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0819571083
ISBN-13:
9780819571083
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Choreographing Asian America

Choreographing Asian America

by Yutian Wong

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Overview

<P>Poised at the intersection of Asian American studies and dance studies, Choreographing Asian America is the first book-length examination of the role of Orientalist discourse in shaping Asian Americanist entanglements with U.S. modern dance history. Moving beyond the acknowledgement that modern dance has its roots in Orientalist appropriation, Yutian Wong considers the effect that invisible Orientalism has on the reception of work by Asian American choreographers and the conceptualization of Asian American performance as a category. Drawing on ethnographic and choreographic research methods, the author follows the work of Club O' Noodles—a Vietnamese American performance ensemble—to understand how Asian American artists respond to competing narratives of representation, aesthetics, and social activism that often frame the production of Asian American performance.</P>


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819571083
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 07/21/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
File size: 1 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

<P>YUTIAN WONG is an assistant professor in the School of Music and Dance at San Francisco State University.</P>

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CHAPTER 1

SITUATING ASIAN AMERICAN DANCE STUDIES

To understand the disciplinary stakes in terms of what it means to write about dance in the context of Asian American studies and Asian America in dance, this chapter begins with an analysis of Sue Li-Jue's Rice Women (2000) and The Nature of Nature (2001). Questions of aesthetics, questions of politics, and questions of the pleasures of watching dancing bodies all come together in Sue Li-Jue's self-described "Asian American dance company"; her work offers an opportunity to reflect upon conflicting definitions of what constitutes "good art" and "good politics" within dance and Asian American studies. To propose a model for theorizing Asian American dance, the rest of the chapter investigates the relationship between art and politics in a two-part narrative — (1) Locating Dance in Asian American Studies and (2) Locating Asian America in Dance — to situate the particular ways in which both dance and Asian America are marginalized sites of inquiry in relationship to each other.

The program notes for the September 29, 2000, performance of Facing East Dance and Music's production of Rice Women (2000) describe the company's work as "expressed through modern dance with an Asian aesthetic." The premiere of Sue Li-Jue's evening-length work featured an ensemble of Asian American women working in a Limon-Humphrey modern dance vocabulary punctuated by Li-Jue's signature barrel turns. The dancers' bodaies were athletic, fluid, precise, and articulate as they executed the different sections of Li-Jue's choreography that depicted, reflected upon, or embodied the experiences of Asian American women past and present — a present including that very moment of dancing itself.

In an interview, Li-Jue, the artistic director of the company, pointed out that reviews of Rice Women focused the majority of their comments on a two-minute section of her choreography that offered what she thought was an easy-to-read critique of stereotypical representations of Asian female sexuality. This section of an evening-length work featured Li-Jue's all–Asian American female dance company performing as a group of stiff-jointed dancing dolls dressed identically in glittery magenta wigs, short shorts, and tank tops. The dancing doll as a symbol of female subjugation has been a recurring role in Western concert dance since the late nineteenth century. In Arthur Saint-Léon's Coppélia (1870) and Michel Fokine's Petrouchka (1911), the role of the dancing doll as a nonsentient object makes visible the interchangeability of desire for live female bodies with that of mechanical bodies that magically come to life. The dolls are novel in that they can be "turned on" to move in public, but their real worth is their ability to come to life in the privacy of libidinal dreams. Dr. Coppelius believes his doll has come to life in what he thinks is the privacy of his workshop; and Petrouchka, alone in his room, away from the crowd at the fair, anguishes over the dancing ballerina doll. In Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov's The Nutcracker (1891), Clara's nutcracker, a gift from the mysterious uncle/family friend/party guest, turns into a prince who escorts her into a romantic, preadolescent dreamworld.

Accompanied by a poem about China dolls and other infantilizing terms, Li-Jue's dancing dolls do the additional work of confronting racialized mechanisms of control over and desire for Asian women and girls. Li-Jue herself appeared on stage in the persona of a young girl playing with a stack of identical blond Barbie dolls while the chorus of "live dolls" returned to dance behind her. This was a humorous and witty critique of the ways in which Asian American girls and women are gendered and sexualized through mass media and consumerism — and, as Li-Jue pointed out, the reviewers "got it."

