“May I Dance on Your Screen” is an online digital exhibition consisting of five video dance works created by Chinese-born dancer and choreographer Rourou Ye. Developed during Covid when live theater was closed, “May I Dance on Your Screen” is now available for viewing as part of the 7th annual Dancing Futures produced by the Bronx Arts ColLABorative in partnership with the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance (BAAD!). The works can be seen through December 31, 2021 at Digitaldance.space.
Rourou Ye is known for her reality-defying performances that combine dance, design, shadow puppetry, and multimedia technology. These latest works cannot exist in a non-digital realm and they convey the complex feelings related to pandemic-prompted isolation. Whilst confined to her home, deprived of typical human contact, and lacking the ability to create in a physical space, Rourou Ye embarked on a journey of making innovative and dreamlike short dance films in her house. These films aim to touch audiences metaphorically and range in tone from playful to wistful to heartbreaking, Ye’s works also reveal the challenges of her Chinese immigrant experience in the U.S.
Rourou Ye recently discussed this work and her career as a whole via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for dance and choreography and how did you break into professional performance?
Rourou Ye: I started dancing when I was 5 years old, and I have always loved it. I entered dance school when I was 12, and that was the beginning of my training towards a professional career. Growing up, I danced all the time, no matter if it was for school or for fun. However, I discovered a more profound love and connection with this art when I started creating works after relocating from China to the US in 2015 for my MFA in dance study at Sarah Lawrence College. The work I was developing allowed me to face my vulnerabilities and deeply explore who I am. My dance works shifted from the exploration of movement design to a series of inquiries regarding my existence.
MM: You grew up in China and moved to the United States, so what are the biggest cultural differences you’ve experienced? How do they inform your work?
RY: I think the most significant impact in my life and one that later informed my work is from the collision and merging of diverse cultures I experienced after my relocation. The shift of my viewpoint of the world from China to the USA has enriched my understanding about the world and myself. The USA is so culturally diverse which is very different from China where I was mostly surrounded by my own people and culture. Over my first years in America, I started to develop a lot of new perspectives about it: for example, I noticed how something “Chinese” was so normal to me yet different and intriguing to others. This can have upsides but I started to realize how easy it is to fall into stereotypes. Then a bigger issue arose – I found myself struggling to get rid of the preconceptions and labels that come from how others perceive me and how I view myself when I present myself in the USA. I hated it. Why can’t I just be myself? A childish self sometimes would complain. Being a second language speaker is also a challenge: even in dancing training, verbal communication in the US is much more prominent than people realize. I found myself at war fighting racism and equality, along with Black and Latino artists. It is something I cannot solve by myself. None of this constituted a challenge when I lived in China. Oftentimes I’ve been lost in these complications. I became a minority, a person of color, an immigrant; I was seen and treated as an Asian woman – exotic, sexualized. I had my heart broken, my self-worth completely damaged, and felt alone. But my pain and frustrations of my day-to-day life generated my creative energy which pushes me to express them through art.
I love the spirit of people of various cultures and races who live here in the US and are willing to fight for life. They get angry, desperate but they also have hope and are full of love which encourages me to feel and embrace my emotions. Because of this, I was able to embrace who I truly wanted to be. If I were going through a hard time, I would just appear to be sad and vulnerable. I would talk about it and make a dance about it. I would never feel comfortable showing these sides of myself in China because growing up, I had so many roles – I am a daughter of proud parents, a teacher of hundreds of students, a friend of many, and a choreographer for lots of different production teams, etc. I would be scared to show my vulnerabilities and challenges. When I relocated here, I felt free; no one knew who I was and my past. I was able to redefine myself. This transformation has become the basis of all my works, where I would honestly share my struggles.
MM: What inspired you to make a series of short films featuring dancing in your home?
RY: When the pandemic started, I was very discouraged. I didn’t see the potential of dance performance through the virtual platforms. However, I was granted an opportunity to make a virtual performance, so I created “The Absent Umbra”. This project allowed me to see new perspectives approaching virtual performance and dance on-screen, and I started to explore various ways to be creative at home. I have been feeling so creatively inspired since then. During that time, I have constantly been asking myself questions: Why do I dance? Where to dance? Dance at home is the only answer that made sense to me. As I mentioned earlier, my dances have always been deeply connected to my feelings and struggles. The captivity we experienced and the lockdown of the world have triggered and disoriented various aspects of my life and existence. So, staying/dancing at home is the critical context for all.
MM: Of all the little films, which are your favorites and why?
RY: “Daydreaming” is my favorite work. Back in 2013, I started making dance videos, and I have made many of them since. But in my opinion, there are huge differences between “Daydreaming” and the videos I made before. I started this project with a relatively clear intention and sorted out a narrative. Dance film is not just a series of movements shot in a beautiful location with an HD camera. When you put a dance work into a film and then present the finished product, the work competes with all sorts of films, not just within the dance field. I constantly question myself during the process: Can the work hold the attention of an ordinary audience? I think “Daydreaming” succeeded in this aspect.
