Authenticity, Appropriation, and Identity

Micheline Wu on the choreographic process of Pacific Overtures

In my opinion, to be a musical theater choreographer is to be a dance historian and movement anthropologist. Dance in musicals is more than aesthetic entertainment. Whether it’s 1962 in Baltimore, 1906 in Oklahoma, or 1853 in Japan, the movement must clearly demonstrate the time and place of the story. And in order to do that, the choreographer needs to have done their research.

A show like Pacific Overtures is particularly challenging because it is a constant negotiation of the balance between the needs of the storytelling in that moment, the implementation of authentic traditional gestures, and the navigation in and around cultural appropriation. On top of that, there is theater dance having its own vernacular that is a common visual language expected by musical theater audiences. And then there is the need to serve the overall vision of this production, which is not in the traditional Kabuki style. My job has been to blend all of this into an overall homage that pays honor to the rich physical language of Japanese dance and theater while still maintaining that we are in the world of a musical written by Americans and performed in America.

The cast of Pacific Overtures

A prime example of the necessary fusion of physical styles and components is the first group number: “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea”. Opening numbers in musicals fundamentally must establish the world of the play, often introduce the primary characters, and present the storytelling framework that will be utilized. While not technically the opening number because of a short musical prologue, “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea” illustrates that this is a story told by a reciter and an ensemble of actors, many of whom play multiple roles. A challenge for me when creating movement for this number was that the lyrics are not only often just generally descriptive of society in mid-1800s Japan, but also occasionally do not parallel movement that would be traditionally illustrated in traditional Japanese dance. My approach was to present the wide and varied physical vocabulary used within the show through a blend of quotations of movement from other numbers, non-traditional gestures stylized in an aesthetic similar to but not the same as Nihon buyō, and pedestrian vernacular of genuine every-day movement. This number is the product of a true collaboration between myself and Spiro to ensure that the storytelling was effectively established and would move seamlessly into the rest of the show.

Kai Chao dancing “The Lion Dance” in Pacific Overtures.

Within this script, cultural appropriation cannot be completely avoided because it is used as a storytelling technique. This is particularly true in the Lion Dance, which closes Act I. The stage directions state that the dance is a “combination of the traditional Kabuki lion dance and an American cake walk.” The Kabuki Lion Dance is dignified and the shishi – or mythical lions – are of the divine. In contrast, the cake walk is a dance that emerged from plantations and was appropriated into minstrel shows by performers in blackface. The juxtaposition of these two forms and appropriation of the Japanese dance movements is intended to be offensive and therefore must be choreographed and performed grotesquely. This parallel appropriation is fundamental to telling the story of the United States forcing intrusion on Japan.

On the other hand, Tamate’s dance during “There Is No Other Way” I choreographed with primary attention to the Nihon buyō style, which was then delicately customized to the needs of the story told through expected musical theater norms. The dance is pivotal moment for Tamate and is a visual inner monologue with two observers and according to the script: “The first sings about her, the second sings her words and thoughts.” This is one of the most complex and multi-layered pieces of choreography I’ve ever created.

The cast of Pacific Overtures.

In performing this dance, I cannot and will not make the claim that I am a Japanese fan dance expert, especially since this dance takes liberty with the traditional form due to the needs to both communicate the story as well as fulfill the richness of the music. Growing up training and performing traditional Chinese dance, I have the highest respect for traditional dance forms. I did more research on dancing with a mai ogi than I did for any other movement used in the show.

In creating the dance, first I made it beautiful. Then I ripped it apart and set different sections to the appropriate parts of the music. Then I teased out which sections would contain pantomime and if so whether it would align perfectly with the lyrics of the music, as indication of lyrics is to be avoided as much as possible in musical theater choreography, or would be back-phrased or anticipatory. Then I adjusted, inserted, or deleted movements to work with or against the music itself. Then I layered in any additional acting that needed to be clearly gestured within the dance itself. Then I allowed the acting to blossom from within through feeling the physical sensations of performing the dance, the ebb and flow of the music, as well as the enormity of the circumstances in which the dance was being performed. And finally, after working with our Japanese dance consultant Michiko Kurata, I added in some very specific movements that were fundamental to Nihon buyō that must be included in a dance illustrating these circumstances. I have never drafted and redrafted a dance so much in my life.

Karina Wen, Alexander Holden, Gary Thomas Ng, and Kai Chao in Pacific Overtures.

At the root of all of this was an incredible amount of time doing research. One cannot be intentional with choreography like this without acknowledging what is, and what is not, correct according to tradition. This means that I am working in a grey area where I perhaps do not know the lines, or perhaps we collectively are in the process of establishing these lines. Is it appropriate for me to choreograph in another Asian dance style that is not my area of expertise? Is my training in Chinese dance less legitimate because I studied it in the US, even if my teacher was from Taiwan and is a traditional Chinese dance expert? Does it make a difference that I am American born or that I am mixed-race, despite the fact that I speak two dialects of Chinese and was raised exclusively by my Chinese family? Personally, I am excited to be living in a time of grey areas where societally we are increasingly open to the conversation of what lies in the mists in between definitions and delineations. It is a blessing to be able to have conversations that address questions such as these, a circumstance that is not true everywhere. So bring on the dialogue. I’m game. Are you?

About Micheline Wu

Micheline Wu (Choreographer/Ensemble) is making her Lyric Stage debut. A Boston native, she trained and performed with the American Chinese Arts Society’s Traditional Chinese Dance Troupe for ten years. In contemporary dance, she received a Young Artist Grant from the DC Commission on Arts and Humanities, two artist residencies at The Firkin Crane in Ireland, and her choreography and dance films have been shown across the country. Theater performance credits include Allegiance (SpeakEasy Stage Company), My Fair Lady (New Bedford Festival Theatre), Little Shop of Horrors (Priscilla Beach Theatre). M.F.A. Musical Theater, Boston Conservatory. @michelinewu

About Pacific Overtures

This startling, entertaining, and thrilling masterpiece puts a cap on Spiro Veloudos’ multi-year Sondheim Initiative. An unlikely friendship is forged between a samurai, Kayama, and an Americanized fisherman, Manjiro, during Commodore Matthew Perry’s 1853 mission to open trade relations with isolationist Japan. The two friends are caught in the inevitable winds of change and tell the story of Japan’s painful and harrowing Westernization. A highly original, inventive, powerful, and surprisingly humorous theatrical experience.