Elle Hong and I met as undergraduate dance students at Wesleyan University, where I first witnessed their multimedia and performance work that envisions and creates queer subaltern worlds. We reconnected following the premiere of Elle’s MFA thesis dance film Bull in a China Closet at University of Colorado Boulder to discuss the ideas and concepts behind the work. Through the process of combining dance/performance and cinéma vérité, Elle attempts to unravel the layers of visibility/invisibility and interiority/exteriority that inform queer identity and negotiate the feelings of dread—and joy—that arise.
—Allison Hsu, Critical Correspondence Intern.
Allison Hsu: Let's start with the title and how that came about.
Elle Hong: Bull in a China Closet derives from the phrase "bull in a china shop." If you look it up in Merriam-Webster, it's a person who causes harm or destruction in situations that require careful planning or thinking. The name Bull in a China Closet was given to me by my collaborator, Cipriano Ortega, who did most of the videography for the project. That was the working title I used in the beginning to write grants to fund the piece. I was thinking of building this immersive piece and that traveled throughout the building where it was going to be presented, finding ways of allowing people to get a glimpse into these happenings that I would stage throughout the building.
Eventually, with COVID, it became clear to me that this piece was going to have to be a solo so that I wouldn't be asking people to endanger their own lives to put a piece on. I stuck with the title because of the image of a bull in a china closet—this idea of something that is too big that actually can't be contained. That image was the driving factor behind all the things that were presented within the work… What things are containing you? Are they self-imposed? Are they socially imposed? There's this tension that I feel between a personal desire to come out of a closet—of course, the closet is sort of evocative of queerness and long-standing histories of people being found in their closets dead—or what things do we keep inside our closets? How do clothes then start speaking on behalf of us to portray an identity?
AH: How far into the project did you have to switch from a live performance to a film?
EH: We were about two months into rehearsal for the group piece when I received an email that required all rehearsals for group pieces to cease, and there was no confirmed date for when we could all meet up and rehearse again. At that point, I felt really bad about having a group of four additional dancers waiting to hear from me about whether or not this piece could continue (and also there was a lot that still wasn't known at that point). I was like, "I'm really sorry, I'll pay you for your time," but I am not even sure what this piece is going to be at this point. I didn't want to be making any performance. It didn't feel good to be making performance because at that point, I just lost all these gigs, I was unemployed and applying for artist relief and mutual aid funds. I was really glad at that point that there was a shift towards accepting that you didn’t have to be making in this period; all you have to do is keep yourself alive.
Finally, I was given this opportunity to present a live work in fall of 2020, and it followed social distancing protocols. I was the only one who was unmasked and in this container, and everyone had to watch it from six feet away, with masks on, and outside of the venue itself. And I really liked the piece and where it landed. The piece was called The Girl Box and it was about this psychical experience that happens whenever I'm asked to indicate my gender on administrative documents, like on an online drop-down box where the options are "boy or girl?"
I wanted to take that literal experience and metaphorically translate it into something physical by dancing with a box, finding ways of turning myself into a box, or augmenting my body with a box. And a lot of that piece became about the everyday dread that trans folks carry in terms of how gender presentation on the outside isn't necessarily congruent with what we think is happening inside. Or maybe there's this tension between what is being perceived by others versus what we think we're putting out. So the feedback that I received around that piece was that there is a lot of this sense of dread or this sense of waiting for something to happen. Eventually I was like, "Okay well what is that thing that I want for to happen? What am I waiting for? What am I actually doing with my gender presentation?" So I really started moving towards providing the full fantasy and doing full drag, seeing what that means for me in terms of a performance of hyperfemininity.
After that, I was really focusing on what would be the opposite of this everlasting 40-minute-long exploration of embodying dread. I started asking myself, what would joy look like? And I found that in the process of crafting Bull in a China Closet, a lot of what I was doing was trying to prove to someone on the outside that this is joy. “I am feeling joy.” And the more I was doing that, the more I was like, "No, it's not that easy. It's not at all that simple to switch from dread to joy." Because honestly, it gives me a lot of life as a performer and as a maker to put myself in these risky situations or put myself in danger. And it's more complicated than being able to be like, "Okay, now I've done full drag. Now all of my problems are gone. Now I'm finally presenting the way that I think I look inside my mind.” It's not so simple.
AH: There's always danger in that visibility, or hypervisibility. It’s so exhilarating to be performing for an audience, but you're also allowing that audience to perceive you in ways you have no control over. And with creating a film, you have more control through the editing process over framing and how the performance can be seen and you no longer have that live face-to-face interaction, so how often were you thinking about the audience? How did you negotiate how much you were willing to show an audience versus what did you want to leave unseen?
EH: The idea of creating a dance film is strange in that it's almost always like you're thinking about the audience because that entire piece, I was just in a rehearsal room for the longest time, not wanting to dance to the mirror. And then at some point, it clicked for me that the mirror is the camera, so you have to get comfortable with not only dancing for yourself or creating this sort of gaze for yourself. You have to get comfortable with another person becoming the mirror and being able to perform for the camera because it's completely different than having the piece on stage. It's a very different experience, having a camera recording archive footage versus you creating a piece to dance with a camera.
