IMPRESSIONS: Grace Yi-Li Tong Presents "ZOO!: An Evening of Dance" at Arts On Site

IMPRESSIONS: Grace Yi-Li Tong Presents "ZOO!: An Evening of Dance" at Arts On Site
Miranda Stuck

By Miranda Stuck
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Published on March 13, 2023
Photo by Samantha Chapa

Garden Tongues

Created by: Grace Yi-Li Tong in collaboration with the performers

Performed by: Sydney Shu-Yu Chow, Rachel Ha-Eun Lee, Hiroka Nagai, and Grace Li-Yi Tong

Sound: “Kiss Kiss Kiss” by Yoko Ono; “Swearing? By Not Lost in Translation; “当我们同在一起”by Li Qian Jing; “Thirteen Changes: No. 8, A Single Egg Motionless in the Desert” by Pauline Oliveros, Massimo Simoni, and Silvia Tarozzi

Costume Design: Dan Wang and Grace Yi-Li Tong

Created with the support of Mare Nostrum Elements and NYU Tisch, and other individual contributors.



Created by: Grace Yi-Li Tong in collaboration with the dancers

Performed by: Rafael Cañals, Sydney Shu-Yu Chow, Isabelle Dayton, Savannah Gaillard, Tamara Leigh, Hiroka Mori Nagai, and Grace Yi-Li Tong

Sound: “Egg Shell Crack” by SoundEffectsFactory, “Besima” by Mononome, “Age of Bloom” by Zhou Xuan, “Cobra Wages Shuffle / Off! Schable w gurę!” by Matmos, “Xiu” by Yu Su and “Hi no Hikari” by Erika Dohi and Andy Akiho

Costumes by Grace Yi-Li Tong in collaboration with the dancers, with pieces by Hiroka Mori Nagai.

Created with the support of Art Cake Dance Series and other individual contributors.

Four female dancers appear in pastel colors, all bare foot, engaged, and ready to dance. One of them is choreographer Grace Yi-Li Tong, presenting an evening of dance including her past work Garden Tongues and the work-in-progress premiere of ZOO! at Arts on Site for three performances. Both pieces relate to the Asian-American experience exploring femininity and childhood fantasy, yet these works contrast immensely.

Garden Tongues offers an experience in which the figure of the Asian woman is intricately de-constructed and re-appropriated through Tong’s choreographic lens. Tong uses gestures, vocalizations, and imagery to mock seminal East Asian caricatures. One moment the audio track is translating Mandarin profanity into English, and the next the audience hears laughter and exclamations. “Will I ever pass for the perfect bride or daughter?” the dancers ask. “Can it be?” Garden Tongues builds a comical bridge between flirtation and mockery in a cultural and gender-based sense. Each dancer’s voice is noticeable and present. Their commitment throughout the piece gives the audience a laugh as much as a sense of curiosity about what choice Tong will make next.

Photo by t. filmm

A feeling of rooted sisterhood is present during Garden Tongues, as the work, “…is created by and for AAPI femmes,” as stated in the program. All four dancers project their own personification of femininity, whether following different tracks of choreography, or single-handedly drawing on someone’s bare legs.

At one point, all the dancers sit cross-legged on the floor facing stage left, simply braiding each other’s hair. The feeling of tenderness which emerges from this sight warms the audience, showcasing a type of sisterly care which is not often seen onstage. Garden Tongues has been presented in the Emerging Choreographer Series, the Made by Women Festival, and The Craft NY: Governor’s Island in the last two years.

Photo by Samantha Chapa

A characteristic aspect of Tong’s work is the combination of the element of surprise and her utilization of many mediums beyond dance: visual, musical, vocal, and technical. In both works, Tong takes advantage of the space, and the audience can expect the unexpected: drawing, live piano playing, using a paper tapestry as a runway, and immersive audience games. She even incorporates lighting into her choreography as dancers hold and work with golden, glistening egg-shaped lights similar to glasses of fireflies.

Gesturally articulate but undeniably silly, ZOO! is a feral physical illumination of memory, childhood play, fantasy, and the unsaid in my Asian-American experience,” states Tong in the program. Tong begins with an audience participation game of “guess the animal.” Three volunteers hold animal cards, and Tong’s cast goes to work mimicking a penguin, an octopus, and a wolf. Vocal and buzzed, the dancers shout as each audience volunteer gets closer to guessing the correct animal.

Photo by t. filmm

ZOO! is the quintessence of a concert dance playground. Reflecting upon family, play, and communication, the seven dancers perform ZOO! with an incredibly happy-go-lucky, energetic, and impulsive spirit. Specific costuming and sound details add ambiguity to the piece, such as crystal tiaras on two dancers and an audio track consisting of a repetitive cackling, chewing noise. Tong, inspired by puppetry and mime, uses gesture and exaggeration to create atmospheres, whether her dancers are playing a game of duck-duck-goose, or depicting recess time, apple picking, or a fight happening in slow motion.

“A fun aspect of working with Grace is that she wants to hear each dancer’s voice,” says dancer Savannah Gaillard. “We use rehearsal to try new things, to feel different emotions, and just have fun."

As part of an ongoing movement research project first initiated in October 2022, ZOO! will continue to be developed in residence at ReMo Studios in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, in 2023.

Photo by Samantha Chapa

Tong’s work is not to be missed, as her choreography continues to grow while illuminating her dedication to femme Asian-American representation and construct. She refreshingly takes her dancers’ ideas and personalities into consideration, opening up the conversation in the rehearsal room. “I’m interested in taking traditional concepts, breaking them down and using my personal experience as a female Asian -American with the process,” says Tong. “I feel most powerful when I’m creating and performing.”

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