Lenora Lee Explores a Watery Domain in 'Beneath the Surface'

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Yi-Ting (Gama) Hsu in Lenora Lee's 'Beneath the Surface.' (Courtesy Lenora Lee Dance)

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.

SanSan Kwan & Hien Huynh of Lenora Lee Dance in the world premiere of Lenora Lee's 'Beneath the Surface.'
SanSan Kwan & Hien Huynh of Lenora Lee Dance in the world premiere of Lenora Lee's 'Beneath the Surface.' (Robbie Sweeny)

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.


As Lee’s resolve to make an underwater dance grew, so did her friendship with Irons. “It felt like the right time to ask him about his experiences,” she said. Irons, who had participated in a performance project while at San Quentin, told me that his roles in two of Lee’s works (he also had a brief turn as a dishonest cop in a piece set in Cameron House) were “great fun.” But he was astonished to find out that his own story had provided creative fuel for Lee’s new work. Anchoring the soundtrack to lines from an interview that she taped with Irons, Lee gave the words to dancer Hien Huynh to record, roped in longtime collaborator Tatsu Aoki to craft a score, got the Chinatown YMCA to lend her their pool, and threw her dancers into the deep end.

“I did not select the theme in relation to water,” Lee explained, “but I felt that the two were coming together at the same time.”

Johnny Nguyen & Hien Huynh in Lenora Lee's 'Beneath the Surface.' Photo: Robbie Sweeny.

At one point in the recorded soundtrack, Huynh, the dancer who voices Irons’ words, says he felt “something akin to survivor’s guilt. Most of my closest friends were lifers and I was among the first of them to be released.” References in the soundtrack to Irons’ journey to prison and his subsequent release are revealing but scant. It seems inevitable that each observer will extract a different narrative from the multi-layered dreamscape, architected by Lee and a team that includes media designer Olivia Ting and accomplished swimmer and in-water consultant Edward Goo.

Lee has been making site-specific work, often around themes of social justice, since her college days. In this latest collaboration, she said cast and crew “shared in the excitement of working in a new three-dimensional medium, and have treasured this opportunity to increase our capacity to be creative in the environment of water, the source of life, of healing, of that which we cannot control, and at times a source of destruction.”

Hien Huynh in Lenora Lee's Beneath the Surface. Photo: Robbie Sweeny.

Maximizing the space for an audience on the pool deck meant that, during rehearsal, we were inches from the dancers at times, water eddying at our feet—an experience that felt more freeing than watching dance stuffed into a proscenium theater. At one point my eye was caught by the rows of children’s life jackets neatly hung on the wall, and signs in English and Chinese with instructions for CPR. I glanced over at a young man in the YMCA staff’s signature red T-shirt that identified him as a lifeguard. He seemed relaxed and yet intent on the swimmers in the pool, for this was his job. And then it struck me that the rest of us—spectators at a dance—are lifeguards, too, in our own way, looking out for artists who often push themselves to physical and mental extremes to make these works of ineffable beauty and provocation.

Hien Huynh & Johnny Nguyen in Lenora Lee's 'Beneath the Surface.' Photo: Robbie Sweeny.

'Beneath the Surface' runs Oct 6-7 and Oct 13-14 at the YMCA of San Francisco Chinatown Branch. Details here.