Casting a Lens on Communities for 15 Years: Lenora Lee Dance

By Heather Desaulniers

January 16, 2024, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Sebastian Le and SanSan Kwan of Lenora Lee Dance
Photo by Robbie Sweeny
[ID: A male dancer in a long-sleeved blue shirt reaches for a female dancer in a beige tank top as she looks away from him.]

I’ve always been fascinated by the list of traditional and contemporary anniversary gifts. While some may find it random or even silly, I think it’s quite telling. Each gift suggestion reveals so much about its corresponding milestone.

Take 15 for example – the year of crystal. An item of clarity, strength and specialness; of grace, transparency and attention to detail. A perfect symbol for the long-term, significant commitment that is 15 years. Everyone at Lenora Lee Dance (LLD) understands such power and preciousness. Founded in 2008 by dancer/choreographer/performer Lenora Lee, the company has always had several crystalline goals. Goals they continue to work at as they approach their 15th birthday this winter. To shine a light on personal stories. To share a broader perspective of marginalized populations. To cast a lens on urgent community narratives, be they historic or present day.

A headshot of Artistic Director Lenora Lee.
Photo by Hien Huynh
[ID: A headshot of Lenora Lee. She has long brown hair, brown eyes and is smiling in front of a wood paneled wall.]

Attention to community was woven into Lee’s dance DNA early on, with three UCLA professors playing a pivotal, influential role. “Victoria Marks, David Gere and Peter Sellars instilled in me, as a college student, how crucial it was to create work about communities,” Lee recounts, “to really research, understand and delve into unique and particular stories.” After completing her studies and working as an independent artist in San Francisco for six years, Lee took that call bi-coastal, exploring her performance and choreographic career in both New York and SF. While she was drawn to the artistic drive and push in NYC, Lee eventually settled on the Bay Area, and it was in this place that LLD was birthed. A signature style evolved over time. One of mixed discipline, collaborative, immersive and site-specific work, where movement seamlessly unites with music, text, sculpture, video and visual art. The eagerness to tell stories never wavered, especially stories close to Lee’s heart, “It’s always been about the content for me; themes I felt were important to learn more about — immigration and migration; detention and incarceration; violence against women and human trafficking; shared suffering and healing.” That spirit has informed every LLD project for the past 15 years. 2019’s In the Skin of Her Hands brought the all-too-common diagnosis of breast cancer to the stage while 2017’s Within These Walls told of the Chinese immigration experience at the U.S. Immigration Station, Angel Island.

Immigration and migration are still front and center for LLD. Their upcoming program, which runs February 2nd-4th at Dance Mission Theater, features two world premieres, each one tackling a current regional reality of US immigration. An entirely immersive 15-minute work, In Visibility welcomes audiences into the immigration dialogue, utilizing several alternative spaces in the Dance Mission building. “In Visibility focuses on the community efforts to stop the prison to ICE detention pipeline in California, which itself touches on multiple issues – detention, incarceration, separation of families, but also the strength of community mobility,” adds Lee. Following the first piece, viewers will head into the main theater space at Dance Mission to witness Convergent Waves: El Paso. Journeying to that specific town in Texas, the 45-minute mixed discipline piece unpacks migration at that southern border, primarily from recent years, but also through the decades. An audio score of interview excerpts (from experts in the field as well as affected populations) coupled with video footage that Lee shot in El Paso will lay bare the realities facing Latin American migrants. Historic images will show years and years of Chinese migration to that region as well. And the choreography, by Lee in collaboration with each performer, will celebrate the richness and fullness of every distinct body, with solos and duets speaking to the intimate nature of migration stories.

While the February performances are certainly on everyone’s hearts and minds at LLD, a noteworthy occasion (like a 15th anniversary) does demand some reflection. “When I think about these past 15 years, I have a deep sense of gratitude for so many,” recalls Lee, “there are the different venues that have worked with us, the funding sources and individual donors that have been very consistent, along with all the organizations that have supported us, like the National Park Service, Asian Improv aRts, API Cultural Center, the Chinese Historical Society, and advocate groups in the immigrant rights and Asian American communities, just to name a few.” Lee also recognizes the privilege it has been to collaborate with so many interdisciplinary artists, including some who have become longtime LLD collaborators like saxophonist, composer, and mentor Francis Wong, and media and graphic designer Olivia Ting.

At the same time, milestones also tend to point folks toward the next chapter, to what may be, to unknown possibilities. And Lee is eager to see what the future holds. “I’m looking forward to contributing my processes and methodologies to the next generation, the next community of artists,” Lee shares, “and for LLD, I’m excited to broaden our scope, continue to develop and grow the company, and expand nationally and internationally.”

Whether looking back, navigating the present or dreaming of the future, LLD has been fortunate to have been guided by many constants over the last decade and a half. And the most important of these has been Lee’s belief that artists have a responsibility and can utilize their platform to say something with their work. For Lee, this has been to cast a lens on communities through performance – their realities, their complexities and their triumphs.

Lenora Lee Dance presents
In Visibility and Convergent Waves: EP
February 2-4, 2024: Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm at Dance Mission Theater

For more information, please visit:

This article appears in the Winter 2024 issue of In Dance.

Heather Desaulniers is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly, and contributes to several other dance-focused publications, including formerly to DanceTabs.