"Getting it" has long been the bane of modern dance and its audiences. It is at the historical root of the antagonistic relationship between the belief that dance is supposed to act as a universal language and the not-uncommon perception of modern dance as inaccessible. Which is why I was so surprised when Li-Jue complained that the reviewers got it. Li-Jue's point of contention was that reviewers focused their attention on the short but funny Barbie doll section of the dance and failed to write anything substantial about longer sections of what she considered complex choreography. According to Li-Jue, with the exception of the Barbie doll dance, she and her company spent months working on the choreography that comprised most of the evening-length performance. Li-Jue claimed that she and her dancers threw the two-minute Barbie doll dance together in fifteen minutes and, even though reviewers and audience members alike found it highly entertaining and politically successful, she would not do it again.

True to her words, Li-Jue's next work, The Nature of Nature, premiered in March 2001 at the Asian Pacific Cultural Center in Oakland, California, and offered something entirely different. Based on the Chinese theory of the five elements — earth, metal, wood, water, and fire — Li Jue cast five Asian American women, each dancing the role of one element. She choreographed a solo for each element that drew inspiration from the colors, emotions, actions, ideas, and places associated with it. Unlike in Rice Women, there were no Barbie dolls, no depictions of grandmothers playing mahjong, and no references to immigration, alienation, or oppression.

In her review of The Nature of Nature that appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Sima Belmar accused Li-Jue of perpetuating stereotypes. Belmar described the costumes, visual installations, and set design in great detail and even quoted directly from the text that accompanied the dancing. In fact, she had something to say about the entire performance except for the dancing itself. She wrote:

The dancers of Facing East are all beautiful movers. But the piece relied so heavily on the costumes, set, sound, and unexamined text, that the choreography looked like a lazy afterthought, one that might stir you from sleep, but not enough to get you out of bed. Stripped of its accoutrements, would there have been a dance at all? ... Facing East cites as its mission to present work that explores being Asian American and female. Thus far LiJue has done little more than serve up weakly ironic takes on stereotypes and slurs for our collective.

Belmar laments the absence of an identifiable critical edge in Li-Jue's choreographic vision of what it means to be Asian American and female. If this is the case and Li-Jue's danced answer is insufficient, then what is such an exploration of Asian American women supposed to look like? What does a critic like Belmar see as lacking in LiJue's choreographic answer? What does the work not do, when the audience is so close to the five Asian American women on stage that one can see and hear the breath pattern needed to barrel through space?

Working primarily in a Humphrey-Limon movement vocabulary, Li-Jue's choreography is situated clearly within a modern dance aesthetic that might be described as luscious and leggy modern dance. It is an aesthetic that requires a body versed in the logic of classical ballet lines, coupled with a flexible torso and a willingness to shift one's center line. Her conscious incorporation of an "Asian" aesthetic does not lie in the movement vocabulary but in her collaboration with an experimental taiko ensemble, set designers, costumers, and dancers. In The Nature of Nature, Asian and Asian American–ness appear as both form and authorship. She is Asian American, her dancers are Asian American, the musicians are Asian American, the set designer is Asian American, and the costume designer is Asian American. Her collaborators incorporate "Asian forms" into their compositions and set designs; however, Li-Jue herself does not.

If in Rice Women the inclusion of an Asian Americanist critique makes an exploration of Asian American–ness visible, does the lack of such an inclusion in The Nature of Nature render the exploration invisible? Li-Jue's collaboration goes unrecognized as an Asian Americanist move as The Nature of Nature fails to illuminate Asian American experiences when examined under a sociological lens. In other words, the way in which Li-Jue uses "Asian aesthetics" through her collaborative efforts in the absence of irony proves uncomfortable to watch since it teeters on the edge of autoexoticism. The Asian American cultural critic wants such autoexoticism to be sarcastic, campy, ironic, parodic, or at least to be performed by children or "regular" community people as part of a "multicultural cultural experience." As it stands, aesthetics and abstraction remain elusive topics for Asian American artists when their work is expected to offer some sort of overt sociological analysis or function as evidence of a socially conscious form of roots-type Asian-ness.

Let us look again at Li-Jue's choreography. The dancers are stunning in their athleticism. The woman dancing the role of Fire in The Nature of Nature is wearing a miniature red outfit with pompoms on her head. She darts mischievously through the taiko drums, steals a pair of drumsticks for herself, and plays with the band. Definitely modern dance with an Asian twist, but is it just modern dance with an Asian twist? It has been a long-held practice to allow Asian American artists the ability to merge Eastern forms and themes into the modern dance idiom, as long as these experiments do not appear to be the universally applicable movement vocabularies of modern dance training. Within the logic of modernist understandings, Li-Jue's modern dance experiments can only be innovative on the level of theme, whereas the choreography goes unnoticed even as the dancing itself is made visible by visibly Asian American bodies.

