Interview with Dancer & Choreographer Muna Tseng

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Muna Tseng is a dancer, choreographer, performer, and founder of Muna Tseng Dance Projects Inc.

Muna Tseng is a Hong Kong-born, educated in Canada, and since 1978 New York-based dancer and choreographer. In 1988 she founded Muna Tseng Dance Projects in New York City. Muna has always collaborated with contemporary artists in New York and tours worldwide. She has choreographed and performed in several critically acclaimed contemporary dance-theater works, appearing at the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, New York City seasons, and at venues and festivals in the US and internationally. She has won the “Bessie” New York Dance & Performance Award, and repeat Choreographic Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Honors include “An Artist of National Merit” from the Smithsonian Institution and “Distinguished Service in the Arts” from the New York City Council President. Muna Tseng has served for several years on the Bessie: New York Dance and Performance Award selection committee. She was on the Board of Directors at Danspace Project and panels including New York State Council on the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Maryland Council on the Arts. Since 1990 she has been the director and executrix of her late brother Tseng Kwong Chi’s photography archive, overseeing exhibitions, editions, and publications with galleries, collections, and institutions worldwide.

This interview appeared first on Planet China Vol 11, Celebrating Women who push boundaries.

Official site | Facebook | Instagram | Tseng Kwong Chi Photographic Archive

When did you realize you want to be a dancer? What motivated you?

I grew up in Hong Kong, I learnt Chinese folk dance as a child. After my family immigrated to Vancouver Canada, I discovered modern dance. I saw a performance by the dancer Heather McCallum, as a moving statue, dressed in a peacock blue sari holding an orange. It contained such beauty and exquisiteness. I knew immediately that dance would be my creative outlet, to express my inner being. It helped me deal with the trauma of being transplanted from one culture to another. It salved the loneliness and became my search for meaning as a teenager.

Muna Tseng_midPortrait_SharonAlouf_DIA
Photograph: Sharon Alouf

At what age did you start your training? What are the best memories about that period? How did you start your professional dancing career? Can you share the feel before performing on stage in your debut?

I was 13 years old when I began my rigorous modern dance training in Vancouver. My first teachers Magda and Gertrude Hanova were dancers with Mary Wigman in Germany, so my education was very classical. I attended classes 3x weekly in the basement studio of the Scottish Auditorium with these Czechoslovakian emigre sisters. They developed my physical technique as well as encouraged me to have my own vision as an artist. What extraordinary good fortune to have that education. In 1971, I gave my first choreographed concert with original music and set design at the Vancouver Art Gallery. I was 18 years old. I was a choreographer, designer, dancer – it was my first professional debut, and I felt ecstatic. I am sure there were nervousness and anticipation, but I only remember the joy. In the audience was Gerald Arpino of the Joffrey Ballet from New York. He gave me an invitation to join the company and put the idea of New York into my young ambitious head. But I already knew that I wanted a full encompassing vision as a dance artist, not just to be a dancer in a company. At the time, I did not know it, but the path to collaborate with visual artists, composers, film, and video, to have my own company, was already laid down. Six years later, after university and a year of saving money, I arrived in New York to pursue that dream. I joined the Theatre of The Open Eye, founded by former Martha Graham dancer Jean Erdman and her husband, the famous mythologist Joseph Campbell. I was mentored by their vision of interweaving world literature (Joyce, Yeats) with mythologies ancient and contemporary. It was a company of dancers, actors, musicians, visual artists, making inter-disciplinary dance-theater. I was a principal dancer in the company for 7 years until Jean’s retirement in 1985.

Muna Tseng was a principal dancer in Erdman and her husband and mythologist Joseph Campbell’s Theatre of the Open Eye from 1978 to 1985.

Muna Tseng Dance_solo_DTW_Tseng_Kwong_Chi_1980

Muna Tseng Dance Projects, in New York since 1986, was founded to produce art in a culture of creative ideas–with collaborators who are leaders in their fields of contemporary art research–through live performances, visual art installations, exhibitions, books, media, and archival projects in photography, video, and film.