There are a lot of moments, all throughout Bull in a China Closet, not just the crafting of the performance, but all the behind-the-scenes footage or the cinema verité moments where it's supposed to look like the performer doesn't know that there's a camera on them, like a fly in the wall. I was thinking about how the audience needs to not see these moments that are completely polished or edited to have this sense of magic… The audience needs to know that it's not magic. It's makeup and it's costuming. There are very simple everyday tasks that go into how the "magic" happens. And so often, not only in art but also in how we treat one another every day, we get this sort of polished product. I spend so long crafting the way that I look on the outside, but no one is getting a sense of how long that took. So I really wanted to utilize knowing that this was going to be watched on a screen in a very solitary setting, like each person was having the experience of maybe being alone and just watching the piece on a screen. I wanted them to also be implicated in their own feelings of aloneness because that's something that all of us have really needed to get familiar with—being alone with ourselves. How could I use that setting in order to show process, these moments that I think a lot of people can relate to? Like looking at a mirror is just such a process that everyone has to deal with because whether or not that's like actually looking in a mirror or looking in our Zoom boxes, which basically function as a mirror, there are actually a lot of politics embedded in that.
Photo by Viktoria Padilla
ID: A dancer with long blonde hair, dressed in dark clothing, walks on top of a sheet of green paper with a green-lit cyclorama in the background
AH: It's taken so long for me to get over that feeling of discomfort, or surveillance when I enter another person's space through a Zoom camera. Or when someone enters mine, they're seeing inside my home and where I sleep at night and all the details of a personal lived space that I wouldn't want to show. It's so hard for me to get past that in my head. And that scene of you looking at yourself in the mirror initially made me feel like a sort of intruder, but there are all of these layers of seeing and being seen. Being able to see that process of transformation that surrounds the performance itself is so important to the way we see each other and the ways we see ourselves when we're alone. And we're alone so much of the time, so when does it stop being weird?
The green screen, too, was a really striking element to me, and the layering of the green screen on top of your body, because that part of the body the green screen is on becomes completely erased and replaced with whatever you want it to be. It's so different from using a projection where you can manipulate the projected image with your body but you're never hidden by it.
EH: I've had the deep honor of being mentored by Michelle Ellsworth, and I was really influenced by this piece called Clytigation. She outsources her body to her body double, or an “interpersonal drone.” But the dancer is dancing in basically a coffin that is all green-screened, and the purpose of the work is to complicate location so you never know where the dancer is. But I also found that in that work there was a lot of hiding of certain themes or what leads someone to want to hide within their work. How does dance or maybe performance provide us with this safe space to...because what's happening when you're hiding in your work is actually you're not hiding at all, you're actually opening yourself up for a lot of sharing and vulnerability.
Prior to this work, I was playing a lot with hiding my body with green paper and green poster board. And it's funny because when you're actually doing the dance, you're just dancing with green, you're dancing with a piece of paper, you're dancing with these elements that have nothing projected onto them. So there's a lot that happens in the editing process that can give meaning to what's happening. But in that moment, I feel like I'm having to source through my own memory as an archive towards how I want to treat the materials or how I feel like my affect is translating across the materials in that section of the work. I was just improv-ing with only the sound score and the green materials, so I couldn't see any of the things that I had visually compiled and put into the final product. The green screen works in terms of being able to offer this sense of giving you more fragments of a story that might not necessarily need to make sense. I don't think the end goal for me is to give you all the pieces to make it possible to construct me as a whole person.
Fragmentation is a tactic of showing that a person is not like a capital-S Self. You don't necessarily have to be a legible entity to others, and maybe your story can be told through the use of fragmentation or fragmenting techniques, because I don't necessarily aim for people being able to finally be like, "Okay, now I know Elle's whole story and now I get them and I understand them as a person." That's not my goal, my goal is to keep things complicated while also allowing folks the ability to drop in to their own sense of memory and their own sense of how we can find solutions for the fact that it feels like a very placeless time right now. How can we then, maybe through multimedia art, build different worlds for ourselves in ways that don't quite feel possible right now?
EH: Yeah, and that kind of worldbuilding to me feels like a collective process. I really appreciated the glimpses of collaboration in the film, when the camera pans around to the area behind the stage and you see the stage crew, and then also the rehearsal footage with your dancers before you had to turn this into a solo work. While watching, I wondered how much of this piece came about through collaboration prior to the pandemic and how much of it was created in isolation.
EH: All the dance was solo work, the movement I was giving to the collaborators was choreographed by me, but I don't think that it could have existed in the form that it did unless I had other people working with me. I think one of the hardest things to do is make a solo.
AH: It's so much more difficult than choreographing for other people!
