ORGANIZED CHAOS: Lenora Lee’s Fire of Freedom Tackles PTSD

By Irene Hsiao

September 1, 2015, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

GROWING FROM A RESIDENCY on the tiny black box stage at The Garage in San Francisco to large-scale site-specific works that incorporate film, martial arts, text, and installation elements, Lenora Lee has created more ambitious works every year. In addition to dance and original music, Lee’s company, founded in 2007, strives to address themes such as immigration, human trafficking, the history of the Chinese in the US, and the exploitation of women.

Lee’s ongoing interest in historically inflected dances began with genealogical research following the deaths of her grandparents. “After they passed away, we gained access to their immigration and interrogation papers at the National Archives, and I started making work about the Chinese Exclusion Act and Chinese immigration to the US during that time (1882-1943),” she explains. The first result of this research was a solo created in 1998 that she expanded into a quartet in 2010 and augmented by integrating images of immigration documents, papers used to coach them through extensive entry interrogations, and old photographs of her ancestors in China to illustrate the history and geography of their experiences.

The resulting work Passages: For Lee Ping To was intended as a tribute to her grand- mother’s experience, yet Lee came to realize her work could go beyond her individual history and potentially address the shared plight of the 175,000 Chinese immigrants who passed through Angel Island between 1910 and 1940. “It wasn’t until tech week at Dance Mission Theater that we saw the magnitude of the project, that it was representing an experience greater than that of my own family. I felt it represented a snapshot of immigrant experience, especially from a generation who had to conceal their identity and come over under false names. That’s when the historical context, mul- timedia elements, and performance came together in a way that blew my mind open. That was the first piece where I felt I was actually communicating something that could resonate with different generations of people, different communities, and different cultures.”

The result was a directive for Lee’s continuing body of work. She explains, “It was finding my purpose for why I was in dance when those things came together.” Her subsequent work continued to explore historical themes in productions enhanced by cinematic projections and historical nar- ratives. In 2013, Lee created a pair of works on a fellowship at the de Young Museum, The Escape and Rescued Memories: New York Stories, that portrayed the accounts of female survivors of human trafficking in New York and San Francisco. The first of these was inspired by the Donaldina Cameron House in San Francisco, where the Presbyterian missionary provided refuge, shelter, job training, and health and legal assistance to some three thousand Chinese women and girls, some awaiting the processing of their immigration papers, others orphaned or forced into domestic servitude or prostitution in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The second was a retelling of Bessie M. Lee’s escape from indentured servitude. In 2014, Lee transformed the three studios in Dance Mission into an immersive environment using footage shot on Angel Island in The Detached, a piece that continued to address the theme of human trafficking. This year, her exploration of interactive performance continues in her newest work, Fire of Freedom, in which Lee invites the audience to travel along with the performers throughout the three floors of the General’s Residence at Fort Mason in SF.

duet with rose petals
photo by Robbie Sweeny

The historical and current use of Fort Mason is an exercise in contradictions, a military base occupied over the years by Spanish, Mexican, and American forces that has become a center for culture and arts. The General’s Residence, a building with a history that dates from the mid-eighteenth century, has been used for a variety of functions—housing generals, of course, but also serving as the command post for military response following the 1906 earthquake, the Officer’s Club, and, in the present day, a coveted venue for weddings. In Fire of Freedom, Lee uses these contradictions to create a work inspired in part by anthropologist Katinka Hooyer’s Surplus Data, which examines veterans and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as society’s complex relationship with the disorder. Selections from Hooyer’s interviews with veterans of the war in Iraq will be included in the performance. Yet Lee is reluctant to pin the experience to a particular conflict or historical era, choosing instead to create a broader response to a universal malaise. Noting that Fort Mason provides a setting that includes memories of the Civil War and has hosted innumerable acts of protection and defense, Lee explains, “For Fire of Freedom, we have the opportunity to be housed in these spaces to create a work where I am asking the questions, ‘How can we address cycles of violence, conflict, and oppression?’ and ‘How can we see beauty in the face of destruction?’”

The questions loom large, and Lee’s response to it is similarly expansive, meander- ing outward from specific events to a more abstract collage of qualities reflected in the choice of movement vocabulary and props created from natural materials such as tree bark and feathers. “Society values strength, aggression, and assertiveness,” she remarks. “I feel that in order to heal, we need to pay attention to the feminine, to the subtly nuanced grace, all the elements that are not hard and straight. We live in a society that values directness and assertiveness. How do we heal from trauma? How do we learn to reconnect not only with ourselves but with other people?”

As with her past creations, Lee is working with a large crew of long-term collaborators on the project, including Bay Area composer and musician Francis Wong, Chicago-based filmmaker Tatsu Aoki, media designer Olivia Ting, media programmer Ian Winters and lighting designer Patty-Ann Farrell. Ting, who has collaborated annually with Lee since 2009, describes the challenges and possibilities of the project in terms of its spatial potential. With the film projections, Ting notes, “We have started experimenting with multiple surfaces beyond the ‘cinematic’ assumption of one flat screen perpendicular to the viewing position — utilizing [the] existing texture of walls, ceilings, floors, and even bouncing images off mirrors.” In combination with the movements of the audience, the perspectives multiply, a strategy generally deployed in site-specific immersive works. Ting remarks, “The tremendous challenge now is to think how each component can be experienced in nearly 360 degrees. It also breaks all linear storytelling control, as the audience is free to roam and form the story to their own order. The delegation of the image content to each of the rooms is also dependent on the audience’s memory as they will not be able to see all the images in separate spaces at the same time. Hence another level of the challenge is thinking about how design solutions such as repetition, rhythm, pacing, and architectural scale can reinforce this cubistic experience that is happening all at the same time and yet, not at the same time.”

What Ting calls a “cubistic experience” might also be a way of describing trauma, which is characterized by flashbacks, nightmares, and other altered views that continuously draw the subject back to the initial moment of distress. In the broad sense of traumatic experience, such as the war Lee refers to implicitly in Fire of Freedom, pain is experienced on all levels— victim, witness, perpetrator—an experience that she invites the audience to share through the complex act of observation. Filmmaker and collaborator Aoki says, “Lenora goes back to a more chaotic way to present [art]. I’m of the 70s art generation. We used to do these things very organically. I like the roughness of Lenora’s work, it’s disorganized but that’s the beauty of it.” With film, dancers, and an untold history staged in a historical setting, Lee and her collaborators take the opportunity to turn chaos and trauma into a form of art that creates and defies order.

IRENE HSIAO has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, SF Weekly, Bay Area Reporter, and others, and currently dances with Kinetech Arts and Lenora Lee Dance. Her book of photography and text, Letter from Taipei, was published in 2014.