Artists Benjamin Akio Kimitch and Yo-Yo Lin both invite collaborators into their performance work as they search for authentic personal expression, and ultimately reimagine stereotypes to create transformative connections with their audiences and their own selves. Tiger Hands, Kimitch’s Open Call performance, enlivens the early experimental energy of Peking opera through the lens of his formative training in Chinese dance and intimate encounters with the artform. Lin, in her multisensory performance channels, explores the intricate pathways of the chronically ill body by weaving audiovisual poetry, bodily music, and technology-mediated dance together to invoke crip, cybernetic possibilities for how we imagine our bodies.
When they met online in May to share their journeys in conceptualizing and creating their Open Call projects, they discussed the body as a vessel for memory and expression of identity, tapping into the invisible, and how they’ve found abundance in their artistic communities in New York City.
Ben, I know about the Peking opera posture “tiger hands” as a form, but I’d love to know more about its context and your process of approaching that kind of dance work. What are the containers that hold your work, if there are any?
Benjamin Akio Kimitch:
A container for any dance is a huge question because with dance the material is your body and the body is social. It is political. It’s full of memories. It’s so personal that immediately the making of a dance is an intense experience for me, because I’m faced with all these questions about myself in the process of making it.
For Open Call, I wanted to imagine something that’s bigger than what I’ve done before—more dancers, more author-designed elements like having more control over the container, the environment in which the piece happens. But then on a personal level, I was trying to answer these questions about lost memory and lost movement language that did exist in my body. Where did that go and how do I tap back into that? What’s the history of that experience? How do I build a community around it? Because it was 2020, I was feeling alone in general isolation, but especially as an experimental Asian American dancer and also as an Asian American who didn’t understand or know if I was “really” Asian American.
There’s the project description you can read [on The Shed’s website], but deep inside it’s about finding all of those personal things and the journey along the way.
Oh my gosh, Ben, so much of what you said about lost memories in the body and using movement as a tool and a vehicle to access those memories is very interesting to me, too. A lot of the work I’ve been trying to do with my body has been coming from a space of thinking there’s so much that my body holds that I never create space for or give language to. A lot of it is intertwined with experiences with living with disability, living with the questionings of identity itself. Am I disabled enough? Am I Asian enough? Am I American enough? There are so many layers there that I’ve slowly been excavating over the years and finding these little pieces and fragments and piecing them together into something that feels whole.
A lot of what I’ve been working on has been figuring out all the different invisible things that the body holds. And that comes from my interest in thinking through how my disability has become less visible over time and how in that state, where and how does my illness present itself in my body? In the ways I interact with people, in the ways I connect with others? And also thinking through how so much of that is connected to these ideas of invisible channels in the body because so many of my experiences with disability involve going to Chinese medicine practitioners. My research right now is looking at different ideas of the body outside the language of Western medical-based institutions.
Coming back into this traditional healing space, I realized there are things we can’t see—things that are there that we can perceive but don’t really have any way of actually, scientifically pinpointing. That was fascinating to me because it’s similar to the elusiveness of trying to understand my body and what it means to have a traditional Chinese/Taiwanese/Asian ancestry and how that in and of itself is quite elusive to me, too. There are different sensations I’ve been feeling in my body over the years going to these healers, along with the different sensations that emerge when I’m dancing and moving to the sounds of my body.
All very new, all very strange, kind of scary, generative stuff that happens in the moment. That’s what’s really exciting about it because I never know where these sensations lead. I just follow them in the moments when I connect with that process.
You’ve both mentioned or alluded to notions of the “new” versus the “traditional”? There’s a kind of historicizing that happens when we talk about the “experimental,” or the new versus the traditional, that feels related to the invisibility of different experiences or concepts that you’re also both referencing. What do you think about those terms?
With Traditional Chinese Medicine, so much of that has been labeled as pseudoscience or seen as an alternative medicine in Western medicine that it doesn’t have a lot of standing as a way of getting care. But recently, so much of it has re-emerged as a valuable way of getting care, especially among the chronically ill community as a reaction to the failings and violence of the medical system. In TCM it’s about actually having a process of mediating pain, of maintenance, of resilience, and allowing yourself to be a whole body.
Those traditions have been very interesting for me to re-navigate and also discover for the first time. They are ancient knowledge yet also new, often even radical in the context of the times we live in. In the artistic traditions that I partake in, my work is rooted in interdisciplinary work. At the core of my practice, I do video and animation and also a lot of live projection work. Through the years, this has merged with movement exploration work and with my collaborators’ sound performance work. We’ve all been studying, researching, and trained in a particular medium but it becomes this entirely new thing when it all comes together.
I sometimes don’t even understand what tradition is in a way. There’s this perception of tradition as something that is answered already, as if frozen. You can go beyond the simplicity of that perception and really track the history of a tradition, as I was trying to do with my Chinese dance training which led me to Chinese opera as a building block of how that form is codified today. I suddenly uncovered these watershed moments where I realized that some of what we hold up as “traditional” should be part of a contemporary, artistic conversation. It’s created and it’s moved by people. There are radical people along the way that had questions and experimented and tried something out.
