STATEMENT BY ELEANOR YUNG (revised in 2021)
I founded the Asian American Dance Theatre (AADT) together with my elder brother Danny in 1974. There were very few, if any, Asian American public dance performances in New York City at that time. For that matter, there were hardly any traditional Asian dancers actively practicing their art. There was a general misconception and exoticization of traditional Asian dance in the eyes of the public, and very little opportunity for Asian American choreographers to create or showcase their works.
Dance classes began in the New York Public Library in New York Chinatown, with my friend Fa Ching Chu from Teachers College, teaching community children how to move freely and creatively outside the confines of their homes and schools. A small group of dancers, Lauren Dong, Nancee Sasaki, George Mars, Wendy Lai, to name a few gathered and we began rehearsals. We rehearsed at Elina Mooney’s beautiful studio Tears Corporation on Broome Street, and produced performances with guest choreographers, three of whom in those early years, were Sin Cha Hong, Sharon Hom, and Teddy Yoshikami. Traditional Asian dances were first showcased at the New York Public Library. Chatham Square branch in Chinatown. Amongst the performers was a percussionist from the Mongolian community in New Jersey. I was always on a lookout for talents in the Asian communities.
My work “Madhouse” was accepted by Louise Roberts to be included in the Clark Center showcase, and, together with Danny my brother’s piece “Asian American Movement in Pieces” was performed at the Graduate Center on 42nd Street. The performance did not receive a positive review from one critic, who complained about the subject matter. That did not dampen my purpose and we began our New York Season every year inviting a different guest choreographer to join in, at theaters around the city including Riverside, Marymount, Schimmel, Open Eye, DTW, etc. I received coverage and reviews from The New York Times, Post, Daily News, Dance Magazine, Bridge Magazine, and many others.
One of the early works that I did “Standstill” based on the #12 hexagram translated as stagnation of the I Ching. I was fascinated by the idea of movements while in stagnation, and the whole meaning of that hexagram with three lines of yang on top and three lines of yin below. The dance was also based on a dream of growing roots into the ground like a tree, which prevented any form of mobility. The dance also used a double mask made by Bob Lee. The mask consists of the face of an old man on one side and the face of a pig’s head on the other. The dance was dark, still, and full of riddles, just like the I Ching.
Another piece I did was “Midare”, created specifically for my choreographer friend Satoru Shimazaki. “Midare” used music of the same name by Ton De Leeuw, and mask by Bob Lee using motifs of bronze vessels of the Zhou Dynasty.
“American modern and Chinese dance blend in many of her works into theatre that has the urgency of the first and the gestural delicacy of the second.”- Jennifer Dunning, The New York Times 1984
“…Its awareness of cross cultural currents makes the Asian American Dance Theatre a fascinating company.”- Jack Anderson, The New York Times 1978
“Yung showed a gracious composure and softness in the plain hand gestures of her absorbing solo ‘Perhaps…’ and ‘The Camp’, the closing piece, was a quietly powerful reminder of the WWII Internment”-Burt Supree, The Village Voice, 1986
Some of the notable people from the NY arts world who saw my works were Richard Lanier of Rockefeller III Fund who spoke to me excitedly after my collaborative piece with my brother Danny, “Identification in Progress #1,#2,#3” at Synod House (1976); Dorothy Vislocky of Hunter College who came backstage to congratulate me on “Passage” at Riverside (1979),costume designed by Kwok Yee Tai; artist Zhang Hong- tu who painted a backdrop for my piece “Silk Road” (1983) in which Onie Lee had her debut at 4 years of age, and Brooklyn College made a documentary of its production; and David White of DTW who complimented my choreography in “Passage”(1980). I truly appreciated all these positive and encouraging responses to my work.
