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Dove Bodies in Motion and Asian Americans too

One nicety of living so close to the UC Berkeley campus is the ease of dropping in on lectures, international performances, rarely screened movies at Pacific Film Archives, openings at the Berkeley Art Museum, and the occasional, delightful student presentation.

Last Friday, I attended the Berkeley Dance Project 2008 student performance of Torelli by Twyla Tharp, MELT by Kim Epifano and two premiere works -- Ouorboros by Ariel Osterweis Scott and Symmetry Study #8 by Jess Curtis. 

To my surprise, none of the female dancers were anorexic wraiths as we've come to expect from ballet, but possessed bodies that were -- well, real like those Dove women in that billboard campaign that splattered giant real natural beauties in all sizes and shapes across the metroscape of America.  I had actually seen that launch while crossing the East River into Manhattan late one night, each of many billboards well-lit against the Big Apple's mountain range like cityscape.   Yet, B-Project's dancers; bodies were obviously as flexible and strong, and in their modern way, they equally twirled, leaped, entangled, "fell" into heaps on the floor, and flapped extended arms jarringly.

In Symmetry Study #8, starting in various, still positions, the dancers very slowly stirred and then paired off into a series of body contact improvisations that in some cases were quite sensual.

But the most delightful surprise to me was the presence of several Asian American women in the troupe -- and gasp of several Asian American men.  Back in the day at Cal, in the early 1970s, I was among the new school Asian Americans -- of countercultural life-stylists and community empowerment radicals who launched Asian American Studies.  The old school set was still strong then and as it is to this day -- get into a safe major like pre-med, business, architecture, or business.  Given the Jim Crow times then, this wasn't a bad survival strategy.

Still back then, except for political street theater and protest poetry, few if any of us moved into the arts.  In my own case, I became a lawyer and didn't start writing until 2000. Yet, here I was watching not one or two, but at least four Asian American women and three Asian American men completely dedicated to dance performance.  And they were excellent!  

So finally, this is sizable enough to call them the Third Wave of Asian American students -- those majoring in the performance arts, music, film and so on.

A special shout-out to Kiki Cheng who performed in every dance and also in the lobby site-specific body sculpture movement preceding the show and also to Maura Tang who surprisingly sang a sweet spiritual.  Maura Tang also performed in three pieces, and the lobby pre-show (with Kiki - yeah, it was HOT!). And give it up to Danny Nguyen and Wayne Tai Lee for their strong, tall, and gorgeous presences.

Berkeley Dance Project is playing through next weekend at the Zellerbach Playhouse, that small theater on the west end of big Zellerbach hall.  Tickets for non-students are $15.00.  Visit www.theater.berkeley.edu.  

Also, next weekend there is a series of free (I think) workshops and lectures around the related Dance Under Construction Conference at UC Berkeley.  Kiki and friends' performances inspired me to take a movement workshop next Friday afternoon.

On dying stereotypes and kinder times, please catch Arthur Dong's new documentary, "Hollywood Chinese."  What makes this film fresh and quite intelligent instead of just another exploration of damaging stereotypes (important breakthrough work back in the day) are his interviews with the new wave of Chinese American directors and actors: Ang Lee, Justin Lee, B.D. Wang, and with Caucasian actors who have played Chinese roles, Louise Rainer who played Olan the Hollywood b/w movie version of  Pearl S. Buck's "The Good Earth" and Christopher Lee, who played Fu Manchu in several 1970s films.  Ms. Rainier spoke clearly of how much work she put into learning the body postures, speech nuances, and other cultural aspects of playing a traditional Chinese woman.  Christopher Lee spoke of the physical discomfort of "gluing" his eyes into an epicanthic fold so he would look Chinesey (not difficult if they had only casted on of  many Chinese American actors although I truly look forward to a new day of color-blind casting that is a two-way street).

