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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

IN THE WHITE FRAME : An interview with mixed-race dancers Angel Langley & Jasmmine Ramgotra

[photo by Jean-Stéphane Vachon]

by Sharon H. Chang

STRANGE COUPLING is an annual juried exhibition of collaborations between University of Washington (UW) student artists and local professional artists. Over a decade old, the School of Art + Art History + Design program aims to connect campus and community through teamwork and direct engagement. This year I was entirely captivated by one of twelve projects, a performance piece entitled In The White Frame by mixed-race student dancers Angel Langley and Jasmmine Ramgotra with local sound artist/composer/teacher Byron Au Yong. The piece is a stunning work of art and innovative look at the experience of multiraciality within our white dominant culture.

A stunning work of art and innovative look at the experience of multiraciality within our white dominant culture. 
Performed Friday June 10 at Seattle's King Street StationIn the White Frame is a 20-minute structured improvisation that utilizes movement, materials, sound and space. The audience -- who does not sit -- is invited to participate but also come and go at will. "We wanted to create something that was structured and improvisational," said Jasmmine, "And we had an intention to do it about identity."

Over coffee with me at Columbia City Bakery in Seattle, Angel and Jasmmine sit down to tell more about creating this beautiful piece. They recall at their first meeting with Byron months ago talking about the prevalence of racial dichotomies in society right now. "We knew we wanted to do [something] about our own experience," reflects Jasmmine. At the same time the three artists had discussed how art is often presented in white-framed gallery spaces. That was when Angel had an epiphany. She had been reading Raising Mixed Race: Multiracial Asian Children In a Post-Racial World and learning about Joe R. Feagin's theory of the white racial frame for the first time. "I remember giving [the book] to Jasmmine like you need to read this chapter on white framing cause this is what we’re doing," says Angel. But also "what does that mean being our identities in a high art space, a white-framed gallery?" Jasmmine can't hide her enthusiasm, "I was like oh my god that makes so much sense."

To give form to their improvisation they brainstormed a wordlist with Byron. "Ideas of what mixed race peoples are," explained Angel, "like superhuman, mixed." Mutt was one of them says Jasmmine "because someone called me that before and I was like wow. Really?" The dancers nod to themselves about such contradictions. Mixed race identity is supposed to be fluid so fluidity was also on their wordlist. But the reality is that being multiracial is often a polarized, painful experience via other peoples perceptions. The truth of this dichotomy compelled them to add stuck to their list too. "Like more ugly or more beautiful," Angel gives another example. "Just this idea you're either a superhuman, or you're a piece of shit."

Angel 'Moonyeka' Langely

ANGEL 'MOONYEKA' LANGLEY  shares more, "I’m Filipino, my mom’s Ilocano, my dad’s [white] American. Other identities are Queer and then Woman. Dancer. Artist." But, she says, there are so many grey areas. For instance even though she was classically trained at UW she identifies strongly as a street dancer who does popping and more recently voguing, a style made by trans and queer people of color (not Madonna). Voguing is "a resistance dance that I've been exploring my queerness in," at the same time popping is "male-dominated, homophobic, sexist, all of that," while doing concert dance at UW is mostly privileged white women and "I’m not a skinny white girl who can do perfect ballet." Angel glances to one side a little sadly and confesses her journey as a mixed race person, dancer, artist has often felt really lonely.

She turns to Jasmmine smiling, "Except for Jasmmine which is probably why we collaborated."

Jasminne Ramgotra [photo by Jean-Stéphane Vachon]
JASMMINE RAMGOTRA  smiles back warmly and knowingly. "We can never be one or the other and so we're stuck in this No Man's Land middle space," she says, "and we have to find our own community in that." Jasmmine's mother is Punjabi, East Indian, and her father is Polish, Ukrainian. "But I’m Canadian. I was born in Canada and we moved here." Jasmmine started very young in classical Indian dance. However when she moved to the U.S. she shifted to classical Western: jazz, modern, contemporary and ballet (she's also done quite a bit of hip hop). "I always hated ballet," she admits, but did it anyway because she felt it helped make her strong physically. Nowadays, "I love to choreograph and things that I make are creepy." Jasminne describes her choreography as urban with a contemporary focus.

