The multi-collaborative project Convergent Waves: Boston shares voices and different perspectives in both creation and presentation. Directed and choreographed by Lenora Lee, the film version of the piece performed at the Pao Arts Center this past April integrates different textures to speak of the history of housing for the Asian communities in Boston: historical images and maps projected on the wall, voiceovers of interviewees from the Boston organizations, dancers who navigate choreography and audience participations. The planning process of this project, including the theme carried over to three other cities, is as unique and fascinating as the piece itself. I spoke with Lee about the idea behind the project, her pieces, and the partners that helped make this happen.
BOSTON HASSLE: Can you share a little bit of what your piece is about?
LENORA LEE: Convergent Waves features activism from residents and people who have worked in Boston in terms of fighting for affordable housing and resources for the community. Before the pandemic began, I had the opportunity to interview fourteen people about their experiences in Chinatown. It’s an immersive dance that was created specifically for Pao Arts Center, which was built in a complex in partnership with Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center and Asian Community Development Corporation. It was almost six years in the making for this project because of the pandemic and its first iteration was a series of performances at Pao Arts Center in April of this year. Then, with the support of ArtsEmerson and Boston Asian American Film Festival, we were able to translate it into a film version of the piece, which is currently screening now.
BH: The piece is being featured in a few different cities. How did you choose Boston?
LL: We’re based in San Francisco and we’ve been creating immersive work since 2015, but we’ve been doing multimedia performance projects since 2009. One project that we did was set in a historic building in San Francisco Chinatown called the Donaldina Cameron House. A National Park Service employee, Charlie Tracy, saw our show. He was visiting from Boston, and was asking Golden Gate National Recreation Center staff about its cultivation of San Francisco community partnerships they had. The Boston NPS wanted to develop deeper partnerships with Boston Chinatown organizations, given the proximity of the NPS historic sites to Chinatown. The Boston site wanted to have more integrated programming and relationships with the Chinatown community. After he approached me and suggested that I consider creating a performance piece in Boston, I thought that it was an incredible idea. I’d never been to Boston before but he planted the seed in my head.
The following month, in October 2016, I visited Boston, and Charlie put me in touch with several different NPS people. I got to see many historic sites. Through Charlie and my time serving as a contractor at the San Francisco Chinese Historical Society, I met people like Susan Chinsen, who was then the director of the Chinese Historical Society of New England, and people at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center. I started doing research and fundraised with the Pao Arts Center for several years for this project. The multi-city component is a result of receiving the New England Foundation for the Arts National Dance Project grant, which supported the creation of the Boston project and our ability to tour to at least three different cities, of which I chose San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. I proposed to do interviews in those cities with specific communities who are also facing displacement and gentrification.
BH: I’m glad you mention this because I saw that the San Francisco piece happened in June. Are you creating a different piece for each city in terms of having different interviewees and voices?
LL: Yes, we had the opportunity to collaborate with the Chinatown Community Development Center, who we have had a long-standing partnership with through Asian Improv aRts, the Asian Art Museum, and the Au Co Vietnamese Cultural Center. Through mutual contacts of those organizations, I was able to interview residents and advocates of the Tenderloin neighborhood, which is incredibly multi-ethnic. There is also a huge unhoused population in San Francisco. The neighborhood has seen a lot of shifts, especially around the Tenderloin/Civic Center area, which has been magnified by the pandemic.
My feeling is that for each city, there are different issues that are occurring in a similar realm: the fight against displacement and gentrification, the fight for affordable housing and resources for low-income groups, immigrants, and refugees. That’s what we dealt with in San Francisco, which is experiencing a major housing crisis. In New York, there’s been quite a bit of anti-Asian harassment, violent attacks, and murders. The idea for New York is to take a look at the solidarity work that’s being done, interview those doing the work, and have it be an integration of Asian, Latinx, and Black intersection of building bridges and cultural understanding.
BH: Was there anything about Boston that surprised you?
LL: People have been receptive to the project and work. They have been incredibly supportive in connecting me with different community advocates, former residents, and introducing me to people in different Chinatown organizations. Those that I’ve spoken to have been open and honest about the challenges they and the community have faced over the decades as well as major strides and accomplishments that they have had within this field and in the community. I do feel like there’s an excitement around the fact that we’re making visible stories of Asian American community in creative and innovative ways. From what I’ve heard, there aren’t too many Asian American dancers in the Boston dance community, so it’s been challenging for them to give voice to the Asian American experiences and or to feel supported to do that.
We did a limited run of three shows, and they were very impactful for all of us involved and for the people who attended. After a two-year hiatus from the pandemic, it was incredibly exciting and gratifying. The choice to create a film version through Pao Arts and ArtsEmerson was strategic since it can give the piece a longer lifespan. It’s wonderful because we can share it more broadly. I have to consider the issue of fundraising to create the pieces in each city and community. There may be more funding available for certain cities than others and I’d have to figure out how to evolve the project for each location and for each voice that is going to be in each film score.
BH: I saw that some of the dancers are Boston-based.
LL: That was one of the desires from the beginning: having a collaboration between Boston dancers and San Francisco dancers. I think in New York, we’ll have to audition to garner a diverse cast. Since we had several years of planning in Boston, we were able to secure more support. The NEFA grant supports some of the touring, but there are still a lot of other costs, so we are collaborating with presenters and partner organizations for the other cities.