Dance, solo, DTW, Tseng Kwong Chi, 1980

Besides passion, determination, and will, what limits of life did dance help you win? What did it help you strengthen?

I think most importantly is the passion to do it no matter what. That could mean sacrificing security or parental approval to do it. I came to New York with my saving of $6000, which I thought would last one year (it didn’t). I was taking 2 technique (ballet and modern) classes per day, rehearsing long studio hours, walking instead of taking the subway to save a fare. I supplemented my dancer’s meager salary by doing odd jobs, but always the goal was clear – to be an artist! New York was so dynamic, there was a community of kindred spirits, all those who come here to strive and thrive, so it was fun to do it. It was not pursuing a career – it was to be an artist. We were young, idealistic, the career thing sort of laid itself down eventually as you make work. The most important thing was to live one’s life as fully as possible as an artist.

Her award-winning dance-theater solo performance SlutForArt a.k.a. Ambiguous Ambassador, a collaboration with Ping Chong, used photographs by her brother Tseng Kwong Chi and was choreographed and danced by Muna, to reflect on the life of her brother as a sibling and an artist in the 1980s.

Muna Tseng_WaterWater_group_Tseng_Kwong_Chi-_1986
Water group, Tseng Kwong Chi, 1986

Choreography: Muna Tseng
Dancers: Miki Orihara and Hahn Tran
Music: Bruce Tovsky

From dancer to choreographer, what do you enjoy the most about both roles? What are the main responsibilities of each?

As a dancer, one is responsible to keep the physical body to a certain excellent standard, to be the disciplined instrument. I was given the opportunity to choreograph my own works while I was a dancer at The Open Eye. As a choreographer, I had ideas and visions I wanted to realize full-fledged on stage. I founded my own company, Muna Tseng Dance Projects, in 1986. As Artistic Director, it means to have a vision, a mission, to find collaborators and dancers to realize the vision, to complete the project from conception to production. Then there are the fiscal financial duties, grant writing, booking and touring, supporting not only my own lifestyle but being able to raise funds to commission other artists and pay the dancers.

Muna Tseng is a choreographer acclaimed for her seamless fusion of Asian aesthetics with Western cross-performance ideas and a dancer celebrated for her eloquence and passionate precision.

Muna Tseng_Shattered_Beatrice_Schiller_1990
Shattered, Beatrice Schiller, 1990

You were born in Hong Kong, educated in Canada, and have been living and working in New York. Which were the biggest advantages? Did these cities influence your way to see life and grow as a person and as an artist?

I am grateful to have lived in 3 cities. In Hong Kong, I absorbed my Chinese heritage from my grandmothers, from first tastes and impressions of that city. In Vancouver, I experienced Canadian nature, the vast openness, and solitude. I immersed and committed myself totally into New York’s intensity and rigor. I believe artists need to have a global vision, to be able to have macro and micro dimensions in their work and a personal point of view vis-à-vis the world. The whole journey of an artist is to find and express the authentic self, and it never ends.

Muna Tseng_Portrait1_1995_Steve_Sigoloff
Portrait, 1995, Steve Sigoloff

During your career, you worked in many countries. There is a performance or a stage that will always have a special place in your heart?

I treasure many unforgettable experiences touring abroad and interacting with audiences. I am inspired by people who love dance so much you feel that it is a vital life source for them. Memorable moments include dancing the role of Medusa under the stars and full moon on the Herodes Atticus amphitheater (over 2000 years old) gazing up at the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. In Bihac, Bosnia-Herzegovina I performed in the festival re-opened after the Bosnian civil war, their thirst for culture was so intense. I did a workshop with the teenagers and heard their heroic stories of how they defended their town from invasion. In Karmiel, Israel, the Kibbutz audiences pound their feet as they cheer and clap for you. In Tallinn, Estonia, local Russian and Estonian dancers joined my New York cast, inspiring each other, and we added another sold-out performance, for which they paid almost a full month’s wage to buy their tickets. In Hong Kong, we again were joined by local dancers, exchanging culture, and I performed for my family elders who had only known me as a child. And of course every time I step onto a stage in New York, whether it is a downtown venue like Danspace at St. Mark’s Church, or the Kitchen, or La MaMa, or uptown at Lincoln Center, I feel the thrill down my spine, knowing this is where I chose to begin my journey over 40 years ago.

