Interview With Beyond the Box Artist Lenora Lee

Lenora Lee has been a dancer, choreographer, and artistic director in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. She has been an Artist Fellow at the de Young Museum, a Djerassi Resident Artist, and a Visiting Scholar at New York University through the Asian/Pacific/American Institute. She is currently an Artist in Residence at Dance Mission Theater. The mission of Lenora Lee Dance (LLD) is to create and present large-scale multimedia performance works integrating dance, music, video projection, and text that connect various styles of movement and music to culture, history, and human rights issues. LLD is weaving together multiple artistic disciplines and socially conscious work, pushing the relevance of arts in various communities throughout the country.

This interview has been edited for length, clarity, and content.

Patricia Nguyen: I am very honored to have the opportunity to talk to you about your work and your process. Would you like to introduce yourself?

Lenora Lee: Sure, my name is Lenora Lee, and I’ll be collaborating and dancing with Rika Lin in one of the performances of her series.

Patricia: What about the Beyond the Box Series are you most excited about?

Lenora: It’s an exciting opportunity to be working with Rika because this will kind of be our debut collaborative project together. I’ve known her for several years now, and I’ve had the opportunity to witness her work, her performances, and her behind the scenes. So, it’s exciting to put something into action with her.

Patricia: Rika mentioned your amazing work as a site-specific artist.

Lenora: Yes, I have been working site-specifically for many years now—not solely site-specifically, but more and more so in the last few years. I tend to seek out historic locations: some that are affiliated with the National Park Service or the California State Parks. There is something about the history of who had inhabited those spaces before or of the work that has been done there in the past that piques my interest. I’m curious about how what has occurred to various communities in the past might influence what is happening in the present, as well what will happen in the future.

Patricia: How do you see the traditional art of kabuki having contemporary relevance?

Lenora: Well, I’ve had the opportunity to work with several traditional artists. There is such a history and beauty in traditional arts that folks who are not exposed to them may not have an awareness or appreciation for. I think when we bring traditional forms forward and integrate them with contemporary forms, we are able to see a very direct form of communication. It’s pretty fascinating because this conversation between forms can lead the audience to question their assumptions about the performance that they might have hadwalkingin. When we see performances with different styles of movement or music, we can let those assumptions dissolve away and let the art become more of a relatable, human experience.

I don’t have the background in kabuki, so what I am bringing to the project is my work in modern and contemporary dance. I have the tools to choreograph and collaborate. In the past, I worked on and off with Melody Takata in the Bay area for many years, who is also a Japanese classical dancer as well as Japanese Taiko drummer. When I’m collaborating with her, I amablecontribute my background in improvisation and choreography from a more Western perspective, as well as my training in various styles of movement. I’ve studied modern dance, ballet, several forms of martial arts, Tai Chi, and some African forms of dance. They all inherently come out in the movement when I create.

Patricia: How does this expansive list of different aesthetics shape your method in creating work?

Lenora: I was very much influenced by my mentors and instructors while studying dance at UCLA with Victoria Marx and David Geer. I really found my voice to a movement in that time of my life. During that time, I also studied saxophone from Frances Long! They really pushed me and encouraged me tofindingmy voice, and taught me to create some thematic connections or content in my work that were drawn from my everyday life. From then until now, my work has been driven by being able to provide a voice for underrepresented communities dealt with injustice in the past. It’s what compels me to continue to create and want to do my work. Because I feel I can create connections with audience members through movement when I create my work that will hopefully provide an awareness of a window of perspective into the lives of others.

Patricia: I think that is important and powerful in this moment, as we face overt injustices and the arts and humanities are threatened with defunding. I think it’s very important that you integrate your practice with everyday lives and it makes me think about what it means to tell these stories of communities as a form of resistance and empowerment, especially when those communities are historically underrepresented and have had to face forced migration or dispossession.

Patricia: what do you want people to walk away with from your performance?

Lenora: In the last few years, I have been working more with immersive performance and being able to blur the lines between audience space and performance space. Rika and I are discussing the space that we will perform in, and I am hoping that we can create an intimate environment for the audience members. Hopefully, the work will spark some questions for the audience and help to break down the barrier between the traditional and the contemporary. Because we want for that story to unfold in a kind of organic and humanistic fashion to provide an interesting perspective on a historical piece.

Patricia: Last, last question! Is there anything else you want to mention in terms of what working on this project means for you?

Lenora: I feel very honored to be asked for this project! I lived in New York for a while, did some work in New York, I went to school in LosAngeles,and then was based in San Francisco for the last ten years. So, in some ways, this is a pretty large collaborative project with Chicago-based movement artists, and it’s exciting and refreshing to be able to be able to part of the Chicago movement community. It’s exciting!

I’ve been able to work with Tatsu for several years as well. He has been a part of projects of mine, and we are premiering a film we worked on together. It seems the Chicago connection is deepening for me and I think that is a real blessing.

Patricia:That is amazing. We are so excited for you to come to Chicago and really honored to have you present your work.


Patricia Nguyen is an artist, educator, and scholar who was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. As a child of refugees, her performance work is grounded in her family’s stories to critically engage with issues of forced migration, notions of freedom, inherited war trauma, memory, home, and healing. In her practice as a performance artist, she works creating durational performances and devised theater pieces that bring together oral histories of Vietnamese/American refugees through poetry and labor intensive movements while working with a juxtaposition between natural and fabricated materials (such as water, soil, fish sauce, fabric, and plastics). Her work in installation art seeks to play with the tactile and sensorialaffectsof audience witnessing and participation. Presently, she is experimenting with the place of ephemerality in performance and installation, asking, “how can we archive an experience?” and “where does the body dis/appear in installation art?”