Following are the reflections and questions of dancer and choreographer Peiling Kao, one of ten artists commissioned to respond to Trisha Brown’s Locus by creating new work as part of HMD’s 2016 Bridge Project, “Ten Artists Respond to Locus.” Kao, commissioned by Dohee Lee, created per[mute]ing, which she performed October 14 and 15 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
What does it mean to be an Asian dancer trained in Eurocentric dance forms and living in the U.S.? Why is (are) lineage(s) important to dance artists? How do dancers and choreographers relate to lineage differently? What frames an audience’s interpretations of my movement?
I entered Hope Mohr Dance’s 2016 Bridge Project: “Ten Artists Response to Locus” with the admiration of Trisha Brown’s legacy and the intention to learn the entire original Locus. As a professional dancer for over 20 years, I value training, just like athletes practice everyday to keep their bodies in shape. Besides that, I must keep exposing myself to what is contemporary to discover what I need for my current creative practice. Training makes me versatile and I like it. So before I came to the two-week workshop, I planned to create my response after I inhabited Locus, or at least to get a solid grasp of Trisha Brown’s technique. However, the two-week workshop with Diane was not what I expected. Even though we had physical training every day, Diane had bigger goals that required her to pay equal attention to 10 artists in the room from different disciplines. Given these constraints, it was not possible for Diane to teach us the complete dance in the detail that I had expected. I understood and respected what had she needed to do—to share and to explore with all of us. But as a result, during the workshop, my intentions for my response to Locus shifted.
There are rules and physical discipline, or training, within each dance lineage. I think it is important to have specific approaches to training for the purpose of unifying and codifying a movement language. Through these specific physical disciplines, dancers’ movements can make them recognizable as a Graham dancer, Cunningham dancer, or Trisha Brown dancer. I have trained for years intensively in Taiwan in ballet, Graham, Limon, Cunningham, improvisation, Tai-Chi, and Taiwanese/Chinese dance. I deeply connect to these techniques in my body. I appreciate my wide-ranging movement training, which has become my own hybrid physical language. As a dancer, I am grateful for a variety of dance tools, which allow me to be versatile and to have choices. But as a choreographer, my range of training can be frustrating. With my diverse sources, how can I create movement that is original? Is it possible that I carry so many lineages that I have a hard time finding my authenticity? If lineage is important to dancers, is it as important to choreographers?
During the workshop, I was dealing with my dancer’s mind: just teach me Locus, please! Frustration and impatience hit me and made me question whether I positioned myself as a dancer or choreographer in the project. There were source materials I cared about as a dancer, but not as a choreographer, and vice versa. For example: as a dancer, I cared about the details in the Locus phrasing: what initiates the movement, how to go from point A to point B, what is the quality of the movement.
But these questions were not necessarily important to me as a choreographer tasked with creating a response to the dance. As a choreographer, I found that it was valuable to hear about the historical context of the dance and the personal stories from the time that Trisha created Locus. As a choreographer, I liked to observe Diane, the way she talked, the way she moved and the way she described the quality of the movement. I thought to myself, “She is ‘so Trisha Brown.’” Diane reminded me of the way another teacher from my past, Shelley Senter, talked. Even though Diane and Shelley are very different people, their shared training with Trisha Brown still came through. Sometimes, I was irritated during the workshop and didn’t want to follow Dianne’s directions; at these times, my choreographer’s mind was stronger than my dancer’s mind. I noticed that once I let go of wanting to learn Locus solo as a dancer, I was set free. Having let go of my dancer identity, I felt less frustration. I became careless in a good way: I could simply be there in the workshop without any intention. The workshop with Diane made me realize that I give myself more permission to be in a place of unknowing as a choreographer than as a dancer, at least in the context of relating to a set piece of choreography as opposed to improvisation.
After the workshop in San Francisco, I went back to ‘paradise’, my new home in Hawai’i (where I just moved from the Bay Area). I decided to use Trisha’s sequence of numbers from the Locus score as a tool to create my response. I knew if I tried to address a specific subject through my work, I would get too brainy in the beginning of creative process and I would fail. So I chose to simply follow the task of using Trisha’s sequence of numbers. The first few days in the studio were pretty productive, and then I got heady and tried to edit the choreography every time I started rehearsing. I got stuck at the three-minute mark for a while and hated everything. This self-doubting, over-critical eye and judgment always happen when I look at myself in rehearsal footage with a dancer’s eye. I hated looking at myself and disliked every movement I did.
In the second week in the studio, things totally changed. I started to have fun creating and dealing with numbers even though I made less than 8 minutes of movement in 25 hours of studio time. The piece was not even finished one week before the show opened. But I believed the ending of the piece would come to me when I arrived at the performance space. And it did. Reflecting on this experience, I now realize it is a privilege and a joy to create and to perform my own work, but only when my dancer and choreographer minds work well together.