The reactions to Li-Jue's work and Li-Jue's subsequent response illustrate the multiple registers that articulating an "Asian American dance history" must attend to. From an Asian Americanist point of view, Li-Jue fails or refuses to articulate an overtly critical politics, while the aesthetics of her choreographic practice go unseen. From a dance point of view, Li-Jue can never occupy a central position within modern dance if modernist investments in aesthetics refuse to see the politics of how racialized bodies are cast within discourses of universality.

Locating Dance in Asian American Studies

The study of Asian American cultural practices has largely been concerned with the representation of Asian Americans in mainstream U.S. culture and the recognition of Asian American self-representational practices. In Asian American theater studies, Josephine Lee, Dorinne Kondo, and Karen Shimakawa look to theater as a cultural site, like that of film or literature, where Asian American playwrights negotiate their relationship to citizenship, personal and social history, and agency. As Esther Kim Lee observes, the majority of Asian American theatrical works that have been studied are text-based plays performed in a naturalistic style. She attributes this to a history in which many of the Asian American theater artists who began working in the 1960s modeled their theater companies on U.S. regional theater in terms of repertory.

To create acting opportunities, companies like East West Players in Los Angeles, California, produced mainstream musicals that featured all–Asian American casts in non–Asian American roles. These companies also provided an important venue for nurturing the creation of new works that featured Asian American stories and characters. To combat the over-the-top stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans on stage and screen, the theatrical convention of telling stories in a naturalistic mode would make for a powerful tool in the retelling of Asian American history and subjectivity. J. Lee refers to these plays as "family stories," in which the lives of Asian Americans are portrayed in mundane terms of everyday life. Plays written and performed in English allow Asian American characters to tell a legible story and demystify foreignness.

The vocabulary of abstract movement poses a difficult challenge in the retelling of Asian American stories. Unlike the ways in which dance has been written into diasporic African cultural history — as a mode of resistance to slavery, Jim Crow laws, the civil rights movement, and institutional racism — there is no pan–Asian American discourse about the role of dance in Asian America. There are specific instances in practices, like hula, Pilipino Cultural Night productions, and the revival of Khmer dance in western Massachusetts, in which discourses of survival and resistance toward cultural imperialism exist; however, the conditions of resistance are unique to each form's history. As a whole in the United States, Asian dance evokes something more pleasant than political resistance. It speaks to aestheticized notions of heritage in the form of either folk dance, as in the case of the ubiquitous fan dance featured at Chinese New Year's celebrations, or classical tradition, as in the case of Bharata Natyam performed for second-generation Indian girls' arangetrams (the classical Indian dancer's first solo performance). Although the forms might be products of political resistance, they are not perceived as such by the general public.

The absence of dance from Asian American studies speaks to larger issues about dance in relationship to the structure of the academy at large. In her history of theater studies, Shannon Jackson attempts to understand the historical forces that both include and marginalize theater and performance studies in the U.S. academy. At the core of her argument, Jackson identifies the ways in which "theory" comes to power as a defensive response to the unstable role of the humanities in increasingly corporatized universities.

Jackson locates much of this anxiety within the humanities, in English and literature departments under pressure to justify and identify objects of study. As a result,

the profession of literature has served as the primary vehicle for establishing the cultural capital of modern English-speaking universities and, hence, has also served as the barometer for gauging the legitimacy of other humanistic fields. ... Literature and English departments have produced some of the most significant and widely circulated critical paradigms in the humanities, models and frameworks that many drama, theatre, and performance studies have adopted despite their own anti-literary rhetoric and institutional location.

Theater studies, with its proximity to theater as a bodily practice, functions in a gendered relationship to literature such that the disavowal of practice and the adoption of literary methods of analysis masculinizes theater studies.

For this reason, the stakes for claiming dance within Asian American studies are high. Since Noverre's attempts to recuperate dance from the bottom of the professional hierarchy at the Academy Royale de la Musique and Danse in the eighteenth century, dance continues to sit at the bottom of the academic hierarchy. Aware that dance studies have been feminized in relationship to music and theater, dance scholars such as Susan Foster attempted to bring the subject of dance into academic discourse in the 1990s by speaking in the language of literary scholarship.