B.D. Wang in particular opened up in a surprising and deeply personal way of his many breakthrough roles in film, stage, and TV.  Justin Lin spoke of that the Q&A following the Sundance screening of his film, "Better Luck Tomorrow" and Roger Ebert jumping up - two thumbs up and two arms flailing -- defending Lin's right to portray Asian American characters and plots anyway he wants to, redeeming social values or not.

Joan Chen speaks freely about aging and seeking new and groundbreaking roles.  She confesses that the only time she ever felt she deserved the acclaims was when she produce her  critical and box office success, her  first movie "Xiu-Xiu: Sent-down Girl," where she was in total control.

In a similar arc, but in her own fashion, Nancy Kwan shares her own True Tales of Hollywood Horror.   I had forgotten how gorgeous she was in Flower Drum Song and The World of Susie Wong.  In retrospect, there were actually some progressive scenes in Flower Drum Song (although not the chop suey song).  The Suzy Wong character, while a hooker, was not submissive, but brassy, in control of her clients, and apparently supported her family on her earnings.

Arthur Dong has clearly mastered the craft of letting people speak, perhaps surprisingly more revealingly then they had planned on.  There are many other great interviews, including with Wayne Wang, Henry David Hwang,and James Hong hilariously mimicking Peter Lorre -- and all nicely interspersed with film clips. Playing in SF Bay Area through most of this week at the Grand Lake and Sundance Kabuki theaters.  

Check www.HollywoodChinese.com or deepfocusproductions.com for other showings nationally and internationally.

Well, off to Harbin Hot Springs tomorrow for another bone-deep soaking and a lot of nature. 

(C) 2008. William Poy Lee  


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Cool Stuff!

    You'd be interested to know there is a significant Chinese community in Fairbanks.  http://www.alaskaccc.com/      They have been very supportive of my Plasma Dreams moviemaking venture.  (I have a short trailer on my member page).  It's thrilling to see a lot of cinematic activity coming out of Alaska now.  I think the recent Hollywood screenwriter's strike, for better or worse, brought a lot of independent filmmakers out of the woodwork.

      Of course, I'd love to have someone like Wayne Wang take on my project, but that's probably not going to happen...at least not this time.  There's always the next movie!

  Zai Jian!


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Chinese in Fairbanks!

Steel -- this is equally cool and looked at the photos of the teachers.  Who knew -- Mandarin school in Fairbanks.

It's great how you take the knowledge from your work and explore in Sci-Fi.  I like what you said about Slime Molds in a comment to Belle's "dem bones blog post.  The world is so much more mysterious and awesome than we can imagine -- and that's the world we can detect.

Say, whereabouts is that giant slime mode site in Wisconsin.  No one mentioned a word to me about it when I was there.  Must be a big, shameful state secret.

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The definitive answer

Hi William:

      Belle had asked me how I knew so many Asians, being up here in the boondocks like I am, and she evidently liked my answer, as she suggested I post it here. :)

