Dance may well be the only true universal language.
Think about, the Macarena is done the same whether you understand all the lyrics or not. Line dancing needs no words, just the occasional yee-haw. The chicken dance is a ubiquitous cringe-worthy right of passage.
The melding of movement and music for the purposes of communication, celebration and ceremony is an inherent aspect of human culture throughout vastly divergent regions and societies around the planet, and has been since time immemorial.
Tapping into that shared experience, Alex Ung has created a show that utilizes dance to tell a story that crosses cultures as well as physical, political and psychological borders.
“Immigration Stories: A Choreographic Historical Odyssey Retelling A Family’s Forced Migration” will be staged at Bainbridge Performing Arts, courtesy of Olympic Performance Group, by The Guild Dance Company of Seattle at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14.
Ung’s story recounts the actual journey of his own family from war-torn Southeast Asia to Iowa, from the 1940s to the 1970s. Traditional Tai Dam (an ethnic minority predominantly from China, northwest Vietnam, Laos, Thailand) dance, accompanied by drums, strings and pipes, along with a blend of hip-hop and contemporary dance styles set to contemporary music, will complete the narrative of this engaging and all-too-timely historical reflection.
Ung took time recently to chat with the Review about the show, his love of dance and the importance of representation.
* This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
BIR: I understand the story is based on the actual experiences of your relatives, is that right? What can you tell me about the show’s inspiration?
AU: Yes, it absolutely is. The vision started with what I had taken from the stories and photos I had seen growing up as a child and seeing what was happening in the world now with refugees and immigrants. I had always wondered why there was such a large concentration of my family members in Iowa and why we weren’t spread out along the country like lots of my childhood friends were. So I decided to dive deep into my family history and actually interviewed many of my relatives in Iowa about their experience immigrating to the U.S. and I wondered if what was going on in the world now was similar to what they experienced.
I also wanted to share my cultural heritage with a broader audience since the Tai Dam culture is not widely known. With the show, I really wanted to spread awareness of my family’s culture, what they experienced fleeing for their lives and the treatment they received after arriving in the U.S., and show the outcome of what kindness, humanity, and love would look like and open the discussion to what’s going on in the world today.
The show has cultural music, traditional dance, and a personal recorded interview of one of my uncles who served in the Lao military at the time helping families escape.
BIR: Why is dance a good medium through which to tell this story?
AU: I decided to portray our story through dance because I felt that you could really connect your body and emotion to the story even with a language barrier. Dance really allows you to fully use your body as an instrument to tell the story and I wanted to show all the tension, grief, pain, confusion, hurt, and love we felt through our whole body.
BIR: So you are choreographer and director and performing in this show. How do you manage and balance those different responsibilities?
AU: I am! Doing all three was definitely a challenge and being able to step out of the pieces to see it as a whole work made it difficult for all involved.
At the same time, because I was the one creating all the movement and was most familiar with the timing, I was able to pace out my dancers and help us all cue certain points in the pieces or rehearsal process where we would get a little off. It was great to step out of the dance and watch the vision being created, and letting some of the movement evolve with the dancers. Then we would have the pieces where I was dancing with them and it was also great because the dancers could see the movement quality and all the nuances I was going for.
All in all, it was a lot of work but really rewarding and I had a great team of dancers who I felt really comfortable with creating all of this and bringing it to life. Our typical rehearsal process would be for me to teach the choreography until everyone felt fairly comfortable, then I would step out and watch the piece as a whole. From there, I’d make some corrections as needed and near the end I would reinsert myself for staging’s sake and for everyone to get used to the additional body around them.
BIR: How big is the cast and what is the general age rage? Are these mostly more experienced dancers in this show?
AU: My dancers are all professional dancers ranging from 20 years old to early 40s. We’ve got a wide range of experience and genre types, but that’s exactly what I was looking for. We were all able to find strengths in one style or another and help each other in styles we weren’t so strong in. I think everyone’s age and experience is what makes this group so fantastic to work with and learn from.
BIR: Given the headlines of the day, and the current political discourse in America, is this show more important, culturally speaking, than it otherwise might be?
AU: Definitely. As I said before, my family’s cultural heritage is not widely known, so even just explaining who or where the Tai Dam people come from is usually new for most every person. I feel that in our current state we forget about the risk of small cultures being wiped out and not learned about or preserved, especially in areas of conflict where people are trying to escape.
I think we also forget that even the journey that refugees have to take just to escape doesn’t end when they arrive into a “safe” environment. My family still faced hostility, miscommunication, racism, the struggle of completely restarting their lives, trying to reconnect with other family members that they had been separated from, and then trying to help save the lives of those who weren’t able to escape. It was open arms and the hand of the kind and loving that really helped my family make it out and survive. I hope to show others that we still need that now.