography is danced with great finesse. They actually never touch, instead ‘throwing’ waves of energy from one to the other that instigates movement. The scenes where they are in pale yellow costumes feel especially warm. The couple seem to be very much ‘at home’, as if they have somehow finally ‘arrived’. It’s just a shame that the face masks hide so much.

Chieh Hsiung and Yu-wei Hsiao in Lost in translation
Still from film

Although Seyong Kim emphasises that his duet, Incomplete Journey, is not about himself and his wife and fellow dancer, Eun-Kyung Chung, it is certainly about the chemistry and dynamic between two fellow humans. The choreography betrays Kim’s ballet background. Chung has lovely long extensions and he is an attentive and reliable partner. It does sometimes fail to flow in the same way or catch the emotional dynamic of the music from Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto II to which it is set, however. It’s also unfortunate that the camera is almost always distant in what is a film of a stage performance. The lighting, or rather lack of it, doesn’t help either, the couple (also in black costumes) do keep disappearing into the gloom.

Lost in translation by Chieh Hsiung (熊婕), now New York-based graduate of the National Taiwan University Of Physical Education, looks at how people try to find different ways to build relationships and at least cope with, maybe even enjoy, loneliness. In four quite distinct sections it brought some lightness and humour to the evening. A slightly absurd opening makes good use of quirky movement and a curtain that separates Hsiung from partner Yu-wei Hsiao (蕭又維). A solo and a music interlude are more contemplative, before the brightness and lightness returns in a free and upbeat end.

Fiona Tsang’s UNNOTICED
Still from film

Finally, UNNOTICED by Fiona Tsang speaks of the long-standing lack of representation of Asian-Americans in American history, media and conversation. In doing so, it touches on the story of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American murdered in Detroit in 1982 on the eve of his wedding. The killers’ sentences of just a $3,000 fine sparked outrage and fuelled a movement for Asian American rights.

While the dance flows pleasantly with super lifts and partnering from the cast of seven, the power and message in the work largely comes from the spoken text. I only vaguely detected references to action and activism; save for one immensely powerful moment when the cast line up, and one by hold hands, and stand and look out, proud and defiant. Doing nothing, in the sense of not moving, can sometimes say so much.