EH: It really is hard because—and I talked about this in the work itself—I wanted to take the focus off of me so I could put the focus on other people and not think about myself. And there's also this sense of if something goes wrong in a solo, it's your fault, like you have to accept responsibility and accept accountability. There's no other body in the space to blame or there's no/body in the space to bounce ideas off of, it's completely your own doing. That sort of propelled me to really think, if I have to accept responsibility for whatever artistic work gets put out, I have to be really prepared to not only speak to the work but accept when there are points of misunderstanding or accept when people challenge me. That continual pursuit of trying to make a solo work was important for me to unearth these other underlying identity questions: Why don't you want to be by yourself? Why don't you want to focus on yourself? What is the thing that is standing in the way of you taking time for yourself?
Ultimately, it's kind of a selfish thing to pursue a grad MFA program because you are presented with this opportunity to present work to a large audience and be gifted with the resources to do so. I think a lot of the process, definitely the making of the choreography, had to be solo because I wanted to make something that was vulnerable enough which allowed people like me to feel that they could stand firm in their own senses of subjectivity. To feel like they had unique voices that were worth sharing with other people. Though I don't at all think that this could have happened just by myself. Because the work itself is talking about what happens when you realize that there are other people in the world who are perceiving you. It's so much about the hurt that can occur when you realize that you're doing the best that you can to put a certain energy out into the world, yet, that's not translating in your interactions with other people. I think that's a very uniquely queer experience, or uniquely trans or non-binary experience.
Photo by Miguel DeLeon
ID: A dancer with long black hair and a black wrist brace is portrayed pulling out blue bubble wrap from a slit in a five-foot-tall box that covers most of the dancer’s body.
When you do find your people, and you do find people who see you the way that you think you should be seen and honor that, there's a certain magic or worldbuilding that can happen. Because you then agree to build a different kind of world with other people, a world that does make space for you to be seen the way that you want to be seen and actually takes accountability for any of the things that you say or put out into the world. That's been the biggest thing throughout this process: needing to take accountability and responsibility for anything that I put out into the world. And to also recognize that even if I am making work from a sort of subaltern or marginalized experience, that I need to be aware that there are people or communities that I'm selling out in terms of being able to continue benefiting off the resources from a very wealthy institution.
So then I have to zoom out and be like, “okay, maybe some of the work is not at all what I put out, and some of the work is actually recognizing you need to feed the people that you're working with.” That is a stronger sense of community than any sort of Q&A post-show talk could provide, it's the very real act of galvanizing and having food with people. That to me becomes more of the piece than the actual filming process of working to create a final product. So much gets lost process-wise. When there are these like big show moments where this is a culminating effort, that’s amazing, but what about the process? How do we then go back into process and illuminate process such that we really are keeping ourselves accountable for how we treat other people and also how we treat ourselves?
AH: When you speak about the process, do you mean the process of creating this piece specifically or the process of creating work in general? Because I see a lot of traces of your earlier work and from the work that I saw at Wesleyan in this film, especially these ideas of building new worlds and negotiating different marginalized identities, and I want to know where this process is taking you now. We've talked about the pressure of creating new work, so I don't mean to ask you, "Oh, what are you working on? What's the next thing?" but more so how do you think the process, or the residue of this process, will live on in your future work and inform what you go on to do?
EH: Every time I'm tasked with making new work, I never know what to do. I always need to just start somewhere, and the starting point for me is often, “okay, you're making a work under this working title, and it's okay to recycle old choreography”. It's okay to use things that maybe didn't feel so good in the past but maybe they belong in the future. It's okay to repeat yourself because I think that's ultimately what artists do—they allow ideas to live through their bodies. And it's about cultivating a sense of trust with yourself that you know exactly what you need to say in a moment or exactly what you need to do movement-wise. So, even in this work, I'm recycling bits and pieces from other works that were made throughout my grad school experience. I was recycling ideas that I was thinking through in my undergrad experience. And the things that continue to show themselves that remind me of past things that I've made, they're there for a reason.
Ultimately, it's a way that we interface with all the selves that span beyond time or transcend space/time to point us towards future ways of being in the world. So I think in the future, I still am very much living in the world of this piece. And I'm still allowing for its residue to float through me until I maybe work on whatever the next piece is. And I still don't really know what the next step is, but I also need to remind myself that I never know what the next step is. You just keep applying, you just keep doing.
Maybe we need to be done with this sort of model of like, “I'm working all this time and this is going to be the piece that lands or this is going to be the piece that really gets all of my ideas across.” I think we need to move towards constantly making, constantly being in process, and constantly being okay with showing a shitty piece. Now I'm all about showing the shitty piece because you need to start somewhere or restart somewhere or maybe edit. That moment where you're showing what you don't want to show can actually show you a lot more than you think. Maybe you needed to do that to get you to where you wanted to go. Half the battle is just having the opportunity to show work.
“For viewing links to either The Girl Box, and/or Bull in a China Closet, please message Elle at rhmanayan[at]gmail[dot]com."
Cover Image Description:
Elle lies beneath a sheet of green paper, with a green poster-board and green-lit cyclorama in the background. Only the dancer’s feet are visible.