If you want to call that experimentation, I guess you can. I wonder if there’s these moments where tradition could look back on itself in a way that people rediscover something. Even Chinese dance is actually a very multicultural, influenced form that then found its way to having a singular, national identity around it. I’m Japanese American but having such a history in my childhood training in a Chinese art form and being around that culture, it becomes my dance heritage and a way that my body finds joy in moving. There’s authenticity in that—is it traditional dance or is it something that is contemporary, because I’m a human and I’m contemporary? I’m trying as you said, Yo-Yo, to identify the fragments and live with them through osmosis until they find a whole that feels authentic to me.
This performance I’m creating requires me to go into the space of considering what the things are that I want to say when it comes to talking about pain. And what do I want to say when it comes to talking about these internal experiences? For me, it hasn’t entirely felt like I’m trying to take something super tender inside of me and show it to the world. Sometimes it feels like I’m trying to get closer to myself. I’m just trying to understand myself in a way that I haven’t been able to before.
For me, that’s exciting. I’m more interested in memory as this living, malleable process that when you uncover it, it becomes something new again.
I saw your work in progress at Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX) and everything you’re saying I connect with so much. It reminds me of what you said earlier about tapping into things that feel invisible. What’s cool about your piece is you have these collaborators with you who are in this immediate feedback loop of generating what they’re seeing as your first audience. You have a describer who’s generating immediate text [that describes the performance] and me, in the seated audience, I’m reading the text. I can’t see the audio describer but the words that they’re generating are so in tune to my ephemeral experience.
Everything is happening on these sensory planes, all a part of you ultimately, which is just so beautiful and totally poetic.
Ben, thank you for sharing those impressions. Oftentimes, this work is heavy to hold. And then I come across collaborators, and all of a sudden it’s transformed into something else.
Ben, what about your relationship to people you dance with? What’s that collaboration like?
I’ve never worked with as many as three dancers before, so Tiger Hands feels like a big group project for me. I’ve been thinking a lot about this because the memories I’m mining are very personal to this one experience I had in a traditional Chinese opera school in Shanghai, and that all lives in my body in a very specific way. The three dancers in Tiger Hands, and myself, all have a relationship to whiteness in our family or our upbringing in some way and the process of inviting them into my personal journey and teaching them activated these threads of curiosity I had going into the project. Everything exploded just by being in the room with their brilliance. And because all three of them have their own dance experiences, their own relationship to their respective heritage, they’re all bringing their own interpretation, their own authenticity to Peking opera forms. Now it’s because of them, I’m able to see beyond a tunnel vision I had going into this project, or I can see the actual contemporary possibilities of moving beyond the frame of the form itself.
Is there a relationship of movement to writing and text in your work?
Over the years of doing this kind of work, I’ve discovered a lot of what channels is about is exploring how to bring language to these experiences. There’s something about the languageless-ness of illness that I’m really interested in and that calls to me in creating these different visual languages, these soft data frameworks, to collect all of this information so that I can be able to talk about this experience in a way that is less amorphous.
I’m doing research into the ways language reinforces how we conceptualize the body. Does pain destroy language or can it create it? Writing itself is also very rooted in bringing into form abstract concepts so that we can talk about them. I think about how that ties into description-based work. So much of sound description, audio description, is all based on language, as well. How does that work of description inform but also become its own aesthetic form, and how do we use that in a way that offers a channel for people to access the work emotionally?
For me, writing is not directly part of my practice. But I have actually done a lot of writing applying for grants and over the course of this Open Call process. There’s been a lot of text generated for the project description, for example, for marketing or these grant applications, which has allowed me to make implicit things really explicit through text.
And for Tiger Hands, I’ve been reading a ton of historical books for research. So I’ve relied on the craft of other writings to be a guide for the dance making.
Is there something in your work that has come about because you live in New York City?
Everything! I grew up in Los Angeles and moved here six years ago.
I was roommates with my collaborator Despina for three years, and that’s how this performance began, over a meal at our kitchen table back in 2018. They introduced me to a lot of dance music and club culture in Brooklyn. The first baby version of this show was actually in a basement club in Ridgewood at a party series they organized.
Before NYC, I didn’t know what a disability community was or that there was even a culture for disability. I realized how much I wanted that when I witnessed it for the first time. I met my collaborator Pelenakeke Brown here through crip community and we joke about being work-wives because we would collaborate on so many projects together, facilitate classes and see shows together.
New York has a really vibrant disability scene, and everyone is also very interested in creating art with a disabled sensibility and perspective. The disabled dance community is how I’ve existed in the dance space. My dance community are disabled dancers. New York gave me my dance community. New York gave me my disability community. And people here also just trust me. There has been support and desire in New York that I haven’t experienced in other places.
I feel the same as you, Yo-Yo. I’ve been in New York for 16 years now. This is where I found people that trust in me and believe in me as an artist. When I think back to going to a public high school in Minnesota, I found community in the drama club, and that was great for me then. But it was in New York that I found a really specific community of dance artists that are so curious and interested in the body and movement.
I don’t know that I would find an abundance of that anywhere else. Also, I was moving carpet for my Open Call project yesterday in a U-Haul, and there were all these little New York encounters along the way. The guy on his bicycle that helped me maneuver my vehicle through this really narrow part of the street, and the woman looking out for me who said, “You should be wearing a back brace!” It’s just all these New York things that are not necessarily a part of the artistic process but they are really part of the path to get there. Everything is so hard but also not impossible, and that’s all embedded in the work somehow.
About the artists
Edited with an introduction by Elizabeth Lothian