I won awards from Creative Artists and NEA Dance, and I served on the advisory panels at NEA and NYSCA for many years. My contribution representing the Asian American dance to these funding agencies was limited as my community was small and peripheral, an art form outside the mainstream if not obscure. The hierarchical order of dance in the U.S. has always been in descending order - classical ballet, classical modern, contemporary, and the last would be small experimental dance companies of a particular community. While this defines the order of significance of American dance, the questionable category of classical non-western dance in America would fall into Folk Arts.
AADT continued presenting traditional Asian dance, in NYC schools, and across the nation. We sought out dancers from Asia, newly immigrated and not able to find venues for their art. Many times, they sought us out. We presented them in lecture demonstrations in elementary and secondary schools, community centers, and public libraries. These exquisite dancers were ambassadors of their individual cultures, and often, it would be the first time the audience came into contact with a new culture of which they had little knowledge. The performers in full costume spoke to them about the art form and the people behind it. In one school, a student came up to Marlene Pitkow, our Program manager at the time, asked her for her autograph, and asked whether we would be performing on Broadway. Instances like this made my day.
Aside from the one-hour lecture demos, we also provided the Indian Dance and the Chinese Dance Intensive Workshop series respectively, accompanied by comprehensive study guides researched and written by Meriam Lobel, who was a significant force behind our Arts-in-Education program. There were many people behind the scenes making this Asian Dance Program both remarkable and memorable.
There were many people behind the scenes making this Asian Dance Program both remarkable and memorable. The professionalism and the artistry of all our dancers were impeccable. Dancers such as the Balinese sisters Suarti and Suarni were recruited by the Asia Society to further its programs. Choreographer/dancers Kuang Yu Fong, Tomie Hahn, Marie Alonzo, and Ananya Chatterjea all worked in the capacity of management, and continued in their respective careers in academia, research, publications, and setting up their own performance companies among many other things. They all had great accomplishments after AADT. I am so honored to have crossed paths with them.
Introducing traditional Asian dances was not limited to NYC schools. We also took the company on tour, sometimes together with the contemporary repertoire. We performed for audiences large and small across the country, both indoors in theaters and outdoors at festivals.
I would like to acknowledge all the dancers/choreographers who passed through the Asian American Dance Theatre in both our traditional and contemporary repertoire, at home and on tour, contributing to both the artistry and history of AADT. I am grateful to their involvement and participation in making the AADT possible. Without their dedication, AADT could not have happened.
Behind the scene personnel were notable stage managers and light designers, including sound/composer Brooks Williams, who composed original work for my dance piece “Dreams and Fantasies” (1985), and later became Board member of the organization.
Back at home base, we started the innovative series D’Asia Vu, its name credited to Tomie Hahn. The first D’Asia Vu presentation took place at Ilene Pinder’s Balinese American Dance Theater before moving back to our own venue at 26 Bowery. Mary Hays, the then Director of the New York State Council on the Arts at the time, was in the audience.
At 26 Bowery, we continued our own community school. There were classes in children’s ballet and creative dance, as well as adult Chinese dance, Jazz, Alexander technique, Jazzercise, Taichi, and in some years by popular demand, ballroom dancing. Memorable are the teachers Nai-Ni Chen, Oilin McBreen, Boon Teo, Vivien Chen, Linda Reiff, Chen Min and Yen Leung. Elaine Chu began her connection with me as babysitter at 16, then turned assistant administrator, bookkeeper for the organization, and finally became School Manager when her own children were attending high school. For many years, we had Annual Dance Recitals, bringing together the children, their parents and the community. We had large coverage from the local media, and truly enjoyed being a community arts organization.
These days I sometimes encounter in Chinatown, parents and grand parents of former students. They greet me warmly. It is gratifying to hear one parent telling me how appreciative he is. He credited the growth and success of his children to the weekly classes they attended at the Asian American DanceTheatre/Arts Centre in their formative years.
While the dance component of the organization continued briefly into 1992, my tenure at the Asian American Dance Theatre as Artistic and Executive Director ended in 1990, and the organization became primarily a Visual Arts organization.