I have also explored many new things during this project. I manipulated a live-feed projection to create another version of myself to dance with in real-time. With the possibility of pre-recorded video projection, I choreographed different movements for different versions of me and had them all perform simultaneously. For example, there was a duet in which I had to choreograph Rourou A’s movement while imagining how Rourou B could interact with her alter ego. After I recorded Rourou A’s complete sequence, Rourou B then practiced interacting with projected Rourou A. There were many complex and challenging yet exciting maneuvers like this; some required me to learn something completely new; others I was able to just solve intuitively. I am quite proud of how all this turned out.
MM: What do you hope audiences take away from the exhibit?
RY: I hope the audiences can enjoy my works and obtain a new understanding of what dance can be and find a new appreciation of the form moving forward.
MM: Was it tough to create work alone during Covid?
RY: Yes, it was rough and tough, not only artistically but in general. Still, creating helped me to cope as dance allows me to embrace my vulnerability and be poetically expressive about my struggles. One of the hardest challenges during that time was navigating both performing and the camera simultaneously. I wish I could really duplicate myself as what I did in “Daydreaming” …
MM: Which of these segments was the most difficult to complete and why?
RY: Setting the right lighting and the color tone for “Daydreaming” was the most challenging part. Since I was performing live and projecting my live performance simultaneously, the space needed to be bright enough for the camera to capture my movement and then send it to the projector. But the brightness in the space would compensate for the image quality of the projector. There was also the aesthetic consideration of color. I wanted to create a nostalgic and dreamlike environment. The lighting in my room was not initially equipped to achieve that, and I had to use my limited knowledge of color in light to create the feeling I was going for. I spend a tremendous amount of time in rehearsal to just set up this aspect right before I even start to move. I really wished I had a lighting designer to help during this process.
MM: What other dance pieces have you created, and what are they about?
RY: As I explained earlier, having moved to a foreign country, I’ve experienced a completely different world that challenges, confuses, and scares me. To create art, I need a place where I can feel, understand my thoughts, reflect the world; a place to search for answers, escape from the real world and ultimately, to validate and give visibility to all the sufferings. All my dances are about struggles. The emotions of my works are usually poignant; however, I tend to create them through whimsical, poetic, and sometimes humorous forms. I work with movement, objects theater, shadow puppetry, projection and camera to devise performances that defy reality. I love to create magic by developing novel perspectives of ordinary things and make illusional visual presentations through lighting manipulations.
One of the themes I often explore is the idea of a trap and feeling entrapped. I try to escape the traps created in different forms and circumstances, and I fail in the end. “The Absent Umbra”, which is also part of the exhibition, consists of shadow images of a girl, a window, a small house, and a sad face from cardboard cutouts. Through the interplay of the dark shadow images, the work tells a poetic yet suffocating story of loneliness and captivity. “The Tangible Hallucination of Rourou in the Daytime” is a live performance comprising three chapters I created before the pandemic. The work searches for the existentialist meaning of living in New York City as an immigrant Chinese woman pursuing my dream and struggling with multi-cultural and value challenges. I play Jenga, build and move with those blocks, using flashlights to create large-scale shadows on top of that, and immerse myself into the fickle scenes as though I was lost in New York City.
MM: What projects are coming up for you soon, and what topics would you like to address artistically in the future?
RY: “Daydreaming” will be shown at Dance Camera West, an annual international festival held at renowned arts venues throughout Los Angeles, recognized as one of the world’s foremost celebrations of dance media. I am very excited about it. I am still working on this film actually, trying to bring up the production value, especially trying to improve the image quality and working on color grade.
As for the project upcoming, I would like to continue working on two other pieces featured in the current exhibit, “Dis/Placed” and “Framed”: both projects are work-in-progress, and I would like to find some support and opportunities so that I can continue working on them. “Dis/placed” will remain to be an experimental live performance work exploring dance in virtual space. I would like to explore the newly emerged reality of virtual togetherness, and how it reconciles and disturbs our day-to-day life. I am super excited for the form of presentation in my dance film “Framed”. Though not so sure about the storyline yet, this work – which is a melange of illustrations, cardboard cutouts, everyday household objects, and camera angles – offers me a lot of space to play with those elements and see what will come after that. I am less focused on dance in this project, and more on how to create my own unique version of DIY puppetry animated by shifting POVs and intricate sound design.
MM: What are your ultimate career goals?
RY: I would love to establish my own dance company, work with talented dancers, where I don’t have to perform. I want to sit and watch my work and gain more perspectives as an audience when creating my pieces. I would love to have a team of support who works for admin, PR and marketing so that I don’t need to be hustling with those things I am not good at. I would love to broaden my audiences, and bring my work to more international audiences, showing my works in Europe and Asia, and I hope I can bring my work back to my home country one day as well.
MM: Is there anything else that you would like to mention?
RY: Please visit my exhibition site at Digitaldance.space. And follow my Instagram for my project updates at rourou_sweetheart. My personal website is rourouye.com. My work needs more audience and attention so that I can keep going as a creator!