Showcasing Asian American dance

AAPI Dance and Choreographers Showcase
Online, part of the Imagine Dance Festival 2022, presented by the Dance Managers’ Collective
January 13, 2022

That there has been a lack of representation of Asian American dance work historically is undeniable. To help raise the profile of artists, the Asian American Arts Alliance, Final Bow for YellowFace/Gold Standard Arts Foundation and the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company jointly assembled this showcase as part of the Dance Managers’ Collective’s 2022 Imagine Dance Festival. Primarily aimed at presenters and promoters, it demonstrated the breadth of work being created as it featured cross-genre and cross-cultural works by eight promising AAPI (Asian American Pacific Island) choreographers.

The selections had much going for them. Many made you want to see more. Even so, two pieces truly stood out. The first was TILT SHIFT by New York-based, Taiwanese-American choreographer Peter Cheng, artistic director of Peter & Co. The opening ensemble section flows powerfully. In a dark, shadowy world created by Christopher Weston’s lighting and Treya Lam’s music (the haunting techno of SHXCXCHCXSH that comes later is equally atmospheric), the dance is fast-paced and thrilling, but with an inherent tension. The togetherness was excellent.

TILT SHIFT by Peter Cheng
Photo Retrograde Studio

It’s in the middle part that the works theme really comes through. As Mikaela Morisato is picked on, Cheng highlights the discomfort and alienation of being ‘othered’ as seen through an Asian American lens. What might be taken as inquisitive if intrusive curiosity, albeit psychologically bruising, quickly becomes physically aggressive. A positive note comes as she finds resilience and fights back, before a powerful solo, full of movement that seems to come from deep inside, suggests self-discovery and a confidence in her identity. That’s carried through to a final ensemble section that ends with jackets being taken off as if to say, ‘this is us’ and ‘we hide no more’. It left me wanting more.

I was also very taken by a duet from Love Letter by former Ballet X dancer Caili Quan, originally from Guam, and which has its roots in her Mahålang, not a love letter between two people, but to her family and culture on Guam that sparked her love of music and inspired her dream of dancing.

Richard Villaverde in Love Letter by Caili Quan
Still from film

It begins with Richard Villaverde on a rooftop overlooking a cityscape. His dance is full of beautiful yearning extensions and moments of suspension but what really comes through is an intense sense of longing. That feeling is magnified as footage of him is interspersed with shots of Francesca Forcella on a beach. The film may switch between the two locations but, as the dance phrases echo, extend and reach between them, there is a clear sense that we are watching a duet despite the couple being in different places and, it feels, separated by thousands of miles. They do finally come together on his roof. Or do they? As they move towards the camera, their dance is synchronised, their hands outstretched towards one another. But they never touch. A dream, a wish, a hope?

After each piece, each choreographer was interviewed or explained a little about their work on film. Quan said how she always hoped people left her work feeling something. Love Letter was totally engrossing, and I did.

You Are Safe by Jessica Chen
Photo Vanessa Gonzalez-Bunster, courtesy J Chen Project

Quite possibly a reaction to the origins of the pandemic, the past two years has seen a significant rise in xenophobia and bigotry targeting Asian-Americans generally. A thought-provoking response comes in the shape of You Are Safe by Jessica Chen for J Chen Project; a work commissioned by the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City for their reopening exhibition ‘Responses: Asian American Voices Resisting the Tides of Racism’.

The work includes text from author and activist for equity and inclusion, Michelle MiJung Kim that awakens us to the hostility sometimes faced. As we hear, “Go back to where you came from… not your country” and more, one dancer rails forcefully against the notion of having to prove you belong, the dance expressing the feelings behind the words rather than being a literal translation into movement of them. Even more powerful however is the uplifting sense of community, support and collective resilience in the ensemble sections, the message clearly being that it is possible to reclaim the narrative while maintaining identity.

KAMA by Rohan Bhargava
Photo Josh Pacheco Photography

In KAMA, titled after the Sanskrit word for desire, wish and longing, New Delhi-born choreographer Rohan Bhargava, founder and artistic director of Rovaco Dance Company, clubbing is writ large through the two sections danced in choreography that captures the physicality of contemporary movement alongside more pedestrian social dancing.

In the first of the two sections shown of the full-length work that explores of the sexual intimacy, desire and addiction in modern party culture, the five dancers pulse along to Saúl Guanipa’s equally throbbing music. Variation comes as individuals break out before being inevitably drawn back in to the group. In the second section, the tightness falls apart, the strict spacing and structure giving way to more contemporary dance movement, changing spacing, and constantly shuffling partnerships. Yet while it has more variety, paradoxically, it is less appealing and engaging.

Barkha Patel in Bound
Still from film

The showcase provided a chance to revisit Barkha Patel‘s bound, seen last spring on A Showcase of New Jersey Choreographer Fellows by South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC). I enjoyed it even more than before. Patel evokes magnificently the web of madness that 14th-century Kashmiri poetess and yogini Lal Ded found herself in after being falsely accused of adultery by her mother-in-law, and forced to leave her home and marriage. Alongside that are moment of near spiritual clarity. Patel’s fusion of contemporary movement and kathak is quite outstanding, while the use of film as a sort of inner voice makes for an effective extra layer. She plans to develop bound into a whole evening piece. It should be worth waiting for.

I had also previously seen Perception, a dance film by American Ballet Theatre soloist Zhongjing Fang, which features many dancers from the company in a range of settings. The shifting of place does give a sense of transcending time as Fang intended, the sight of dancers alone also taking us back to pandemic lockdown. As much as the locations and images created are all wonderfully appealing, and each moment of dance is promising (one almost in silhouette featuring a dancer and pianist especially so), I can’t help feeling that the film is at least as much a triumph of Herman Cornejo’s editing than choreography per se.

Annie Heath in her work-in-progress,
Departure Study of Mother/land Fabric
Still from film

Departure Study of Mother/land Fabric, a work-in-progress by Annie Heath, integrates movement, text and video design in an exploration of loss that draws on the choreographer’s own experiences as an adoptee from South Korea. Afterwards, she explained that the only time she was with her birth mother was when she was inside the womb. As she inches, twists and shuffles long the floor, her idiosyncratic movement clearly comes from deep inside, forgotten memories maybe, which is probably what makes it strangely compelling.

Finally, Robyn Mineko Williams presented some moments from Undercover Episodes, a flexible performance series in which each presentation is arranged to suit the specific space it takes place in, followed by moments from Echo Mine, a full-length work originally inspired by and created alongside her long-time mentor, founding Hubbard Street dancer Claire Bataille. It features film of Bataille rehearsing a solo created for the work before she passed away, that is clearly the starting point for the choreography. At Echo Mine’s heart, however, is a solo danced in the auditorium of Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, the theatre empty save, one feels, for the ghosts of performers past. It yells loss and love.

Echo Mine by Robyn Mineko Williams
Still from film

All told, the AAPI Dance and Choreographers Showcase made for a fascinating couple of hours. But it got me thinking. In Britain, we have now seen many choreographers emerge from South Asian backgrounds, some now very big names indeed. But we have many people of East Asian heritage too, of the Chinese diaspora in particular. Why have they not risen equally to the fore? Maybe it doesn’t matter, but I can’t help thinking it should.