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Reviewed by:
  • Choreographing Asian America
  • Randy Barbara Kaplan
Choreographing Asian America. By Yutian Wong. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2010. Paper, $27.95.

The opening sentence of Yutian Wong's introduction to Choreographing Asian America, "Can you name an Asian American choreographer?" suggests that the author is embarking on a narrative overview of preeminent Asian American choreographers who emerged from America's modern dance movement—Yuriko, Mel Wong, Ruby Shang, H. T. Chen, Eleanor Yung, Peggy Choi, and Maura Nguyen Donohue. However, Wong, a professor of dance at San Francisco State University, has a different and more nuanced objective than recounting names, dates, and titles of dance pieces created by American dancers of East Asian descent. Acknowledging that historical treatments of Asian American theatre ensembles focusing on predominantly text-based works have been thoroughly chronicled by fellow scholars Yuko Kurahashi (Asian American Culture Onstage, 1999) and Esther Lee Kim (A History of Asian American Theatre, 2006), Wong posits instead that Asian American dance, historically and currently relegated to the margins of the margins of academic inquiry, is fundamentally worthy of serious scholarly consideration as self-conscious acts of political resistance. She therefore eschews considering "the lineage of form[s]" to focus instead on "the politics of representation" (p. 223), that is, sociopolitical implications of creative processes culminating in the presentation of and by Asian American bodies through live, non-textually based performance.

Utilizing an investigational strategy she describes as "performative autoethnography" inspired by the theoretical frameworks of Dorinne Kondo and Johannes Fabian (pp. 6, 89-99), Wong situates herself simultaneously as objective viewer interpreting her subjective participation in Laughter from the Children of War (1995) and Stories from a Nail Salon (1999), two works devised by Club O'Noodles, America's first specifically Vietnamese American performance ensemble. This positioning enables Wong to wrestle with provocative issues of inclusion and exclusion, pan-Asian identities and ownership, authority and representation, and reinscription and internalization of stereotypes from two vantage points, resulting in a kaleidoscopic rendering of her critiques of Orientalist practice and precedent filtered through her own personal experiences. Throughout, Wong seeks to apply the creative lessons she learned as a member of Club O'Noodles to the examination of strategies utilized by Asian American dance artists in their struggles to move beyond boundaries that have conspired to restrict their choreographic opportunities.

Wong's voice is outspoken and frank, at her sharpest when upending the American academy's widely held reverence for preeminent "Oriental authority" Ruth St. Denis (pp. 43-51) and dismantling the implications of Miss Saigon (pp. 180-216), the ever-metastasizing global productions of which arrogantly—even twenty years after its Broadway debut—persist in marketing images of the Asian female body as perambulatory sex organ. When Wong takes on the ignorance of well-intended arts and academic administrators, she is especially on target. Who among those in Asian and Asian American theatre [End Page 332] studies cannot but nod knowingly when Wong finds herself regaled with "unsolicited and detailed descriptions of Balinese dancers, Chinese acrobats, and Japanese tea ceremonies" (p. 12) by individuals who insist on conflating "Asian" with "Asian American" and assuming "Asia" to be a single mythical monolith?

Turning her sights to the (dis)placement of Asian American dance within the academy, Wong notes that university administrators and academic conference planners rely on dance and other forms of performance to "jazz up" conference programming and market images of "cultural sophistication and breadth" (p. 35) while simultaneously giving no thought to depriving artists of reasonable income and choking performance programs when budget crunches loom. Within those parameters, Asian American performance artists whose work cannot by definition be faithfully reproduced in the form of published texts find themselves doubly marginalized, and expected to perform for little, if any, remuneration in the name of promoting "diversity." Finally, all too often, "ethnic programming" is relegated to benign but uneducated events planners on American campuses where student culture clubs seek to present themselves as compliant ambassadors of "multi-culti" agendas. As a result, the potential political power of Asian American dance performance is rendered invisible when charming fan and ribbon dances served up with dim sum encourage programmers and audiences to infantilize...