Today we introduce a new monthly column by Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang. Remember that Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent who was putting on a one woman show in LA about being a Third Culture Kid? You know, she “came out” as a TCK on stage, and lived to write a post about it? Lisa will be searching for other TCK talents to interview for the series. She debuts with a two-part conversation with fellow TCK performing artist Alaine Handa (pictured). Part 2 is here.
Third Culture Kids (TCKs) are making headlines these days for their creative output. We see them being featured in established news outlets and online magazines, as well as on popular blogs. I suspect that the emergence of Barack Obama as national and global leader—he is an Adult TCK (ATCK)—has contributed to the phenomenon.
Still, ATCKs in the performing arts remain relatively rare, so as an ATCK actress-writer I’m always happy to learn of fellow ATCK performing artists like Alaine Handa, a second-generation TCK who works as a choreographer/dancer.
Alaine was born in Singapore. She spent her childhood in Jakarta and adolescence in Singapore. She went to college in Los Angeles, California, and then moved to New York, where she formed her own troupe in December 2007: A.H. Dance Company.
She has since moved back to Singapore, where she has lived for the last year.
In this, the first of a two-part interview, I ask Alaine to tell us about her company, her TCK background, and her first internationally touring show, Chameleon: The Experiences of Global Citizens. In Part Two of the interview, to be posted tomorrow, we’ll move on to talking about her production that is about to premiere (!) at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
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Hi, Alaine. I’m curious: what led you to form your own dance company?
Ever since I was a young teenaged dancer, I aspired to have a professional dance company that toured the world performing in different venues, festivals and theaters. I think it was because I longed to have my own choreographic voice to create dance pieces that meant something to me. Still, the decision wasn’t easy to go from dancer/choreographer to choreographer first and dancer second. After moving to New York, I continued performing for other choreographers and project-based dance companies. I only decided at the end of 2009 to focus solely on choreography while performing occasionally. I guess you could say I never lost my determination to make that happen.
Can you tell us more about your background as a second-generation Third Culture Kid?
Both my parents are TCKs. My heritage is mostly Hakka Chinese (with a bit of mix in there somewhere along the lineage). My grandparents and great-grandparents were Chinese immigrants from somewhere in China who settled in Jakarta. My mom attended an English school until it was shut down due to political pressure. She then was sent to boarding schools in Hong Kong and Sydney, and she graduated from an Australian university outside of Sydney. Meanwhile, my Dad attended a Chinese school in Jakarta before it was shut down. He helped his parents for a couple of years and then was sent to Singapore to learn English. After a year, he went to London to attend university and then to Boston to obtain a doctoral degree in optometry.
Which culture do you most identify with?
I attended American international schools in Jakarta and Singapore so I’d say I’m culturally very American. I majored in dance through UCLA’s Department of World Arts & Cultures, which looked at dance and the arts in a sociological-anthropological way and as a community-building catalyst. And then I spent seven years performing, teaching, choreographing, living, creating, loving, and building a community of TCKs in New York.
ACT 1: Chameleon goes to the Toronto Fringe Festival
A couple of years ago, your company put on a show at the Toronto Fringe Festival entitled Chameleon: The Experiences of Global Citizens. I enjoyed watching the video clip of your performance. Please tell us more about it.
Chameleon, the Experiences of Global Citizens is a full dance production with a rotating cast of three to six dancers using film, spoken word, jewelry design, music, and photography, to support the personal stories of TCKs, Cross-Cultural Kids (CCKs), and Global Citizens. Each dancer performs a solo in the production in addition to dancing in the group sections.
The video excerpt is only one section of the production: my solo. (Thanks for watching!) I layered together three different poems for the sound:
- “Uniquely Me,” by Alex Graham James from Ruth Van Reken and David C. Pollock’s book, Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds.
- “De Främmande Länderna” by Edith Södergran (translated into English), a Swedish poet I studied while attending UCLA.