Even though Asian American studies takes up an oppositional space within the U.S. academy, the field replicates disciplinary hierarchies. Within Asian American studies, literature, history, sociology, and anthropology constitute core disciplines of study. Because of Asian American cultural studies' emphasis on literary analysis, it has become the primary mode of analyzing Asian American artistic practices. In other words, performance is made visible through the proliferation of scholarly studies, regardless of how marginalized the actual practice of performance remains within the physical spaces of the discipline.

It is no secret in the Asian American performance art community that ethnic studies programs, Asian American studies programs, and Asian Pacific Islander student organizations in U.S. colleges and universities operate as a touring circuit for Asian American performers looking for venues to present their work. This realm of presenting opportunities is often referred to informally, and in some cases disparagingly, as "the college circuit." On college campuses, established artists like Denise Uyehara, Jude Narita, Dan Kwong, 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, Here and Now, and TeAda Productions have found a receptive audience for artistic works that embody the ideas espoused by contemporary Asian American and ethnic studies scholarship.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Choreographing Asian America"
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Copyright © 2010 Yutian Wong.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
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Table of Contents

<P>Acknowledgments<BR>Introduction<BR>Situating Asian American Dance Studies<BR>Club O' Noodles' Laughter from the Children of War<BR>Rehearsing the Collective: A Performative Autoethnography<BR>Interlude The Amazing Chinese American Acrobat: Choreography as Methodology<BR>Mapping Membership: Class, Ethnicity, and the Making of Stories from a Nail Salon<BR>Writing Nail Salon<BR>Pedagogy of the Scantily Clad:<BR>Studying Miss Saigon in the Twenty-first Century<BR>Epilogue<BR>Notes<BR>Bibliography<BR>Index</P>

What People are Saying About This

Josephine Lee

"Choreographing Asian America takes us on an engrossing journey through Asian American dance and politics. Wong makes clear that dance has been woefully neglected in the growing scholarship in Asian American cultural criticism. Moving from the history of the 'Oriental dancing girl' to an extended analysis of Vietnamese American performance collective Club O'Noodles to the overbearing popularity of Miss Saigon, she lays out the challenges of writing about dance and performance in corporeal and kinetic terms. At times personal, philosophical, irreverent, and somber, Wong engages the most basic questions of Asian American bodies, movements, representation, desire, and dance."
Josephine Lee, author of Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage

Karen Shimakawa

“Choreographing Asian America deftly brings Asian American race/ethnicity studies and contemporary U.S. dance studies together and inaugurates a new (but long-overdue) field of Asian American dance studies. Wong’s nuanced ethnographic approach to the work of Club O’ Noodles gives us a richer understanding of Asian American performance’s aesthetic and political possibilities.”

From the Publisher

"Choreographing Asian America takes us on an engrossing journey through Asian American dance and politics. Wong makes clear that dance has been woefully neglected in the growing scholarship in Asian American cultural criticism. Moving from the history of the 'Oriental dancing girl' to an extended analysis of Vietnamese American performance collective Club O'Noodles to the overbearing popularity of Miss Saigon, she lays out the challenges of writing about dance and performance in corporeal and kinetic terms. At times personal, philosophical, irreverent, and somber, Wong engages the most basic questions of Asian American bodies, movements, representation, desire, and dance."—Josephine Lee, author of Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage

"Choreographing Asian America takes us on an engrossing journey through Asian American dance and politics. Wong makes clear that dance has been woefully neglected in the growing scholarship in Asian American cultural criticism. Moving from the history of the 'Oriental dancing girl' to an extended analysis of Vietnamese American performance collective Club O'Noodles to the overbearing popularity of Miss Saigon, she lays out the challenges of writing about dance and performance in corporeal and kinetic terms. At times personal, philosophical, irreverent, and somber, Wong engages the most basic questions of Asian American bodies, movements, representation, desire, and dance."—Josephine Lee, author of Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage

"Choreographing Asian America deftly brings Asian American race/ethnicity studies and contemporary U.S. dance studies together and inaugurates a new (but long-overdue) field of Asian American dance studies. Wong's nuanced ethnographic approach to the work of Club O' Noodles gives us a richer understanding of Asian American performance's aesthetic and political possibilities."—Karen Shimakawa, Performance Studies, NYU

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