The second of three installments of “Moving Dialogs: Culture in Motion” on May 9, a collaboration between See Chicago Dance and the Chicago Cultural Alliance, shared some things in common with the series’ first event at the Haitian American Museum of Chicago (HAMOC). This time, the festivities were held at the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago (CAMOC), located in the heart of Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood. Both the HAMOC and CAMOC events began with food, drink and lively conversation, followed by a dance performance from Valerie Alpert Dance Company (VADCO), who collaborated with CAMOC to create a new work-in-progress inspired by pieces from the museum’s collection.
Established in 2005, CAMOC’s artifacts commemorate the experiences of Chinese immigrants to the American Midwest. It’s an appropriately acute lens for the gleaming Raymond B. and Jean T. Lee Center, a fully renovated space of modest proportions which opened in 2010 after a fire destroyed the museum’s building and approximately 80% of its collection.
A narrow reading room on the museum’s fourth floor was lined with seats along its perimeter; another two lines of chairs were positioned back-to-back in the center of the room. Alpert built her dance to travel through a corridor just outside the space, and in the lanes created by these lines of chairs. It provided nearly everyone with a partially obstructed view of Alpert’s choreography – a task she said was a challenge to create given her unfamiliarity with creating work outside the traditional proscenium.
Most of the guests had to move in order to see the whole dance, or simply accept what was happening out of view and use their imaginations to fill in the dots. From my vantage point, I couldn’t see dancers Bridget Grissom, Jeannine Potter or Amanda Ramirez sorting through piles of clothing as Kerry Leung played a beautiful tune on xiao, a traditional Chinese instrument similar to a flute.
I had full view of the company’s men, however, and sat for some time watching Matthew Kinney and André Santiago faced with noses against the wall. Kinney and Santiago wore red masks that extended like Slinkies when they stepped away from the wall. This effect was dramatic, and compelling enough to demand my attention, but curiosity got the better of me and I rose to change my position so I could see what the women were doing.
“We can’t see!” said a seated guest whose view I had just blocked, but I kept my ground. It reminded me of the week I’d spent in Beijing – the lack of personal space and fearlessness strangers had toward touching me. I eventually learned that to get where you’re going, you’ve got to stick your elbows out and move fearlessly through a crowd, and that metaphor resonated deeply with me in that moment, knowing that I was sacrificing someone else’s view for the sake of my own.
Alpert knew that many of her guests wouldn’t see the beginning and end of her piece, both of which took place in that hallway, or a middle section comprised of four dancers crouching on the ground miming a game of mah jongg. And her decisions point metaphorically toward a larger theme of Moving Dialogs.
This series connects dance artists to institutions whose cultures they do not share. Alpert and her dancers, who are presumably not Chinese, and whose medium is Eurocentric concert dance, translated what they gleaned from interviews and engagement with cultural artifacts about the experiences of Chinese immigrants and their families. Through her choreographic choices – particularly those related to the use of space – Alpert seemed to acknowledge that it’s not possible to really see the whole picture in a matter of days or weeks.
Many of these decisions were inspired by a papier-mache, silk, wood and feather diorama. Alpert explained that the piece, attributed to the Ling Long Museum which opened with the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933, in addition to a handcrafted food box, an intricately carved mah jongg set and a bridal sedan, encouraged her to think about containment.
Also key to the piece is the idea that the forced, one-dimensional perspective created by the diorama relates to themes like conformity and assimilation. This is complemented by a series of “paper sons” documents, which are fake or forged family histories used to gain admittance to the United States during periods of anti-Chinese sentiment. One such set of documents are those of Eugene Kung, who was in attendance with his wife Ruth for the Moving Dialogs event and spoke about the experience of entering the United States under the guise of being someone else.
Actor and storyteller Dr. Ada Cheng performed text relating to these paper sons documents, drawing a line to the present by also reciting lines from current immigration questionnaires. The piles of clothing are a reference to Chinese hand laundries, a purely authentic experience of Chinese immigrant men. Chinese men, who by some estimations outnumbered women 100 to 1 in Chicago, rarely worked as launderers in their homeland. Prohibited from most professions in the United States, hand laundries were vehicles to economic success for many immigrant families. The automated home washing machine has all but vanquished the hand laundry today; fortunately, the Chinese Exclusion Act which practically forced immigrant men to work in the “low-status” laundry business is gone, too.
It’s quite remarkable the number of themes that were crammed into this 20-minute dance, and yet it didn’t feel cluttered or over-complicated. Alpert admitted to the intensity of some of her conversations with CAMOC executive director Mabel Menard during the process, but the first thing she said at the top of the evening was how Moving Dialogs had changed her, and how differently she thinks about dance.
Lauren Warnecke is the Dance writer/critic for The Chicago Tribune
Photography by Philamonjaro