LENORA LEE: Sharing Stories Through Dance and Film

By Rob Taylor

September 1, 2014, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

The pair of programs Lenora Lee will present September 26 – October 5 at Dance Mission as her company’s 7th season will be a good opportunity to be introduced to the work of this fascinating interdisciplinary artist—a showcase for her dynamic work that integrates dance, film, installation, text and music to tell stories of family, community and the way that history embeds those abstract concepts into specific places, times and people.

As she explains to me, “it’s always made sense to me that these different artistic disciplines can work together as a woven tapestry.”

Born in Sacramento, Lenora was raised in San Francisco. She went to college in the mid-90s to study biological sciences, but began taking dance classes at City College of San Francisco, then in UCLA’s Department of Dance / World Arts and Cultures, eventually graduating with a degree in Dance. During her college years she also studied with saxophonist/composer Francis Wong who has since become an artistic collaborator.

Recalling her time at UCLA, she cites two figures from the department being particularly important to her artistic development: Victoria Marks and David Gere.

From Gere, (who joined UCLA after decades working in the Bay Area’s dance community as a writer and critic), Lenora was introduced to concepts in the philosophy of dance, the male gaze, the female body and how women are portrayed in dance and in media. She says, “that struck a chord…I became very interested in dealing with the idea of equality, gender equality, being respected as a female director, choreographer and maker, and to have our stories and our work respected.”

Lenora was also inspired by Marks, and the way she “worked with various communities in creating her dances, and also how she was able to create intimate portraits of people in these communities.” Marks was asking questions of her students and within her own work that influenced Lenora’s artistic formation. Lenora is exploring similar questions in her own work today: “How can one integrate his or her life and everyday experiences into the world of performance? How can we shed a different light, or expose various facets of our experiences and those of others in the world in a creative, innovative way that transcends everyday communication?”

The idea that her artistic practice could be built from the material of everyday experience began formulating in Lenora’s mind after a tragic and ironic event that occurred while she was still in school. “I always believed that I didn’t understand my grandmother because she didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Chinese. I took a year abroad in China, in part to get a better idea of the Chinese community that I had grown up around.

“She passed away when I was in China. It was unfortunate and odd that I would go all the way to China [to] understand my grandmother, and then she passed away while I was there.” In the aftermath Lenora interviewed her mother and her mother’s sisters about her grandmother—“they had very different interpretations of her”—and created a performance art piece at UCLA about her grandmother based on those different interpretations. Following college Lenora continued her training (her CV displays an impressive array of the different dance and movement styles she’s studied) and performed with other companies, although increasingly she began creating her performance pieces.

34. Lenora Lee_CourtesyofLEnoraLeeDance
Dancer Chin-chin Hsu and martial artist Yukihiko Noda in The Detached / Photo courtesy of Lenora Lee Dance

After living in Los Angeles, she returned to San Francisco, then moved to New York City for four years before returning to San Francisco, although she tells me she still performs regularly in New York. She seems a little reticent to fully embrace what she calls “the bicoastal life,” but she acknowledges “it has worked out well. I’ve been able to deepen contacts and find support for my work, I think specifically because I was doing research on the history of New York City’s Chinatown and there are organizations and individuals who are interested in supporting projects that explore that history.”

While her work had always utilized a variety of movement styles and integrated other disciplines, 2010 provided Lenora an opportunity to expand the scope of her work in terms of subject matter and the degree to which she was able to integrate media and text into her performance. She was commissioned to create a piece for the centennial commemoration of the opening of Angel Island Immigration Station, through which 170,000 Chinese immigrated to the United States, including three of her grandparents. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred almost all immigration from China into the country, and those who passed through the station had to endure intensive interrogations.

The piece she created, Passages (excerpts to be performed in Program B of her season this year), recreates that experience through the story of Lee Ping To, Lenora’s grandmother. Through a large-scale, interdisciplinary combination of movement, media, music and text, Passages recreates her grandmother’s story in a performance that also conveys experiences that hundreds of thousands of other immigrants have also had to endure.

She explains, “we had access through the National Archives to their immigration papers. We had no idea how the piece would manifest — it was kind of like going on a genealogy hunt sparked by my desire to understand what their experiences were, and it just opened up the doors.”

For Lenora and her collaborators Passages became an opportunity to unpack this complex history through the performance: “I had to explain about the Exclusion Act and discuss its effects on the generations of Chinese coming to the U.S. between 1882-1943. It was very compelling and provided a context and significance to the work that it hadn’t had before. There were so many people who never told their stories in fear of being deported. My parent’s generation never heard these stories for three reasons. One, they weren’t positive experiences; two, my grandparents already felt like second class citizens; and three the immigrant generation was afraid their kids would leak out the truth about their identities by accident. So a lot of the stories were just lost when this generation passed.”

Through Passages, Lenora was able to reclaim some of these stories: “even though I am third generation, I felt I could share some of the experiences, even if it came together as a collage of what I had researched and heard about.”

Passages—like much of her recent work—explores subjects that are intensely personal for Lenora, but are designed to engage all audiences. Her work examines “the history of the communities that I grew up in.” However, as an artist her goal is “to portray the experiences in ways that go beyond ethnicity and culture. Although I’ve been doing work about the Chinese American experience, the experiences of what people struggle, strive and triumph through—those experiences are universal.”

Passages was Lenora’s first work that integrated installation art, media and choreography at such a significant scale, and she began scaling up in the work that followed. In 2011 she returned to explore the immigrant experience in Reflections, which focused on the experiences of male immigrants. Two of her more recent works The Escape and Rescued Memories: New York Stories examined the lives of women who migrated to the United States, and sought refuge from exploitation and forced labor.

Lenora and her collaborators, filmmaker Tatsu Aoki and media designer Olivia Ting create films that are projected on traditional and nontraditional screens, to bring the sites where the historical events occurred into the theater. Lenora directs the live movement and choreography to respond to what’s on the screen: “A lot of what we’ve shot in the last two years has been site specific in San Francisco Chinatown and New York Chinatown, and I wanted to recreate scenes that I felt were key experiences in the stories I had researched.” During the piece “the dancers flash back to that space, or are in the same time frame interacting with the action on the screen.”

The day after we spoke, Lenora was scheduled to film a sequence at the former Fort McDowell hospital on Angel Island. This will be shown as part of The Detached, a new work that will be performed in both programs this season. The interactive, multimedia performance will continue with themes developed in The Escape and Rescued Memories: New York Stories (which will also be part of the season’s line-up) by focusing on the stories of women who have survived human trafficking. The Detached will also be an integrated performance that combines dance with film.

The ultimate goal of Lenora and her collaborators, including music director Francis Wong, writer Genny Lim and lighting designer Patty-Ann Farrell is to “create environments that performers can step into. These environments are designed to provide viewers multi-sensory and multi-layered information. This provides a more encompassing experience. For me it’s about impact and how deeply can you connect with people—how deeply can you share the experiences through the work.”

Lenora Lee Dance will perform their 7th season at Dance Mission Theater from September 9-October 5, 2014. For more information visit lenoraleedance.com.

This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of In Dance.

Rob Taylor is a writer and arts administrator working in the San Francisco Bay Area.