The title of my piece per[mute]ing describes my creative process. Like Trisha Brown, I made movement variations to ‘indicate’, ‘touch’ or ‘go through’ the points in the imaginary cube. I repeated the Locus number sequence two-and-a-half times. Towards the end of the creative process, I found myself ignoring and skipping the “27” position (indicating the center of the cube) a lot; in doing this, I was unconsciously taking out the “self” position. per[mute]ing also relates to bigger issues of dance training and lineage. In making the piece, I incorporated the movement from all the dance forms I've encountered, adopted, rejected, and absorbed living in this Taiwanese dancing body. The dance lineages that I carry in my body via years of movement training have shaped my identity as a mover and choreographer.
I was honored and grateful to receive a lot of positive feedback after performing per[mute]ing in Ten Artists Respond to Locus. Critic Allan Ulrich said that it had “a curious serenity.” Critic David Moreno wrote:
Kao dismantled [Locus] into something soulful, breaking down sharp lines and gestures into fluid presence. She danced without the 4×4 confinement suggesting something much bigger, freer, and authentically her own. Kao’s dancing is always a pleasure to behold, always deeply genuine.
It has long been interesting to me that no one seems have a problem seeing me as an Asian dancer when I do Eurocentric dance forms. Ironically, when I did Taiwanese/Chinese movement in per[mute]ing, viewers started seeking cultural meanings. An audience asked me if I was “trying to empower my Asian identity.” But I have never thought of empowering my Taiwanese identity by using Taiwanese movement in my work. The audience’s feedback led me to several questions: How do people assume and perceive the separation between Western and Eastern dance forms? Why do I need to do anything to “empower” my Taiwanese identity? Why does the doing of Taiwanese movement or speaking Taiwanese suddenly allow people to see me as Taiwanese? From my perspective I am already a Taiwanese, and nothing can change that. There is no need for empowerment.
In conclusion, there are conceptual and cultural questions that arose through this project for me. I am interested in continuing the ongoing conversation with choreographers who carry dance lineages. I am curious about what lineage means and does to the choreographers. As a Taiwanese artist who chose to move to the U.S. in my mid-30’s, I might have different experiences from people who are American-born Asian or Asians who have involuntarily immigrated to the U.S. Despite my cultural background, what I ended up expressing in per[mute]ing (from an unconscious/creative place, not with any explicit/political purpose) was simply in my dancing body and the movement. When I entered the space, audiences saw my training; they saw my lineages, they saw who I am. per[mute]ing was abstract. What people felt I wanted to say had less to do with my intentions and more to do with their own interpretations.
Peiling's above reflections led to the interesting below exchange between us (Hope Mohr and Peiling Kao):
HM: Your words remind me that often whiteness is not perceived because it is the assumed “neutral." As soon as you stop dancing whiteness, somehow you are seen, and/or seen differently.
PK: Yes. What do you mean by dancing whiteness? It leads to the another question: What is the purpose when many dance companies try to be inclusive about dancers' races? It may look diverse when showing work on stage with people/dancers of color. But if the dancers training background are basically Eurocentric, or the dance movement is still Eurocentric technique, is that still whiteness?
HM: Laila Lalami's article on whiteness helps me articulate what I mean by dancing whiteness. She writes:
"White" is seen as a default, the absence of race..."White" is a category that has afforded [whites] an evasion from race, rather than an opportunity to confront it.
Perhaps dancing whiteness means dancing under the presumption of abstraction?
Program Notes for per[mute]ing (premiere)
Commissioned Artist: Peiling Kao
Curated by: Dohee Lee
Performers: Peiling Kao (dance) and Tracy Taylor Grubbs (visual art)
“The dance lineages that I carry in my (visually Asian) body via years of
(hybrid) movement training have shaped my identity as a mover and
choreographer. Even as I value these diverse movement vocabularies in
my practice, I delve into the assumed/perceived separations of Eastern
and Western dance through this response to Locus.” - Peiling Kao
per[mute]ing was made possible by Dean’s Travel Fund, University of
Hawai’i at Manoa, and the Lo Man-fei Dance Fund, Cloud Gate Culture
and Arts Foundation, Taiwan.
per[mute]ing featured a painting by commissioned artist Tracy Taylor
Grubbs: Lineage (Ink Scroll)
“Working with Trisha’s Brown’s combination of structure and play,
this scroll painting was created using six specific gestures and one of
three different brushes: a mop found on the street, a brush taped to a
long stick and a set of rags tied to one foot.” –Tracy Taylor Grubbs