- Last but not least, “Eulogy to my multi-racial / Multi-cultural ancestors / Also known as the anti-eulogy / To my multi-racial / Multi-cultural ancestors,” by Leilani Chan, an Asian-American theatre director in LA.
It sounds as though you’ve rolled TCK and CCK art into one cohesive piece—much like a TCK or CCK individual is the sum of many seemingly disparate parts, creating a vivid, unique entity. What was the thought process that produced this art?
Hmmm…my thought process in creating Chameleon was a lengthy one as it is very personal to me. A little trip down memory lane is probably the best way to describe it.
I graduated high school in 2001 and then moved to Southern California to attend Pitzer College. 9/11 happened a couple of weeks in. Everyone in the States was in patriotic mode. I didn’t quite fit in. Many journal entries, tears, frustrations, and conversations later, I wrote about my experience as an outsider/insider and drafted a dance piece about my mixed up cultural identity that I wanted to choreograph for my senior project. I transferred to UCLA for my third and fourth year. I experienced bouts of severe depression and several anxiety attacks throughout my college years and began to see the “light” at the end of the dark tunnel my final year.
A friend told me about the Third Culture Kids book in 2003, and a life-changing epiphany happened. I returned to my journal entries and found my ideas to create a dance piece about my experience as a TCK for my senior project. I cast a multicultural group of dancers, interviewed TCKs I knew for my very first documentary film “I am a TCK,” and rented a theatre in L.A. for my senior project and titled the piece “Third Culture Kids.” The first part of the production was the half-hour documentary film followed by a 20-minute dance piece that was autobiographical in nature. This would become the very first draft of Chameleon.
After graduation from UCLA, I was burnt out and moved to New York to pursue a career in dance. I knew that my TCK dance piece needed to be re-created again at some point. I performed for a bunch of independent choreographers, dance companies, and was teaching dance in the public schools in Brooklyn. I formed A.H. Dance Company at the end of 2007 and we had two performing seasons before I decided the time was right to tackle the stories and experiences of TCKs again. I cast dancers that were cross-cultural or TCKs, a TCK actress, a TCK jewelry designer (who created our prop pieces that were an amalgamation of HER TCK experiences), and TCK/CCK/TCA photographers submitted their work to be used as backdrops for the dance sections. I also extended and re-edited the film “I am a TCK” by interviewing even more TCKs. We premiered the piece at University Settlement in New York as part of their Spring Season in 2010, after receiving some funding from Singapore International Foundation, which also funded the performance at the Toronto Fringe Festival.
ACT II: Chameleon travels widely and goes global
We toured the production to festivals and organizations with community programming. I even presented portions of the piece, including the rehearsal process, twice at the annual Families in Global Transitions (FIGT) conference, where I met Ruth Van Reken, Tina Quick, Apple Gidley, Jo Parfitt, Julia Simens, Judy Rickatson, and many more of the TCK researchers, expat writers/bloggers, international educators, and more.
I am very proud of this work and how it has traveled around the world. Currently, Chameleon has taken on a more educational approach. I’ve re-set portions of the piece for student TCK dancers from Singapore American School and they performed it in Kuala Lumpur as well as in Singapore. In January this year, I traveled to Guangzhou to re-set a simpler version on TCK students (a lot of them were non-dancers) at the Utahloy International School for a week-long residency that culminated in a performance. The rehearsal process of telling the personal stories of TCKs through movement and dance with spoken word was equally as rewarding as the student performance itself.
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This just in from Alaine at the Edinburgh Festival: The preview performances of her latest production, Habitat, have been going well, and they’ve even received a recommendation from a local newspaper, behind famous greats like Carlos Acosta and the Bolshoi Ballet (which are actually playing in London). Kudos, Alaine!
Tomorrow we’ll talk to Alaine about how this production came about. Any questions for her, meantime?
STAY TUNED for Part 2 of Lisa Liang’s conversation with Alaine Handa.
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img: Alaine Handa, by Anthony Schiavo, courtesy A.H. Dance Company.