Between Two Worlds: Asian American Dancers and Choreographers Find Themselves Straddling Two Cultures-Neither of Them Home

By Donohue, Maura Nguyen | Dance Magazine, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Between Two Worlds: Asian American Dancers and Choreographers Find Themselves Straddling Two Cultures-Neither of Them Home


Donohue, Maura Nguyen, Dance Magazine


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. …

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