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date: 05 April 2020

Summary and Keywords

Contemporary Asian American dance includes a wide range of choreographic approaches, movement vocabularies, aesthetic traditions, and philosophies toward the body. Referencing either time or genre, the “contemporary” in contemporary Asian American dance can refer to work that includes high-art concert productions that utilize modern and postmodern movement vocabularies, reworkings of traditional Asian movement practices, or popular dance practices. Contemporary Asian American dance also encompasses work that is created by Asian American choreographers, choreography that addresses Asian American experiences or history, or work that is performed by Asian American dancers.

As a field of study, Asian American dance studies is concerned with an analysis of how the critical reception of choreography by Asian American choreographers is entangled with the history of Orientalism in both American modern dance history and the racialization of Asian Americans in US history. Beginning in the early 20th century, choreographer Michio Ito (1892–1961) navigated his training in German expressionist dance with public expectations of performing recognizable Japaneseness in the face of growing anti-Japanese sentiments on the West Coast of the United States in the years before the United States officially entered World War II. In the later half of the 20th century, Mel Wong (1938–2003) faced similar issues after leaving the Merce Cunningham Dance Company to pursue his own choreography. While Merce Cunningham’s adoption of the Chinese text the I-Ching was considered a choreographic breakthrough in the development of chance procedure that would revolutionize the definition of what is considered dance, Mel Wong faced critics and funding organizations who found Wong’s own use of ritual and Asian philosophy to be incomprehensible or inauthentic.

The question of authenticity in relationship to the use of traditional Asian vocabularies runs the gamut from the performance of depoliticized folk dance forms such as those performed by the San Francisco Chinese Folkdance Association to the purposeful invention of Japanese American taiko repertory by organizations such as San Jose Taiko during the 1960s Asian American movement. In contrast, choreographers such as Eiko (1952–present), Koma (1948–present), and Shen Wei (1968–present) are not concerned with the question of Asian American authenticity and have been creating work that stakes a claim in universal themes of humanity and the environment or the relationship between movement and visual art. Understanding the work of choreographers such as Eiko & Koma and Shen Wei as contemporary Asian American dance is enabled by the transnational turn in Asian American studies to include work by choreographers whose work does not directly represent traditional understandings of the Asian American experience rooted in themes such as the trauma of immigration, intergenerational conflict, or national belonging.

Keywords: choreography, experimental dance, modern dance, postmodern dance

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