Asian Dancers, A Balancing Act

June 20, 2007

Sixty years ago Asian dance pioneer Michio Ito chose deportation back to Japan over detention in a U.S. internment camp. In 1942 Yuriko, later a Martha Graham legend, taught dance classes and staged the Nutcracker Suite in Lot 60 at the Gila River Relocation Center, where she was interned with 13,000 other American citizens. Sono Osato, star of Ballet Theatre, Broadway, and Hollywood, escaped the anti-Japanese sentiment of the time by dancing under her mother’s maiden name, Fitzpatrick, but still wasn’t allowed to dance west of the Mississippi.

Today, most dance artists of Asian descent don’t experience the same level of discrimination, but they do face obstacles working in this country. The struggles can differ between first-generation refugees and those with century-old family histories in the U.S. Many newly arrived Asian artists speak little English and are far from family and friends. Even those with families here don’t tend to get much encouragement from their parents. As Portland, Oregon choreographer Minh Tran says, “My mother would always remind me we risked our lives fleeing the communists in Vietnam. Why would I give up a college scholarship to starve as a dancer?” But he and thousands of others have populated the American dance scene from ballet to Broadway and everywhere in between.

Choreographer Jamie H. J. Guan points out, “You arrive in the U.S. at zero and start all over.” He had been a member of Peking Opera Troupe No. 1 for 15 years, performing hundreds of wu sheng martial arts warrior roles before immigrating in 1984. He’d toured America twice and performed for Nixon during his historic trip to China. But Guan had never desired to come to the U.S. until he fell in love and married an American. With help from his wife, he managed to land an audition for David Henry Hwang’s Tony Award-winning play M. Butterfly. The producers were so impressed they asked him to choreograph for the show. He quickly developed a reputation for exciting stagings of Peking Opera. He has consulted on Broadway and off, choreographed a commercial for Coca-Cola, and collaborated with Debbie Allen on a TV special.

But even with a resume like his, Guan says finding work “is still like trying to find the needle.” There isn’t an overwhelming demand for his expertise even with the recent popularity of martial art movies like Hero or House of Flying Daggers. He adds that Asian American-focused works like the recent Broadway revival of Flower Drum Song can’t maintain an audience. “American audiences don’t want to be confused. They don’t want chop suey. They want the other world.” He says the future is international. He now works on bringing Broadway productions to the increasingly powerful Chinese market and, conversely, the Peking Opera to the U.S.

Growing up Vietnamese Irish American in suburban Rhode Island, I didn’t have any Asian friends and I heard plenty of racist taunts from other kids. I was eternally cast for the Chinese variation in The Nutcracker even though I was entirely unsuited for the multiple pirouettes and petite allegro in the choreography.

But hip hop artist Sokeo Ros, whose family fled the genocide of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to settle in Providence, Rhode Island, always felt welcome. He was surrounded by other Khmers and managed to escape gang life, thanks to strict parenting and break dancing, and to join Everett Dance Theatre. “I was always just hanging with minorities—Asians, Hispanics, blacks. When I saw a Caucasian break dancing I thought it was a cool kind of branching out.” However, he never thought of himself as fully American. “I’m an Americanized Cambodian. You can’t forget where you come from.”

One’s “Asian-ness” isn’t defined simply by our bloodlines or appearances, but by the depth of our ties to a country, language, smells, or behaviors that are quite different from those we’re surrounded by on a daily basis. The differences between the countries of origin also do not encourage a strong monolithic community in the U.S., which in turn doesn’t generate its own base of informed viewers. American audiences don’t make the distinction between the Asian dancer who still dreams of returning home or one who has been a U.S. citizen since birth.

The same could be said of choreographers and presenters who are often looking simply to round out their roster. “I can assure you that Stephen Petronio wouldn’t have blinked an eye at me if I hadn’t been Asian and male. I was a rare and exotic commodity,” says Tran. “When I got my first commission at Oregon Ballet Theatre I was really young and unknown and suddenly sharing a platform with Bebe Miller, Donald Byrd, and Paul Taylor. What was I doing there?”

Though considered by some to be mere tokenism, this openness to Asians has worked to the benefit of many dancers. BalletMet/Columbus’ Hitomi Yamada says she has never been denied a role or opportunity based on race. “If I say I wasn’t cast in something because I was Asian, that would just be my excuse. It’s too negative to think like that.” During her 10 years working with regional ballet companies she’s always felt welcome, though perhaps a bit isolated. “I’d love to run into another Japanese dancer just to have someone to speak Japanese with,” she says.

ODC/San Francisco’s associate choreographer Kimi Okada cites Oberlin Dance Collective’s supportive nature as relieving her from having to fight any race-based obstacles. “I was part of a group of artists looking to push boundaries,” she says. “I always felt I could do what I wanted to do. Yes, I was one of the faces that wasn’t white, but I never felt discriminated against.” Okada’s grandmother was a “picture bride” coming over from Japan to marry her grandfather, sight unseen, in the early 1900s. Her parents were relocated to an internment camp during World War II, but her father landed an academic sponsorship at Oberlin College. This brought the family to Oberlin, Ohio, where Okada’s was one of two Japanese families.

While Okada’s family history echoes those of Osato and Yuriko, she is of a generation with a stronger sense of entitlement to all that is American. As a sansei, a third-generation Japanese American, she sees no need to qualify her work as Asian American or Asian at all. She is simply a choreographer, a modern dance choreographer who has also worked with tap, clowning, and circus for the concert stage, opera, Broadway, TV, and film—even for computer animators. She studied traditional dance and kabuki in Japan but doesn’t incorporate it into her work. However she does see her interest in the “elegance of form and implied emotion” as very Japanese.

H.T. Chen has served at the forefront of Asian American dance in New York City for three decades. Many Asian dancers and choreographers have appeared in his small Chinatown theater that doubles as a neighborhood dance school. He says he learned his strong sense of community from Ellen Stewart, La Mama Theater’s founder. “I came to the U.S. without English, money, or any idea where the Graham school was, even though I had a scholarship there. Ellen took me in. I learned when you have an empty hand and then get something, you should share it.”

While still in Taiwan, Chen was part of a group of young artists who wanted to modernize Chinese art forms. But until he arrived at The Juilliard School and then followed with a master’s at New York University, much of what they were doing was mere imitation. He went through a retraining process, but continues to blend traditional Chinese forms with modern dance. He says that Americans have limited views of Asia and Asians. When his company, H.T. Chen & Dancers, tours the U.S., he finds it’s hard for middle America to accept his brand of fusion. “They think we should either be doing traditional ribbon dances or butoh.” He feels audiences in rural America are more open-minded.

Chen still has to make the case for dance to the parents of children he teaches. Dance can’t pull in the level of salary that immigrant families expect, and it remains low on the priority list of social issues among Asian foundations. But he is committed to educating the dance world about Asian forms. “I learned from the civil rights movement and internment camps. People can’t understand these other experiences from just one exposure. We have to bring it up for discussion over and over again.”

Maura Nguyen Donohue, a choreographer, has written for, HK Dance Journal, and American Theater Journal.