On a muggy evening in August, I hung out at the pristine pool at the Chinatown YMCA watching dancers SanSan Kwan, Yi-Ting (Gama) Hsu, Hien Huynh, and Johnny Nguyen make waves in rehearsal for Lenora Lee’s latest multimedia production, titled Beneath the Surface.
A voice on the soundtrack reported that it had been “24 years, one month, 16 days.” Then, dreamlike video sequences, projected against a tile wall, thrust us seemingly back in time for a series of flashbacks in a mysterious protagonist’s life. Meanwhile, ordinary time flashed by on an enormous red digital clock at one end of the pool while an imposing pace clock at the other end hinted at the inexorable daily grind.
I showed up deliberately knowing nothing about the impetus for the piece. But as it unfolded, I spun my own narrative from the fragments of spoken text and the poetic grappling of the dancers—on video, live on the pool deck, and underwater. Emotions were amplified by the haunting sounds of electric bass, taiko drums, gongs and other instruments, punctuated by the low drone of the pool filter and by the ripples and splashes made by the dancers—who would either glide silently from the pool deck into the water or hit the surface with thunderous crashes.
Although Lee has flirted with underwater video footage for other dance projects, this is her first piece created specifically for water.
Years ago, Lee had developed a back injury and, more recently, experimented with swimming as a form of rehab. Lessons at the Chinatown YMCA pool sparked a curiosity about water as a medium for her art, in which she has moored dance, music, spoken word and video to sites that have historic, architectural or civic meaning. Around that time, she was creating a piece about Chinese immigration, set on Angel Island. One of the performers she brought into that piece was Carl Irons, a writer, poet and political science graduate of San Francisco State University who runs a nonprofit and who advocates for term-to-life prisoners. Irons himself had served 24 years, mostly at San Quentin, and after being paroled in 2009 made his way through City College of San Francisco and enrolled at SFSU.