Acknowledging “absence” as a powerful and accurate political charge against the continuing exclusion of Asian Americans in American theater, dance, and the larger mainstream US performance landscape, Asian American feminist performance has inspired a critical mass of articles and monographs. A broad range of works by feminist performance scholars address productions that center on Asian American women, gender, and sexuality, and also explore and contest Asian American subject formation. Although they provide different ways of thinking about feminist approaches to Asian American performance, all emphasize how racialized bodies are produced within specific historical and political conditions and are invested in resisting cultural limitations and in interrogating power. Whether drawing on theater, dance, music, drag, or performances of everyday life, this scholarship can provide a glimpse of the critical concerns of overlapping academic fields. Whether mapping theoretical frameworks, archival politics, uses of dance as method, epistemologies of the body, fandom, affect, or alternative or unconventional performance spaces, Asian American feminist performance studies scholars move away from rigid definitions of identity, form, geographic location, or audience. At the intersection of Asian American, performance, and feminist studies, the multiple strategies of feminist praxis—such as archiving and analyzing historical documents, foregrounding bodily performance alongside text-based materials, and reconceptualizing theoretical and artistic paradigms—signal the capaciousness of the categories “Asian American,” “feminist,” and “performance.”
Lucy M. S. P. Burns and Mana Hayakawa
Nancy Yunhwa Rao
Chinese opera in America has several intertwined histories that have developed from the mid-19th century onward to inform performances and representations of Asian Americans on the opera stage. These histories include Chinese opera theater in North America from 1852 to 1940, Chinese opera performance in the ubiquitous Chinese villages at various World Fairs in the United States from 1890 to 1915, the famous US tour of Peking opera singer Mei Lanfang from New York to Chicago and San Francisco in 1930, a constellation of imagined “Chinese” opera and yellowface plays from 1880 to 1930, and the more recent history of contemporary opera created by Asian Americans commissioned by major opera houses. Some of these varied histories are closely intertwined, not all are well understood, and some have been simply forgotten. Since the mid-19th century, Chinese opera theater has become part of US urban history and has left a significant imprint on the collective cultural and historical memory of Chinese America. Outside of Chinese American communities arose well-known instances of imagined “Chinese” opera, yellowface works that employ the “Chinese opera trope” as a source of inspiration, or Western-style theatrical works based on Chinese themes or plotlines. These histories are interrelated, and have also significantly shaped the reception and understanding of contemporary operas created by Asian American composers and writers. While these operatic works of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are significantly different from those of earlier moments in history, their production and interpretation cannot escape this influence.
Performers of Asian ancestry worked in a variety of venues and media as part of the American entertainment industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some sang Tin Pan Alley numbers, while others performed light operatic works. Dancers appeared on the vaudeville stage, periodically in elaborate ensembles, while acrobats from China, India, and Japan wowed similar audiences. Asian immigrants also played musical instruments at community events. Finally, a small group lectured professionally on the Chautauqua Circuit. While on the stage, these performers had to navigate American racial attitudes that tried to marginalize them. To find steady work, performers of Asian ancestry often had to play to stereotypes popular with white audiences. Furthermore, they faced oversight by immigration authorities, who monitored their movements in and around the country and made it difficult for foreign entertainers to work in the country for long periods of time. Despite these hurdles, Asians and Asian Americans have appeared in the performing arts in the United States for over one hundred years.
This article takes a critical and historical look at how South Asian performers and performances circulated in the late 19th and 20th centuries in the United States and Australia. It compares how dance practices, both in the United States and in Australia, are interwoven with 19th- and early 20th-century Orientalism and anti-Asian immigration law in both countries, as primarily white dancers engaged with Indian dance practices to develop intercultural styles of Western contemporary dance. While the comparisons of Indian dance in the United States and Australia highlight the similarities of national policies that curtailed Asian immigration, they also suggest that the patterns of migration and travel, particularly where dance is concerned, are much more complex. Dancers and dance forms moved from India to Australia to the United States in an intricate triangle of exchange and influence.