Ancient Chinese and modern-day American social justice heroes come together to defeat universal threats to humankind in the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company’s original piece “Together,” co-choreographed by Kerry Lee (Chinese dance) and AJ Paug (hip hop). Video stills from the film premiere by PandaKo Media, June 2021.
September 2021 | Kerry Lee
When the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company selected the theme Together for our 2021 production in late 2019, we had no idea that we’d soon be in the throes of a global pandemic that would tear us physically apart: afraid to leave our homes, unable to embrace or even to reveal the smiles and grimaces behind our masks. We had no idea that we’d witness – on repeat – a white cop kneeling on a black man’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, lighting a fuse on deep racial divisions that had been simmering beneath the surface for generations. We had no idea that our own city would be the site of a mass shooting that would catapult the #StopAsianHate movement into the national spotlight: a movement necessitated by the notion that looking Chinese is reason enough to be beaten up by fellow Americans on the streets. (You know…the opposite of coming Together.)
All we knew was that we wanted to collaborate with a hip hop crew on a piece about coming together to defeat universal threats to humankind.
When the shutdown began in March 2020, the piece seemed like a pipe dream. Suddenly my co-director Hwee-Eng Lee and I didn’t even know how our troupe of nearly 100 Chinese dancers could continue rehearsing together, not to mention with another group. Our minds raced with what the loss of regular rehearsals would mean: not only lost opportunities to dance and perform, but also to share space with people who look like us, to learn and celebrate Chinese culture, and to be in touch with the Chinese part of our identities in the black/white racial binary of the US South.
Fortunately I’d learned how to use Zoom years ago for staff meetings at Alternate ROOTS, and we received much needed support through ROOTS’ Partners in Action award to build upon partnerships with Chinese and non-Chinese communities. Soon we’d trial-and-error our way through the ins and outs of teaching dance virtually: to four-year-olds, seventy-year-olds, and everyone in between. Gone were the sounds of laughter that once filled the studio. That first day, with everyone on mute, I remember feeling more like a security guard surveilling footage than a dance teacher. We quickly realized that the challenge was not only to guide everyone through a myriad of technical issues but also to recreate the fullness of our community through the flatness of a two-dimensional screen.
The learning curve was steep, and it was heartbreaking to lose some dancers along the way. But we humans are resilient and adaptable. While we terribly missed the physical connection of live, in-person events, we found new ways of coming together. Through virtual performances, workshops, and panels, we connected in real-time with new audiences as far as Mauritius, Brazil, and Singapore. We capped off 2020 with a full-company YouTube premiere Chinese Dance in Our Living Rooms, a virtual choir of Chinese dancers moving in sync miles apart thanks to the magic of iPhonography and an insane amount of editing hours. It was a testament to the hard work, perseverance, and creativity of our entire team of artists, families, and supporters.
Video still from the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company’s YouTube premiere Chinese Dance in Our Living Rooms on December 26, 2020.
As 2021 rolled around, with vaccines and warmer weather on the horizon, we finally felt emboldened to revisit our Chinese dance/hip hop collaboration. The project took on a new sense of urgency, as the tragedies of the past year underscored the deadly consequences of not coming together to fight COVID-19 and the virus of hate. We decided to bring in guest hip hop choreographer AJ Paug (with whom I’d performed previously) to co-produce the work with me.
I knew I wanted the Chinese dance portion to be rooted in Yingge (or “Hero’s Song”), a folk dance with two small sticks from my ancestral home of Teochew which has been rarely performed in the United States. The performers paint their faces to honor the 108 Stars of Destiny from the famous Chinese novel Shui Hu Zhuan (or Water Margin), who were ancient China’s version of social justice heroes. I tried to imagine what might happen if they met today’s social justice heroes on the streets of America. Would their shared goal of justice bring them together, or would their differences tear them apart? It reminded me of when I first joined ROOTS in 2012. As one of a handful of Asian Americans in a community of hundreds of Southern artists and cultural organizers, and the only Chinese dancer, I questioned my belonging before realizing that no matter what we look like or how we live, we’re all working towards justice and equity for our communities and beyond.
AJ and I had many conversations on Zoom before we set foot in the studio to create a single step together. When I pitched the idea of a clash between ancient Chinese and modern-day American social justice heroes, he connected with it right away and posed many thought-provoking questions and ideas that would help shape the arc of the 14-minute piece: from the storytelling, to musical choices, to shared Chinese dance/hip hop movements for the finale. Perhaps the biggest challenge was conveying the feeling of togetherness with as little physical contact as possible, given that the pandemic was still in full gear. One memorable moment was a Soul Train line, which was inspired by an experience I’d had at a ROOTS Weekend in Tennessee. Just before I’d taught a Chinese ribbon dance workshop, I’d taken a hip hop workshop and we had a lot of fun doing a Soul Train line. I thought I’d incorporate it into my class, and it was a hit!
A spontaneous Soul Train moment during my Chinese dance ribbon workshop at a ROOTS Weekend at the Highlander Center for Justice in 2018 served as inspiration for the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company’s original piece “Together.” Still from video by Griff Griffin.
In a serendipitous coincidence, AJ happened to be not only a seasoned hip hop choreographer but also the director of a video production company PandaKo Media – which would be a saving grace when we decided to premiere the piece (and 8 others) on film in June mostly outdoors. Through regular check-ins with dancers and families, it became clear that many wouldn’t have been comfortable participating had we gone ahead with our original plan to perform indoors. In a nod to the times, we customized our masks to be a key part of our costumes. We’re now looking ahead to finally presenting our 2021 production Together: Yingge and Hip Hop Unite live, in-person on October 2-3 at Gas South Theater (6 months late, but better late than never)! We’re also seeking opportunities to tour this and other work in the future.
While making a dance about coming together is not nearly enough to enact systemic change, it’s my hope that the emotional pull of an artistic work prompts reflection and serves as a conversation starter for solidarity. I hope that the journey of Chinese dancers and hip hoppers finding common ground to overcome a greater force serves as a reminder that we are not each other’s worst enemies, but rather each other’s best allies to defeat universal threats to humankind.
Kerry Lee is the Co-Artistic Director of the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company. After graduating from Stanford University with an engineering degree and working for a top-ranked economic consulting firm, she followed her heart into the professional dance world in New York City. As a traditional Chinese and modern/contemporary dancer, Kerry toured nationally and internationally before returning home to co-lead the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company with her mother Hwee-Eng Lee. For many years she worked on staff at Alternate ROOTS, which was instrumental in propelling her towards addressing social justice issues through the art of Chinese dance. www.kerryylee.com