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Friday, April 12, 2024

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PerformanceDanceFor 15 years, Lenora Lee Dance has tackled immigration...

For 15 years, Lenora Lee Dance has tackled immigration and carceral trauma

Two new works highlight Chinese and Latin migrant experience in El Paso and California's prison-to-ICE detention pipeline.

How do you know when your work is done? An artistic director and choreographer is likely to assert that a dance may change with every performance, that the ephemeral nature of the artform renders most dances impermanent and ever-changing. And yet, for a dance maker addressing issues of social justice, specifically US immigration, the work apparently is never done.   

For 15 years with her company Lenora Lee Dance (LLD), Artistic Director and Choreographer Lenora Lee has maintained a sustained pursuit of issues related to immigration, incarceration, global conflict, and its impacts, particularly on women and families. Her company creates works that are both set in public and private spaces, intimate and at the same time large scale, immersive and interactive, rendering beautifully layered dance performances of storytelling and living history. Lee is never at a loss for content and yet her renderings are always unique, her commitment to her subjects always tangible, and the message that there is more work to do is always true.

Lenora Lee Dance will present the world premiere of two new works Fri/2-Sun/4, In Visibility and Convergent Waves: EP, at Dance Mission Theatre, Sf. Both pieces use dance, narrative storytelling, video, and archival images to impart the lived experiences of migrants and justice workers as they fight to change the policies that both historically and currently criminalize immigrants, separate families, and contribute to generational trauma.

Convergent Waves: EP highlights experiences of AAPI and Latin American migration in El Paso,TX over the decades and as Title 42 came to an end in May 2023. In Visibility is an immersive piece inspired by the organizing to stop the prison-to-ICE detention pipeline in California.The dance makes use of Dance Mission Theater’s common spaces: the lobby, hallways, studio and stairway, focusing on the separation of families and mass detention of immigrants as forms of incarceration. It serves as a meditation on reconciliation speaking to the power of individuals and communities to transcend. 

“Most of the time I don’t feel like works are finished, but as finished as they can be,” Lee explains. “In the past three to four years I’ve been doing interview-based projects which almost doubles the amount of time required to create the performance pieces. Listening to the 12 to 30 interviews per project over and over, editing them, placing them in the score, and seeing how people respond to them.”

Lee’s creative process relies heavily on content derived from these interviews and the creativity of the skilled dancers of her company, who process the material through discussions, writing and, to some degree, their own personal experiences. The performers and dance collaborators of LLD’s 2024 home season are Victoria Amador, Lynn Huang, SanSan Kwan, Sebastian Le, Gilberto Martínez Martínez, Johnny Huy Nguyễn, and Catalina O’Connor.  

Dancer Johnny Huy Nguyễn describes the creation process: “The movement I create draws upon the histories that live in my body and an embodied conversation with the various interviewees. It has been eye-opening to learn more about each person’s struggles, triumphs, and histories and to learn more about the exclusionary policies that are affecting so many people’s lives. The biggest thing in working on this project is how we strive to bring the humanity of each person to the forefront as dancers and channel their stories because they need to be heard.”

Lenora Lee photo by Hien Huynh

“You learn and you study choreography in an institution,” Lee adds. “You learn how to put skills into practice and how to allow them to speak past your training. What are you saying with your work? What’s possible? What transcends the vocabulary. It’s not just sentences and paragraphs that we’re putting together.”

Lee reflects that it was a leap of faith that got her into dance in the first place. She began as a science major at UCLA and soon changed her major to dance. “No one in my family was a professional artist, so I didn’t know what that meant or how a life in dance was going to be realized,” she says. “I was doing genealogy research when my interest in immigration policy and issues began.” Her professors, as well as long-time mentor, saxophonist-composer Francis Wong, encouraged her to research various communities, including communities she grew up in, as a way of focusing her dance making. 

In 2008  she met long-time collaborator Olivia Ting and together they started integrating large scale video projection with live dance. “It blew us away, “ Lee says. “The power of creating a visual environment, how it can inform the movement, and how these disciplines compliment each other.” The team created Passages: For Lee Ping To in 2010 about Lee’s grandparents’ emigration to the US through Angel Island. Passages also included work by writer-poet Genny Lim who was instrumental in transcribing the poems on the walls of the detention center into a book entitled Island.  

“Some folks felt our work was physicalizing what people were experiencing in detention, making those experiences accessible to everyday persons,” Lee reflects. “This combination of looking at historical injustices and expressing it through contemporary artistic disciplines, proved there was a different kind of impact that could manifest. It’s often difficult to engage people in historical content such that they can relate to it. Through different artistic disciplines an audience receives various sensorial information that helps them connect to the multiple layers of storytelling.”

Dancer Catalina O’Connor shares, “Hearing people who have crossed borders speak about their own experiences reminds me of my family members and it’s very powerful to hear their voices on stage. Although we all have ties to the material, these experiences are not ours and we have worked as a cast and director to be ethical conduits of the information.”

Lee adds that doing this work is not without the personal challenge of embodying and internally processing the experiences of community members interviewed, and she points to her strong meditation practice for the last 15 years, combined with imagery-based exercises she has incorporated into the rehearsal process, as her way of managing self-care for her and her dancers. “It’s helpful to clear and figure out how to have a level of neutrality and understand what your personal experiences and challenges are versus that of other people.”  

Meanwhile, anti-immigrant sentiment is at a high in the US and it’s Lee’s goal to keep offering audiences the perspectives of those working and advocating in the field pushing to create change. “I’m afraid that we’re going to keep going in this direction and it’s going to get worse. Challenges that migrants, immigrants and descendants face, that advocates face, are extensive. The embracing of a more intimate perspective is what I want people to be exposed to through these performances. It’s taking a look at what the stark realities are playing out in front of us in the US.”

LENORA LEE DANCE 15TH ANNIVERSARY SEASON Fri/2 and Sat/3 at 8pm and Sun/4 at 2pm. Tickets and more info here.

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