From his youth, spent in New York's Chinatown, dancer/choreographer Ping Chong's self-identity has been shaped by the distance he felt from the greater world. Today, his dance company mirrors that experience.
Sitting in a quiet coffee shop on the edge of New York's Chinatown, Ping Chong is explaining how growing up nearby contributed to the enduring themes in his theatrical creations. For three decades, the choreographer/director has cultivated a reputation for innovative productions that incorporate stark movement and stunning multimedia effects while adeptly addressing social issues. Last year Chong won an Obie for Sustained Achievement, another in a long list of respected awards.
Recently, one of his productions toured cities in the United States and abroad: Kwaidan, based on traditional Japanese ghost stories. Undesirable Elements, currently touring, is based on the oral histories of the performers, who speak of their backgrounds as immigrants or the children of immigrants.
"If I have any roots at all, it's this area," Chong notes, pointing outside. An intense, wiry man, he is articulate and direct in manner. "I've seen this whole area change--I wouldn't say it's good or bad necessarily--but when I grew up in Chinatown, it was a rather poor place. It wasn't bustling the way it is now. The immigration laws didn't change until '65, and there was a very low quota for Chinese immigration, so it was really like a village back then."
Growing up in that tight-knit Chinese community on the south end of Manhattan, he had the sense early on of having a cultural identity outside the American mainstream; the villagelike environment reinforced traditional Chinese values. "From the beginning my work was about otherness," he explains. "At the beginning it was more allegorical, but it was really biographical beneath the allegory. It was about what it is to be estranged from the world that I was in because I grew up in Chinatown. Then I went to high school and to Pratt outside of Chinatown, and it was very difficult for me to make that adjustment. It took years before I felt any comfort level."
Back in China, his parents and grandparents had been producers and performers in Cantonese opera, so Chong grew up surrounded by "the pageantry of Chinese opera." As a teenager, he was fascinated by the movies, and in 1969 he graduated from the School of Visual Arts with a film degree. But he had come to realize that filmmaking was not a realistic career for him.
"There were no Chinese filmmakers in '69," he points out, "so back then it would have been a major long shot. It's a very aggressive business by and large--I was twenty-four when I graduated, and I didn't have the confidence to do that."
Still, he remained interested in theater and performance. "I decided to take dance, just to give myself some time to figure out what I wanted to do next," he says. At New York University he took lessons from choreographer Meredith Monk, who eventually invited him to join her workshop. A year later he was part of her company. "Back in those days, dance was more experimental," he says, "and they were looking for people who were natural movers, who were not technique-based people, so it was somewhere between performance and dance. That's how it all began for me."
Chong was with the company from 1972 through 1978, gradually becoming a collaborator on such pieces as The Travelogue Series and The Games. Eventually, he began to produce his own works, which combined dance and drama. While his early pieces (A.M./A.M.--The Articulated Man, in 1982, and Angels of Swedenborg, in 1985) veered toward the abstract and nonlinear, he gradually moved into more historically based works. Deshima, staged in 1990, incorporated real people and events. During the centuries when Japan was closed to the West, the island of Deshima remained open to Western traders. …