(Photo by Robbie Sweeny)
Not too long ago, I was blown away by Five Feet Dance and their latest piece (de)classified. The combination of movement, interviews, poetic prose, and sound was not only emotionally evocative, but also extremely enlightening. By embodying experiences from the performers, it painted a telling picture of what it’s like to grow up as an Asian American woman today. Having the privilege of knowing both the Artistic Director, Clarissa K. Ko, and Sound Designer, Marysa Robinson, I decided to ask them questions about the piece and the process.
For Marysa, her experience working on (de)classified was like a piece she created for her senior project while attending the University of San Francisco in 2016/2017. In her project, she used a combination of interviews, music, and sound to convey the experience of what it’s like to identify as nonreligious. Both Marysa and Clarissa attended USF and were part of the Performing Arts and Social Justice program. With USF being a tight-knit community, and the PASJ department being even tighter- Clarissa ended up seeing Marysa’s senior project. “I really enjoyed her Senior Project piece and appreciate her artistic sensibility with words and interviews,” says Clarissa.
Learning this about how the two began collaborating, I was interested in what Clarissa’s relationships were to the other artistic collaborators and dancers involved. I found that though she knew a few , many of the dancers were brought together from mutual interests and connections. Clarissa expressed that her focus when acquiring artists, was identity and representation. “All of the artists involved identify as Asian American women, which is really important to me and I fully acknowledge that we are not representative of the entire Asian American community, nowhere near close,” she explains.
The rehearsal process turned out to be quite the journey. In the end, Clarissa found herself in the role of facilitator instead of the traditional choreographer/director role. She realized that the work they were creating didn’t allow for a rehearsal timeline with a tangible result. “It became clear to me that the work we are doing is not about the end goal but about the process. The challenge here was to allow the process to get messy and unclear and to stray off the path to find what we wanted as a cast.” For this reason, much of time spent in rehearsal was centered around writing and discussion. And while Clarissa facilitated discussions, writing exercises, and movement improvisation scores, all movement and stories came from the dancers.
For Marysa, this process was also unconventional. Being based in New York, attending rehearsals in San Francisco wasn’t a choice. She was developing a score for a piece she had never seen. In addition, not being in rehearsals also meant not being able to contribute to the facilitated conversations. Thus, a lot of Marysa’s relationship to the piece and dancers developed from the interviews she worked with. “I was able to listen to every dancer’s interviews and I felt that I knew them all after listening, when in reality I had only met one of the dancers before. There is something that is so powerful about shared experiences, and our ability to relate to one another that can connect us when physical closeness isn’t an option.”
Being already mindful of identity and representation, Clarissa continued to focus on these aspects throughout tech and into the shows. “We had to consider our identity in the space we are performing in, which is typically white artist and audience dominated spaces. How will our work present itself? Do they understand it? What will they get out of it? Will they get anything? Does it matter if they do? How are we playing into or against stereotype of expectation? Would we be asking these questions if we were not of this race?”
While I am honored and blessed to witness the stories of these amazing women, (de)classified served as a stark reminder that the Asian American community is underrepresented in media and arts. In the age of Fresh Off The Boat, Ally Wong, Crazy Rich Asians, and Kelly Marie Tran (first Asian-American actress to star in Star Wars), there is a false sense that the call for more diversity is being answered. Unless the fight continues, stories like the ones in (de)classified will not be able to get the celebration and reach that they so deserve.
To all artists and collaborators of (de) classified: Jazlynn Eugenio Pastor, Joyce Lien Kushner, Kathleen Moore, Malia Byrne, Melissa Lewis, Nina Wu, Marysa Robinson, and Clarissa K. Ko- thank you for your stories, thank you for your art.
(de)classified was developed through the CounterPulse Artist Residency Commissioning Program with the support of the National Endowment for the Arts, San Francisco Arts Commission, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Zellerbach Family Foundation, and the Ken Hempel Fund for the Arts.
Below are additional responses from Clarissa and Marysa about their experiences and process, and a sample of Marysa’s sound design on SoundCloud.
Have you ever done anything like this before?
