War Dance: Lenora Lee's Fire of Freedom

Yukihiko Noda

Dancer and choreographer Lenora Lee doesn't shy away from intense, controversial issues. Her multimedia pieces use text, film, music, martial arts, and dance to take on cerebral subjects such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and human trafficking. It was while researching the companion pieces on trafficking, The Escape and Rescued Memories: New York Stories, that she became interested in exploring violence and healing. This led to her latest work, Fire of Freedom, which comes to Fort Mason in September.

“People talk about trafficking as an issue of power and control, and I wondered where does that come from?” Lee said. “If you grew up in a war-torn country, is violence passed down? And how is it possible to break cycles of violence? Not that I can find the answer, but I wanted to see what has been done already to help society better understand violence and how people have healed from violence and trauma.”

For Fire of Freedom, Lee researched the effects of military training and war on soldiers and civilians, assault and harassment in the military, soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the stigma of that label. She spoke with veterans; watched documentaries including The Invisible War, Wartorn, and Why We Fight; and read books such as Katinka Hooyer's Surplus Data. Lee uses excerpts of that book, part of the Veterans Book Project, in voiceovers in Fire of Freedom.

Since taking dance classes at City College of San Francisco, Lee has been interested in integrating different disciplines into her work. While at CCSF, she studied saxophone with Francis Wong (now an artistic collaborator). That and dance “opened up a world of movement and sound” she says. She transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles, eventually switching her major from science to dance. In UCLA's dance department, professors Victoria Marks and David Gere influenced her artistic development, particularly with their ideas about looking at communities and social issues through dance. She kept exploring multimedia work, performed with a sculptor and a pianist, and studied Taiko drumming when she moved back to San Francisco.

Lee thinks that dance lends a visceral quality to storytelling.

“I was just speaking to a human rights class at UC Berkley about this,” she said. “You're in the same space with people enacting things, and I think that's what I try and do with these immersive pieces, to go to the deepest level of connection with one another. It has to be live — it's about close proximity, and the impact of being with the performers is much greater.”

That's significantly different — and deeper —than what happens when you watch a film or hear an interview, Lee thinks.

“Empathy and compassion can be felt more deeply when you're engaging in physical space with other people,” she said. “You can understand nuances in what people are trying to express and we communicate so much through body language.”

In that way, Fire of Freedom is much more than dance. Collaborating with other artists so that audiences see video projections of military training and read texts about, say, the violence of war also gives people more ways to connect with the subject matter.

“I feel like integrating various disciplines gives you a more holistic picture and provides more avenues,” she said. “Some people are more visual and some more oral, and some are visceral responders. This provides a variety of information for different aspects of the narratives.”

A frequent collaborator, Raymond Fong — Lee's former martial arts teacher and now a member of her dance company — agrees that using different mediums makes the impact on the audience deeper. Fong consulted on Fire of Freedom and appears in a video as a man attacked by soldiers. He also drew inspiration from his other job, counseling at CCSF's Second Chance program, where he works with students who have been incarcerated. Some of Fong's students shared their experiences of sexual assault to help inform the dancers' movements. A couple of Fong's students, who are veterans, trained the company members in marching, and a few of the CCSF students have parts in the show.

Fire of Freedom is the largest show Lee has done, and she's trying something new this time.Audience members at Fire of Freedom will be able to follow different storylines and characters, depending on what interests them. By staging the production at Fort Mason's three-story General's Residence, audience members can follow different narratives to different rooms — a sort of interactive Choose Your Own Performance. Lee saw a few shows in New York that did this and wanted to try it for herself.

Having an immersive performance at a former officers' club that's now used for weddings and events fits the venue's mission as an arts and cultural center. And having the stories in so public and large a space as the three-story General's Residence is important, says Fong, since these are stories that often go unheard.

“Lenora's work takes on some challenging, relevant issues, in this case wartime trauma and violence,” Fong said. “It shows how those traumatic and violent experiences manifest in the lives and bodies and psyches of not just soldiers, but civilians as well, and not just the victims, but the perpetrators.”

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