  Well, when I was working at Hipas Observatory http://www.hipas.alaska.edu/hipasweb/hipas.htm (which is operated by UCLA) we hada lot of Chinese grad students and researchers working there.  Lisa Tang, theprotagonist of Plasma Dreams, is VERY loosely based on one of these researchers. (After she read the book, however, she said, "I do NOT complain about Alaska THATmuch!)  I guess it wasn't LOOSELY ENOUGH based....Tee Hee!   Anyway, because of my work at Hipas, they occasionally sent me down to theplasma lab on the UCLA campus, where I became friends with Frank Chen, one ofthe fellows who actually coined the word "plasma" as used in the non-bloodsense, along with his  more famous colleague, Langmuir.  It was there that Ilearned how dominant China was when it came to plasma physics...in fact, itseemed  they were the only ones even in the game!    After learning enough Chinese words to get myself in trouble, I decided to goabout learning the language a little more deliberately.  So I joined theAlaska/China chamber of commerce, and started taking Chinese lessons.  I meteven more Chinese people here (there are about 300 Chinese people living inFairbanks, most of them associated with UAF in one form or another).  It wasalso a good opportunity to do some recruiting for my little film.     But there is a much older tie to Asia than the recent Chinese influx.  I'vebeen around Eskimos ever since I came up here...it's quite unavoidable.  Infact, Cynthia Mountainflower is actually an Eskimo...but passes veryconvincingly as Chinese...growing up in a white orphanage in Washington,everyone thought she was Chinese.  In fact, if you take any Eskimo and stickthem on a horse, they look like a Mongolian....because they WERE Mongolians! Not all that long ago, either, from a historic perspective.  AthabaskanIndians are also Asian, as far as anyone can tell...but made the trip acrossthe creek much longer ago.  Their language is much more fragmented, withhundreds of different dialects, even in Alaska.  Quite different fromI'nupiat, the primary Eskimo language, which is remarkably consistent acrossthe entire North.
      So, now you know.
      I guess there has to be some truth to the saying, "God must like Chinesepeople, because He made so many of them."   :)
Ericp.s.   I think Wisconsin had to change their state motto from "Come see our slime mold" to something more generic.  :)

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Thanks for the view of change

If I were 18 again, I'd run off with a dance troup. I could never have imagined the opportunities that are open to Asian-American men and women back in 1978. I saw a Japanees actress in the role of Cecily (Importance of Being Earnest" and also in a Shakespeare play up in Ashland. I would also have liked to run off with the theater had I seen this woman when I was 18. Maxine Hong Kingston, Jeannie Wakatsuki and Jade Snow Wong were the only published writers I knew about.

I had started college in a pre-Med program.

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From Asian American Choreographer of Berkeley Dance Project

I was thrilled to find your blog entry on the Berkeley Dance Project, and its attention to Asian Americans in dance because, as the choreographer of "Ouroboros" I thought I should let you know that I, too, am Asian American (Korean and "other," if you must know).  Although I do not tend to identify myself along racial delineations, I couldn't help but be struck by your observations of the racial make-up of my piece.  I am both a PhD student in Performance Studies and a choreographer, and I find that my socio-cultural observations differ somewhat depending on which lens I gaze through.  For example, my scholar lens attunes me to racial differences, but my choreographic gaze seeks compelling performers--those who take risk and expose their vulnerability.  It just so happened that many of the most committed dancers in our department happen to be Asian American, and I was thrilled to be able to showcase their talents.  You might be happy to know that much of the movement for my piece was created by the dancers through directed improvisation in which we worked with the idea of personal, idiosyncratic gestures...unconscious habits.  These dancers did a wonderful job of accessing uncomfortable movements and turning them into kinetic expression.  Thank you for noticing the Asian American talent that sweeps across UC Berkeley's stages.  

-Ariel Osterweis Scott


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Ariel -- I didn't come to

Ariel -- I didn't come to the performance to look for anything but a nice evening of innovative dance -- fully prepared to slip away under cover of the dark lighting if the performance turned out more "studentish" than accomplished.   But when I stared wide-eyed at the body sculptures-in-motion in the lobby and then took a seat amidst the seating around the entire stage ofr Torelli, I knew I could safely abandon all exit strategies.  I have returned to see the show.

You know what struck me about the performance, and although I come from a certain frame of the American and global experience, yet like you, I write from and to the universal place of being human, of trying to stay good and decent, and of creating beauty.  Even so, one cannot and should not be divorced from the circumstances of our history, and so yes, I was truly glad to see so many beautiful Asian American bodies and minds so committed.

BTW -- you have a most interesting "Korean" name, so I gather you are a "citizen without bordersk" as I often think of myself.   I'm on campus most mornings writing away at the new East Asian Library and depleted by Noon.  If you'd like to amp up the exchange from virtual to real, please e-mail me your cell phone/e-mail at wmpoylee@TheEighthPromise.com.

In any event, Cheers! and nice to hear from you.