Moved by Life

Giving artistic voice to the experiences of Asian Americans

California Arts Council
Jul 8 · 10 min read

featuring Lenora Lee, Director, Lenora Lee Dance
as interviewed by Kimberly Brown, California Arts Council

Still from “In the Skin of Her Hands,” a dance work inspired by the lives and experiences of cancer survivors. Featuring LLD dancers Jory Horn and Wei-Shan Lai. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

ince 2007, the Lenora Lee Dance company has integrated contemporary dance, film, music, and research, gaining increasing attention for its sustained pursuit of issues related to immigration and global conflict, and their impacts — particularly on women and families.

With works set in both public and private spaces, intimate while large-scale, inspired by individual stories and community strength, Lenora Lee Dance pushes the envelope of multimedia and immersive dance performance that connects various styles of movement and music to culture, history, and human rights issues. At times the pieces are crafted for the proscenium, or underwater, or in the air, and at times they are site-responsive, immersive, and interactive. More than 130,000 people have been touched by the company’s art, which has grown to encompass the creation, presentation, and screening of films, museum and gallery installations, civic engagement, and educational programming.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

KB: What does Lenora Lee Dance mean to you personally, to your company members, and to the greater community?

LL: Lenora Lee Dance gives artistic voice to the experiences of Asian Americans. Our communities are under attack, while at the same time providing much of the front-line work in society as health care providers and service workers. Our works are imperative to the integrity of our communities because they share our truths, increasing the impact of our contributions and experiences at a local and national level.

Eighty percent of our twenty artistic collaborators and dancers are Asian and Asian American. Our participants and audiences are a unique mix of community workers, low-income residents, scholars, emerging to master artists, activists, professionals, entrepreneurs, and educators, deeply rooted in the Chinatown and Asian American communities of San Francisco.

By integrating ethnographic work, we have provided the opportunities to research and make known the triumphs, struggles, and challenges of individuals and communities often overlooked — cancer survivors, immigrants, refugees, formerly incarcerated people, veterans, survivors of domestic abuse, health care professionals, and community advocates — what they have faced here in the United States, while putting a universal lens on these experiences globally.

Art is a platform for cultural practices, beliefs, and the expression of worldviews and political views. It provides art makers and their communities the ability to voice the experiences and perspectives of underrepresented individuals and communities from within the communities. It is a first and true voice, not one given by those in power, not used to stigmatize or categorize groups as “other.”

Immersive performance has broken conventional boundaries of theatrical performance, taking out the divide of “us and them,” in the resounding voice of “we.” Its magnitude has grown in incredible ways over the last decade.

Our work is very much about the artists, designers, and collaborators we create with. Building a strong community and team is what allows us to make the magic happen. The group understands the gravity of the topics we research and create on, and feels a sense of contribution and purpose in building the pieces from the ground up. Art and life are innately intertwined. The more integrated we are with various facets of our lives and work, the more harmonious and magnificent they are.

KB: In 2019, your company transformed Angel Island into an immersive experience to remember and recreate the experience of Chinese immigrant detainees. As storytellers, what ties do you see between art and cultural consciousness?

LL: Art is a vehicle through which cultural consciousness can speak. Consciousness does not always come through art, nor does art always demonstrate a level of cultural consciousness, appreciation, nor vow for equity and justice. What ties art and cultural consciousness together are the artists creating the work and the connections they develop between the work and those who participate, witness, view, collaborate, and fund art.

Still from multimedia dance project “Within These Walls,” featuring performer Hien Huynh. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

Art is a platform for cultural practices, beliefs, and the expression of worldviews and political views. It provides art makers and their communities the ability to voice the experiences and perspectives of underrepresented individuals and communities from within the communities. It is a first and true voice, not one given by those in power, not used to stigmatize or categorize groups as “other.”

As a first voice, art elevates cultural consciousness, and provides a creative bullhorn to amplify this consciousness so that it resounds far and wide, so that it calls those who are ready into action, so that it shifts perspective on what truth is, and what is othering and divisive. There is an ethnocentricity within American society that has brought us to an incredibly divisive place within this country and globally. We continually have to fight for equity, human rights, gender equality, women’s rights, the rights of LGBTQ people, the right to reverse climate change.

KB: What is the process for creating your work? How do you educate your company in order to be teachers themselves? Can you describe some of the multimedia and collaborative aspects that make your work so unique?

LL: Our process begins with identifying the themes and issues we’d like to work on, doing initial research and identifying collaborators and partner organizations to work with, and potential venues for performances, installations, and engagement activities. We then go through several rounds of fundraising for each project, which includes writing local foundation, city, state, and national grants on our own and in conjunction with our partner organizations.

Depending on the project timeline and when funding is secured, we will go into a deeper research phase, oftentimes engaging with a particular participant population through creative workshops, interviews, and content development. Simultaneously, we will begin creation of choreography. I will generate movement and collaborate with the dance artists and occasionally with select participants for the choreography. In many of our projects, I’ll have the dance artists write on similar topics and create movement from their experiences. Current dance artists we are collaborating with include Gabriel Christian, Clarissa Dyas, Anna Greenberg Gold, Gama Hsu, Lynn Huang, Hien Huynh, SanSan Kwan, Melissa Lewis, Megan Lowe, Chloe Luo, Johnny Nguyen, and Boston-based dancers Naoko Brown, IJ Chan, and Flora Kim.