In the White Frame  comprises Angel, Jasmmine and Byron performing different elements to explore these identities and their racialization in a white world: crumpling, rolling and straightening white paper with the audience; taping off space with white tape; moving through the space itself; mirroring and echoing each other; as well as solo dance and sound improvisation. Profoundly they didn't choose the piece title as a main hashtag for social media. Instead, they chose #RacialAndrogyny. But that makes total sense given everything they've already told me. "It’s an exploration of what does this all mean to me?" elaborates Jasmmine. "Having grown up with all of these expectations and stereotypes projected onto me, how that affected me emotionally, physically and mentally."

Byron Au Yong [photo by Jean-Stéphane Vachon]
BYRON AU YONG  who is the Chinese American son of immigrants, tells me by email that he very much connected to this idea of racial androgyny as well. He too is often questioned about his ethnic background. "When I was younger, I performed in a number of different drum ensembles," he writes, "I'll never forget being introduced as a drummer from Japan at a Starbucks corporate event." Byron accompanied movement In the White Frame through sound improvisation on, among other things, the venue's walls, wood windows and metal support structures. He highlights performer bodies can be framed to suit unintentional agendas and it's important to ask: "How can we reject racial categorizations in favor of the realistic complexity that makes us human?"

Back at the bakery Angel reminds me about the performance's close audience proximity and participation. "They were like so close," Jasmmine comments. "A foot." Angel says even closer. In fact the audience was so close they could've almost touched the performers. It's significant, the dancers illuminate for me, because it was asking to be seen. Inviting viewers into the space instead of just being separate and watching them do something. "We didn’t have anything explicitly saying: We’re fucking mixed race people!" Angel says. It was more like "come experience this with me." "Even though [the audience] might not be knowing exactly why they’re doing a certain thing," she tells me, "it was inviting them into the space to also feel the space we’re in." 

[photos by Jean-Stéphane Vachon]
But it was hard. "People are staring at us," says Angel. "How does that feel?" Sometimes it was literally, physically hard like when the dancers tried to bring attention to the space itself by rolling across a long piece of paper together, traversing the walls and windows, and fitting themselves into cracks. And sometimes it was very hard. One of the most emotional parts was Jasmmine's solo during which she improvises getting a huge pile of white paper over her head and "suffocating" herself. Meanwhile Angel is hidden beneath a paper draping. It was extremely intense for both women. "While I was inside of the paper I got really - I don’t want to say violent, but aggressive," says Jasmmine, "having all this paper on me and I can hear it crumpling and it’s so loud." At the very end she remembers, "I just got so sad all of a sudden. I let the paper fall off of me." Angel says under her paper bridge she felt really scared. "I couldn’t see [what] was happening like right above me," she describes, "All you could hear was this really frantic crumpling of paper and then silence, or the people around you."

All-in-all I can't help but be blown away by these mixed-race women, dancers, artists, multiracial persons, thinkers, students, and just everything that they are. As I have seen more dialogue on mixedness enter the mainstream over the last years I definitely have been heartened. At least we can sometimes talk about it now. But I've also been disappointed because so much of the conversation still just skims the surface. And yes I hold a high bar. So it is amazingly profound to be sitting at a table with Jasmmine and Angel and listen to them talk about doing something so complex and deep with their experience of multiraciality; something that surprises me by transcending anything I could've ever imagined.

Angel is now a UW graduate. Jasmmine will be a senior this next school year. As we wrap up our interview, thanking each other lovingly and profusely, warm in our connections, it's clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that In the White Frame is something so important and meaningful to the artists and will probably remain so for a long time. "I had a strong emotional connection to it," emphasizes Jasmmine, "that's for sure. Because putting the essence of you on a platter for was a lot of vulnerability." Angel is again obviously on the same page. She says making art with another mixed race person and also Byron, who's Asian American, brought up feelings of "I'm not alone." And I know this statement is so rich given what she's told me over the previous hour. "There’s a lot of grey areas I feel like our identities have," she sums up. "It was nice to travel through that with people similar to you."

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