SheenRu Yong has been working with the idea of water for some time now in various places and countries. In Hawai’i she and her fellow collaborators will stage a one time only peformance that looks at the intersection between land and water. In this short interview I asked SheenRu about her current site specific project, FLOOD / turn the tide.
What does water mean to us as human beings and to you personally? And why is this project so relevant now considering how humans have changed the landscape of this planet?
I remember hearing someone describe water as the organizing principle in Hawaiian culture, and I love how well that pinpoints its importance. I also love how well that summarizes the significance of water in general. Our entire existence as humans, as living beings, depends on and is determined by water, from the smallest daily detail to the biggest international and industrial politics.
There isn’t anything that water doesn’t touch! That’s what this project brings me back to again and again. The importance and relevance of water has never changed, it’s always been a reason to wage war or relocate. But I think we have some tough questions and challenges ahead as we experience more and more changes. Whether or not we agree about the reasons behind the changes, we can’t ignore them. That sea levels are rising right here, for example, that’s real for us who are island-based.
Who are your collaborators on this project and what insights did they bring to FLOOD / turn the tide?
I’ve been lucky to work with many different people throughout the project, facilitating classes with students of different ages, conducting talks, workshops and events open to the public, with trained dancers and mostly with folks who do not consider themselves dancers. Each person’s input has informed the journey and helped to shape this culminating piece.
This last performance, where water meets land, is a close collaboration with scenographer and dancer E. Spencer Agoston, a passionate artist whose interest is in the intersection of body, environment and material culture, has been instrumental to making it happen. I also worked very closely with the talented and fearless dancers: Joy Agner, Christina Comfort, Jessica Orfe, and Mareva Minerbi. Interestingly and lucky for us, Christina is also an oceanographer and was able to advise us on everything from water and wind conditions to technical and logistical possibilities. It’s also been a privilege to work with our live musicians: Eric Chang, long-time member of the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble and Emily Lau, a vocalist and composer, and with educator and theater artist Linda Shkreli on creating a costume that would work with and showcase the elements. A dream team of talent, insight, and creative fearlessness!
When you set out to create this project were you restricted in anyway or did you find the right components easily?
I started piloting ideas for this project two years ago, initiating walks and talk-stories along the water, asking questions and listening to people’s perspectives and experiences with water first in Hawaiʻi and then in Myanmar and Taiwan, where I’ve been based for the last 9 years.
It has not been easy! Perhaps because we usually start a project with an idea in our heads of how it’s going to go and what it will look or feel like. It’s been quite a lesson in learning how to move like water, to flow with what is happening and to see and listen to what is already there. When I’ve done that, I realized that the components are already available. For example, I had this idea that I would formally interview a lot of people about water (which I did do) but then I realized that I was hearing stories every day, every where. There are so many expressions of the relationship we have to water, so it became more about keeping my eyes and ears open, staying porous but focused. And as I continued to look for and dance at different water sites, I was meeting people and learning something new every time.
The limitations have also been the shapers of the project. Like rocks in a river, they have ultimately decided the direction and flow. Not being able to afford consistent rehearsal space or an indoor venue, not being able to pay my fellow artists, not knowing a lot of people on island, etc. So I started working simple and small, and outdoors. That made more intuitive sense anyway, given the subject we’ve been exploring. But this discovery and working method has also become part of the narrative of this last piece: Re-cognizing what’s already there and finding a way to honour that.
Where is the location for this project and why was it chosen?
I cannot disclose the exact location pre-show, as we are doing it guerrilla style and don’t want to get kicked out before we have a chance to perform it! I learned early on in the series, when we did a dance-walk tracing the paved-over stream in Kakaʻako, that you can get kicked out of a public place even if you aren’t disrupting anything, just because what you are doing is unfamiliar. We chose this location for the culminating site-specific piece because it’s beautiful and encompassing, an interesting convergence of land and sea, harbor and airport, development and dilapidation.
How much of a satisfaction is it that you were able to produce FLOOD / turn the tide in Hawai’i – a place surrounded by water.
I’ll let you know when we finish! ;) No, it’s been an amazing journey. It’s been just about a year since I came back to Oʻahu to work on this. I’ve learned so much in this time, and am so grateful for this opportunity! Every one I talk to has an amazing story to tell, whether or not they know it. There is so much wisdom and respect here for water, it is very much the organizing principle and heart rhythm of this place, and I love all the different expressions of that. I believe the rest of the world could learn so much from this deeply connected relationship we find here in Hawaiʻi.
To find out more and to book tickets, please visit Body Portal Theatre. Here is a sneak look at FLOOD / turn the tide.