She has been on faculty at New York University, Douglas College at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts NJ, and founded and directed the Summer Dance Residency program at Queens College (City University of New York).

Muna Tseng_HamaDryad_b&w_Marc_Wein_1984
HamaDryad, b&w, Marc Wein, 1984

I read that your brother had an important inspiring key role for you. Dance is an art discipline that involves also sacrifice. How important was his support in your career to achieve new challenges?

My late brother Kwong Chi came to New York the same year as I did in 1978. We were artistic and blood siblings. He photographed and made all my early dance posters and press photos. He introduced me to visual artists like Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf who made sets and costumes for my dances. He was 3 years older and had a deeper and more sophisticated art education so he taught me how to look at everything aesthetically. He had an appreciation and appetite for life, a joie de vivre that infected me, and many others.

Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times noted “an exquisite dancer, absolutely breathtaking. A choreographer with something important to say.”

Muna_WaterMysteries_Sharom_Alouf_1996_
Mysteries, Sharom Alouf, 1996

Since 1990 you have been the director and executrix of your brother’s photography archive. Can you share with us what this means to you? What do you hope the audience will understand through his photography?

He left his legacy under my guardianship after his premature early death in 1990 at age 39. His oeuvre created over a decade was so strong and expansive it deserved to be shown and known to the world. He did not have time to see the accolades and enjoy how the world is recognizing his work as prescient, relevant, and is now part of the late 20th-century contemporary art canon. His photographs continue to provoke observations of identity, queer performance, and a question of belonging in society and American history. I am proud and privileged to have an active role in managing his archive. It is also a trove of creative ideas for me as he was a conceptual performative photographer. I made a very personal work called “SlutForArt” in 1999. It was in homage to my brother, his world, his art, his time. Ping Chong the theater director was my collaborator. We wove together his photos, stories told by his friends and colleagues, music, and ephemera from his personal collection into a powerful dance-theater piece. I was the solo performer as both the sister and the artist. It was my way of reconciling and mourning the loss.

I do not avoid beauty, luminosity, pain, or ugliness. I want to create a theatrical presence that is as real and palpable as grasping a stone or tasting your tears.” – Muna Tseng

Muna_Tseng_WaterMysteries_Lois_Greenfield_1996
Water Mysteries, Lois Greenfield, 1996

The COVID-19 pandemic is influencing everyday life on all the planet. Digital seems to have become the mean instrument to connecting art with the audience. Art and artists from all disciplines are in the middle of a huge crisis. What is your opinion about this theme?

It is phenomenal how much creative work is being made during this pandemic time. Art cannot be stopped. Creativity is a life source, and like water, it will find its flow. Early in 2020, I made a solo for the iPhone camera, a dance-music project that began in Milan Italy called “Human Signs”. It morphed into a live group performance on a rooftop in Brooklyn and continues a life of its own globally in digital form, now involving anthropologists and academics. During this time of isolation, I had to reach deep into myself to find meaning and expression, I teach my qigong practice infused with dance via Zoom weekly, I write, I allow myself empty time to not do much, to take walks and observe clouds. It is difficult to sort it out, but now that we have had a full year, we need to evolve into another way of being present. Artists tend to have solitary time in the studio anyway, so that part is not hard. I do miss the real-life social interaction and look forward to that again. Meanwhile, I think we will continue to invent, hope, productively, and poetically evolve our state of being.

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