BH: Speaking more generally, how did you come about incorporating dance and video projection into your visuals?
LL: As I mentioned, we started doing multimedia work in 2009. In the last 15 years, our projects have been heavily research-based. Sometimes we’ll integrate historical images and documents and things that pertain to the content. We also do film shoots on specific historic sites depending on the project. We may recreate scenes of experiences that occurred in the past, or utilize video projection to represent dream states, what is imagined, and or parallel happenings.
As you’re watching the dance performance, it’s an integration of text, poetry, interview audio, music, video projection, and dance, which are all layers of narrative unfolding. We like to think of it as multi-sensory in what you’re seeing, hearing, feeling, and walking through to create the experience of a participant rather than a passive witness. I think that’s what we really enjoy about creating immersive works. The audience isn’t sitting there the whole time separate from the stage. They are inside of the experience and the impact and engagement is much greater. We try to sculpt and create an environment that is inclusive, wanting to give the audience members a way into the stories and feeling like they are part of the communities we are portraying. I’ve done a lot of work on issues related to immigration, incarceration, and most recently specifically the pipeline between incarceration and ICE detention. It’s been incredibly rewarding.
BH: How do you decide where you want the audience to come in?
LL: I’ll back up a little. The dancers and I work collaboratively. We’ll all generate movement and teach each other. As the director, I’ll determine what movement goes where depending on the narrative and who’s speaking. Similarly, we consider lining up the choreography and the flow of the dancers moving from room to room, as well as considering the audience flow. I would say the choreography and interaction with the audience has to do a lot with what’s being said in the voiceover. For example, there’s a part where one of the interviewees speaks about living in a space of three or four families living in one room.
These types of stories worked well with subtle movement and interaction with the audience. If the message needs to be received in a quiet way, we may simplify the choreography. We tried to interact with the audience often through this piece and it happens in different sections, such as during transitions from room to room. I gave the dancers a lot of free rein to determine when it felt best. Sometimes two of the dancers might be doing set choreography while the other two are improvising. We don’t necessarily know how the audience is going to respond prior to finishing the piece and performing it. It often comes in the implementation of the project where the dancers begin to know the text more intimately, and we have test runs with a few audience members during dress rehearsals. Some of the Boston dancers had never done immersive projects like this before, so a lot of it was hypothetical until we had sample audience members. We activated our emotional intelligence as human beings in relationship to one another and to audiences. It was a continual exchange of performing choreography, and making improvisation choices with respect to dance and in building relationships with the audience.
BH: From a filmmaking perspective, how do you decide to frame the dancer, whether it’s the entire body or close-ups?
LL: The ArtsEmerson production crew ended up filming several shows. The day after we closed, we decided to film throughout the day without an audience and made sure that we got full body shots and close-ups from many angles. The exciting thing was that the production crew wanted to make sure that the immersive performance translated well through to film. A lot of their preferences was to get the camera up and close, and for the dancers, we wanted to make sure that the full body is caught on camera in order to see the full choreography. I think it ended up being a nice combination of both.
BH: Did you feel like you had to balance the experience between what the audiences saw in that room and creating the film experience?
LL: We tried to display what was happening in multiple rooms at the same time. From that perspective, the viewer watching the film is seeing more than they would have caught if they were an audience member. If we were to make a more standard dance film similar to what we see in dance film festivals, we would have done it differently. We wouldn’t have integrated the audience footage and would have scheduled the filming with a lot more time to do multiple takes with steady cameras or angle the shots in different ways. But the intention here was to document the actual performance experience.
BH: I’m not familiar with dance films, but do they tend to be more theatrical?
LL: I feel like dance films are more about capturing the choreography as it’s meant to be seen in person. The way that we’ve been generating both performance pieces and film — and this is not necessarily the Boston piece — is that it’s shot in a cinematic way, and we are able to deepen the impact of a more narratively driven work. I can send you some footage of our “Within These Walls” project that I worked on with the filmmaker Tatsu Aoki. It was created and filmed on Angel Island and was dedicated to the 170,000 Chinese who were detained, interrogated, and processed at the U.S. Immigration Station there between 1910 and 1940.
BH: You mentioned about New York, which I saw was scheduled for the spring of next year.
LL: We’re probably going to push it to 2024 for fundraising purposes.
BH: What do you feel would be the longest part of the process? I imagine the crux of it is the research.
LL: Generally, I have to say that not every project takes as long as the one in Boston. Since I wasn’t from Boston, I had to take several research trips back and forth and narrow down the focus of the themes and content. Before I decided on displacement and gentrification, I was looking more at early Chinese immigration to Boston. In regards to the NYC piece, I used to live there from 2004 to 2008 and try to keep in touch with the people that I know there. I’ve also done other projects that are New York-related, like “Rescued Memories: New York Stories” and the film LIGHT with Tatsu. For this upcoming project, I’d take several trips to New York to do the research and interview different people. From there, I’d start going through the interviews and determine how to shape the soundscore for the piece. The hope is that we’ll work with the same dancers, in addition to new ones, integrate some of the previous choreography, and generate new movement as well.
Convergent Waves: Boston is available as a free virtual event courtesy of ArtsEmerson. It runs from 12/6 through 12/20.