Homegrown dance talent Lenora Lee presents her new work “Passages” this weekend in the Mission. In a Q&A with the Appeal, she expands upon her motivation for the work and the artistic process behind the curtain.
Becca Hirschman: “Passages” commemorates Angel Island Immigration Station’s centennial, and it’s also homage to your grandmother. Would you expand a little on this?
Lenora Lee: Angel Island Immigration Station was known as the “Guardian of the Western Gate.” All told, between 1910-1940, 170,000 Chinese were detained and processed through detailed interrogation proceedings on Angel Island for periods of up to over a year. Their passage to the United States was not welcomed nor easily obtained. As such it is a symbol of the US policy of Exclusion toward Chinese adopted in 1882 and finally repealed in 1943 (although restrictions were in place until 1965).
Lee Ping To, my grandmother on my mother’s side, immigrated to the US through Angel Island Immigration Station in 1940, the year the station closed. Lee Ping To (Alice Lee) is her paper name. Her real name is Lee Tui Jean. In order for my grandfather to bring his wife over he had to purchase an identity, a paper name, from someone else. That was the only way they could be united after 10 years. Otherwise she was prohibited from entering the country due to the 1882 Exclusion Act, even though they were married. So she had to pretend to be someone else.
Where: Dance Mission Theater, 3316 24th St (at Mission St)
When:Fri-Sat, Sept. 24-25, 8PM and Sun, Sept. 26, 2:30PM
Tickets: $14/in advance, $20/door; purchase online or via phone toll-free at 800.838.3006
Lee Ping To is left waiting for over a decade across oceans, not knowing if she will ever reunite with her husband, Lee Ock Kee, in America. Her story unfolds in movement, with underlying visual metaphors of the hand and fingerprint as a map to one’s personal history and identity. The name written on your immigration papers may be real or not. Your true identity is embedded in (the curvature of) your skin and embodied, and is passed down through the legacy of the next generations.
You grew up in San Francisco. What’s kept you grounded to the Bay Area?
I grew up in San Francisco, received my BA in Dance: Choreography & Performance at UCLA, spent a year abroad studying Chinese language and culture in China, then worked and performed in SF for six years after. I choreographed and performed in New York for four years and have been back in SF for two. Living in New York really opened my eyes to the drive and desire to develop artistically. One has to work very hard to make a living as an artist there. People like to engage in and talk about the work, to develop and further it.
In order to create the kind of work I am making–interdisciplinary dance / multimedia pieces–, I’ve needed a strong foundation and base of support. Growing up and [then] working with artists for a good eight years in SF has allowed me the time to develop deep artistic relationships. It has provided me exposure to a number of communities and the opportunities for funding and support.
For this project in particular, I have tapped into and shared with almost every community I’ve grown up in in the Bay Area. We’ve done lecture / demonstrations in San Francisco State University Asian American Studies classes and Dance classes.
We’ve done outreach in and asked for participation from the Chinatown communities at the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum and within the Cameron House youth group program. We showed an excerpt of the work and took part in Centennial Commemorations on Angel Island. We also shared an excerpt through the 2nd Sundays series put on by Dancers’ Group and CounterPULSE.
Since the piece is based in both personal and historical content, it’s been a jumping off point of discussion about immigration during that particular time period. I am able to talk about both Chinese culture and the immigrant experience at that time in a contemporary way through the telling of my grandparents’ story. The story is told through dance, music, poetry, sound, video, installation, lighting, and set design.
Is your family still here?
Yes, both of my parents were born in San Francisco and have lived their lives here.
What are their thoughts about “Passages”?
My mother is proud and feels it is nice I am willing to look into the history, and do the research about the experiences on Angel Island. She’s proud that I am taking the initiative. My grandparents did not talk to her and her sisters much about it. They didn’t find out about what their parents went through until they were adults.
Several years ago my mother and her sisters went to the National Archives and Records Administration in San Bruno to find my grandparents immigration documents. In the piece I use some of the interrogation text as well as poetry by Genny Lim and poems from the book “Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940” by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung.
“Island” is a compilation of the history, stories, and poetry carved on the walls of the barracks on Angel Island, as well as interviews of detainees, staff, interpreters, and immigration officials.
What kind of research did you do to prepare?
I made a solo piece about my grandmother in 1997, after her passing. Part of my intent to study in China was to gain a better understanding of her and the culture I grew up in. She spoke Chinese and I spoke English, so growing up, I always felt I could not understand her. After she passed I interviewed my mother and her three sisters about my grandmother’s life and then generated material for the solo piece based on the interviews. In…”Passages,” part of her story is told through the eyes of my aunt Shirley Lee.
I visited Angel Island three times in preparation for making the piece. I read through “Island” and a play by Genny Lim, “Paper Angels” that was just performed in the San Francisco Fringe Festival by a touring cast from New York. I’ve read through several sets of immigration and interrogation documents and have seen other theater, dance, gallery, film, and music works based on the Chinese immigration experience through Angel Island. The Chinese Historical Society of America Museum and Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation have been great resources for historical documentation and information.
You have a strong cast of collaborators. How did you chose who you wanted to work with?
I have worked with saxophonist/composer Francis Wong for many years. I’ve always been inspired by his work and his ability to make performance a transformative experience.
I’ve been working with media designer Olivia Ting for the last two years. She has a great ability to contextualize and synthesize information into an overall visual landscape. Her attention to detail, nuance, and storytelling through video and sound is intense and incredibly sophisticated.
I have worked with poet/playwright Genny Lim on numerous occasions and am always moved by her profound sense of depth and compassion as a writer and performer.
I had the opportunity to work with lighting designer Patty-Ann Farrell once before and have seen her beautiful large scale designs at the Palace of Fine Arts in the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival and was connected to her through Japanese dance/taiko artist, Melody Takata.
What inspired you the most throughout the creative process?
Throughout this entire creative process, I’ve felt the piece has only been able to manifest through the support of all the communities I’ve been a part of. “Passages” is really a tribute to the 170,000 Chinese who were processed on Angel Island between 1910-1940. It is in honor of their experiences and struggles.
It is in memory what my grandparents had to endure in leaving their lives, identities, and family behind in China. This is what drives the piece. I feel a great need to tell and share these stories. As my mother said, the stories were not openly talked about within the family and community. “Passages” gives voice to their experiences. It gives voice to these experiences that are in some form connected to the 500,000 Chinese currently living in the Bay Area.
What about challenges or difficulties?
I have had a four-month period to build the work, and feel like I would greatly benefit from a longer creative process. I am collaborating with a dancer from New York, Kevin Ho, so part of the process has been bi-coastal, which is enriching being inspired by the east coast again.
Describe your movement style.
Japanese drumming (taiko), tai chi, gung fu and karate, forms I study or have studied, bring me to tradition and to cultures I have a great affinity toward and ancestral roots in. What becomes woven into the fabric of my dance is the body’s understanding, in the muscle memory, of what it is to be in confrontation, defense, as well as in harmony, with fiery velocity.
Moreover, the dance is informed by the body’s understanding of what it is to be the driving heartbeat of song and community spirit. My movement vocabulary is also influenced by what are distinctly American art forms: modern dance, Sign Language, contact improvisation, and jazz music. It is within the detailed narrative gesture of the hands colliding and collaborating with the striking physicality and partnering within contact improvisation vocabulary, where a dynamic visceral language develops, one that is reflective of intimate connection and storytelling.
“Passages” will also be presented in New York Nov. 5-7th at the John Ryan Theater as part of White Wave’s Wave Rising Series.