This has been a first for me in various areas. It’s my first time producing a work that is this long (20+ minutes). It’s my first time working with a sound designer (Marysa Robinson) to make original sound for my work. It’s my first time, and for the dancers as well, being in community with a group of Asian American Women asking questions, reflecting on our experience, and making art. Even though it’s been many firsts, the work and the process is familiar and feels like a long time coming.
Part of the drive for me to gather all these women together to make this work was because I was personally reflecting on my experiences as an Asian American woman. I realized that I couldn’t do the mental and emotional work in an isolated room. I also came to a point in my art making where I felt comfortable being able to expose my cultural background and to use art to process it. Before this moment I had been making work that brushed over general topics of the human experience, all of which had inevitable ties to my cultural identity. I felt like I needed to present the work people wanted to see. And it hit me that I was avoiding the topic. Maybe because of fear of being other-ed or type-casted, my own shame, cultural tendencies for secrecy? As much as I wanted to do make this work, I needed make this work to break that wall and throw myself into discomfort.
I didn’t expect the work to have the impact it did on me, or the artists involved, or the audience. It’s a first but certainly not the last.
What was your favorite moment during the process?
There are so many! I think one is our very first rehearsal as an entire cast. People didn’t know each other, yet the conversations were so natural and their movement already looked so good together. In that moment I knew we were onto something big.
Another one is when we finally presented (de)classified, something we’ve been making in a closed environment, and all the responses we got from audience members blew me away. People were so open to sharing their thoughts and experiences with us. People thanked us for making the piece and shared moments they laughed, cried, or saw themselves. In those moments I thought “this is why I did this. this is why this work is important, to have representation on stage and in the audience. these connections to our community are important.”
What is in five feet dance’s future?
In the immediate future we have smaller performances lined up. For example, we are performing at the Asian Art Museum May 31st for “These Bodies Sing of Home”. But in the more distant future, I am looking for more ways to extend our reach via workshops and outreach performances for our community at schools, community centers, fairs etc. I am open to collaborations with other artists and organizations! )
How did you come up with the sounds you used for this piece?
The sounds were created in collaboration with Clarissa. When discussing the different sections for the piece she would describe to me what she wanted. Sometimes there were very specific elements she wanted, for example she knew she wanted ambient sounds of cooking and rinsing water in the beginning. Other times she would just explain to me what she wanted the general feel of things to be. In these instances, we usually started with general adjectives to describe the mood, tone, rhythm, and how layered she wanted everything to be. I would also ask her to describe how the movement looked (if there was any, the sound and movement were created simultaneously). I used garage band to make the sound, so I would go into the library of software instruments and pick the one I felt best fit what she was looking for. From there I would send her drafts and she would send me back edits and we would tweak things as we went along.
The sound changed multiple times during this process. There were many sections of sound that was created and ultimately not used in the final piece. As the cast created the movement and learned more about themselves the intent behind the piece changed, therefore the sound did as well. The interviews especially took on a completely different use. By the end of rehearsals the cast had felt that they had changed so much while creating the piece they didn’t feel that their interviews accurately portrayed the way they claimed and navigated their identity. In the end, instead of using the interviews to give more context/information, they were used as pure sound to enhance the movement/spoken text. Those of us who created the piece knew what the interviews held, and what we knew shaped what we decided to show in the final draft.
What was your favorite moment of the piece?
My favorite moment of the piece was actually not sound related at all- it was the spoken text halfway through the piece. I flew into San Francisco to see the show, and it was my first time seeing all of the movement in full from start to finish, as well as my first time hearing the text and seeing the costumes and lighting. When the piece started, and the lights came up, I was immediately taken by the striking image of six Asian American woman sitting on stage. It was the first time I had ever seen a piece that was created and performed solely by Asian American women. And it didn’t end there! The spoken text covered what it felt like to experience racism, the phrases, jokes, and stereotypes we deal with everyday. It covered what it meant to be mixed, and how that was a whole different experience as well. It was one of the first times I felt that I was truly being represented on stage; it was I feeling that I had previously believed I had felt before and was surprised when I realized that I hadn’t. This was a first.
Would you do something like this in the future?
Absolutely. This experience made me realize how important it is to collaborate with other Asian American artists, and how important it is to create diverse art that speaks to us and represents us. I am thankful that this project brought me six more Asian American sisters, and I am excited to see the work that everyone will continue to make going forward.