As I develop the structure of the performance project, and determine how to sequence choreography, I will work simultaneously with the designers. For most of our previous projects, Olivia Ting has done the graphic design and media design. Francis Wong and Tatsu Aoki are composers and musicians whose original creative music we integrate into the piece. Writer and poet Genny Lim has been instrumental in generating and providing text and poetry for many of the projects based on immigration and the Chinese American experience. We are including work of writer and rapper AK Black in one of our current projects, “And the Community Will Rise.”

Since 2009, Olivia Ting has been designing video projection for us on the outside of buildings, like Fort Mason’s General’s Residence, on multiple surfaces in the de Young Museum’s Wilsey Court, on the walls surrounding the swimming pool at the YMCA. We’ve done shoots underwater, in historic locations, and have created multimedia projection and films from the material. With the various artistic disciplines, our performances become multifaceted experiences where audiences are immersed in layers of visual, aural, visceral, and tactile content, enriching the stories and enhancing the depth of the material.

KB: The last year has seen real recognition for arts power to help with healing and resilience. What are some of the challenges your company has experienced recently, and how does the experience of the challenges of the last year translate to the future for Lenora Lee Dance?

LL: The greatest challenge for us has been dealing with catastrophic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the financial, emotional, and psychological burdens of trying to survive on a daily basis through it all, as a dance company and as artists and administrators. A success has been the added time to plan for current projects, extending our creative process timelines after many years of intense productivity. It provides the understanding and benefits of having a longer creation period, which could help with the sustainability of the company and its programming.

The company has had less direct access to the SF Chinatown residents for its current projects since the start of COVID, due to shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders, and precautions preventing outbreaks in the most densely populated area of the city.

Dancers participate in a virtual rehearsal for “And the Community Will Rise” during COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders in April 2020.

We have had to work through the postponement and cancellation of most of our projects and engagements due to the pandemic. While we were able to have a three-month rehearsal process, the implementation of creating together virtually has proved challenging. We went through one month of outdoor and socially distanced rehearsal processes, which were halted due to a family member of one of the dancers testing positive for COVID. We have had to err on the side of safety and health adhering to the local and statewide health mandates, no matter how much we’d like to progress in the creative process.

We have responded artistically by planning film and outdoor performance versions of the projects. We are also working on connecting the content of our projects with the current push for equity and social justice that was sparked nationally with the killing of George Floyd and ensuing national and global protests against the unfair and inequitable systemic injustices placed on BIPOC communities, seeing equally as important the narratives and experiences of our BIPOC and immigrant artists, collaborators, and communities who have lived within marginalized pockets of society for generations. The lack of resources, visibility, and support for our marginalized communities needs greater voice and attention, which we are pushing for in our work.

Art creates energetic connections and sparks dialogues that can be subtle, but also perspective-changing.

While the foreseeable future is stricken by the pandemic and economic recession, we are strategizing innovative ways to bring back the vibrant artistic experiences we have been committed to creating for over 13 years. Our works provide a unique and a much-needed perspective on the contributions of pan-Asian communities nationally, with deep roots particularly in the Bay Area, making up 33 percent of the population.

KB: What does the word “dream” mean to you?

LL: To dream means to open up the possibilities in magnificent ways. It means to release yourself and others around you from restrictions that bind you in order to see a larger perspective, happening, or experience to work toward. To dream means to go beyond perceived limits of what is possible, without fear, in the hands of hope, trust, and vision. To dream means to break from old standards and beliefs, to realize the unimaginable.

KB: What is your biggest dream for arts and culture in California?

LL: My biggest dream for arts and culture in California is for them to continue to grow, flourish, have increasing visibility, and greater appreciation within the general population as a driving force within society. It is more difficult to quantify the impact of arts and culture, but they are a part of everyone’s life in some capacity. When individuals, communities, and society can actually realize and acknowledge just how much positive, creative, and healing impact arts and culture have, there will be more support for it. What I’ve found is that people want to be inspired and moved by life, and we as artists have the ability to do that. People more often than not need to be personally touched by artistic or creative experiences and inspired by artists. The act of collaborating for the greater good of others, society, and the earth through innovative means is powerful, and oftentimes we do not realize the power of connection comes from the artistic process and from witnessing the art and artists themselves.

Art creates energetic connections and sparks dialogues that can be subtle, but also perspective-changing. Awareness is called for to recognize the subtleties involved.

The California Arts Council has supported the groundbreaking and representative work of Lenora Lee Dance for more than a decade.

ABOUT LENORA LEE

Lenora Lee Dance is directed by Lenora Lee of San Francisco. Lee has been a dancer, choreographer, and artistic director for the past twenty-three years in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. She has been an artist fellow at the de Young Museum, a Djerassi resident artist, a visiting scholar at New York University from 2012 to 2016, an artist in residence at Dance Mission, a 2019 United States Artists fellow, and a recipient of the Creative Work Fund, Kenneth Rainin Foundation Open Spaces, National Endowment for the Arts, and California Arts Council Creative California Communities grants with Chinatown Community Development Center and Asian Improv aRts. Lenora Lee Dance is a 2021 New England Foundation for the Arts National Dance Project Production grantee.

Learn more at www.lenoraleedance.com.

California Arts Council

Strengthening arts, culture & creative expression as tools to cultivate a better California for all.