Spotlight Session: Grace Yi-Li Tong
What are the Spotlight Sessions?
I was the child who asked “why” 150 times in a row, to the dismay and occasional annoyance of the adults around me. That curiosity and need for discovery grew with me and became a guide on my artistic path. Determination, inquisitiveness, and the drive to connect with others led me to write, dance, choreograph, produce, and educate.
I started my company, Six Degrees Dance, with the mission of creating community. Embodying the theory that all people are connected through a social network of 6 or fewer degrees, we collaborate in an environment where the exchange of ideas is the building block for innovation and growth. We approach dance-making with the belief that the contribution of the individual benefits the group, and results in a body of work reflective of the sum of its parts.
To that end, we have developed several initiatives that connect artists with audiences and with each other, maintaining the idea of six degrees of separation as the foundation for those connections. Our annual showcase brings together national and international choreographers, most of whom have never met. Our Choreographic Commission series allows the dancers of Six Degrees to work with a variety of choreographers in different styles. In The Spotlight Sessions, I will present a different artist each cycle, and through interviews, short feature articles, previews, and capsule reviews, offer a behind-the-scenes look into their work and their process. I hope you enjoy getting to know these unique, talented individuals as much as I have, and continue to follow them on their creative paths.
Grace Yi-Li Tong (she/her) is a joyful Asian-American movement artist and choreographer originally from the Pacific Northwest. Influenced by clowning, paper collage, puppetry, and contemporary dance theater, her work ridiculously collages “regular” events onstage to decontextualize bodily and social identity, fairytale, and comedy. In 2021, Grace graduated summa cum laude from NYU Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in Dance and a minor in Gender and Sexuality Studies. She now works as a choreographer, performer, educator, and arts admin.
Recently, Grace has been in process with Jody Oberfelder Projects, Luis Lara Malvacias, Monica Bill Barnes, and Patricia Hoffbauer. She has presented choreographic work at Arts on Site 2023, Art Cake Dance Series II 2022, Laguardia Performing Arts Center with the Emerging Choreographer Series 2022, and Governor’s Island 2021. Film credits include choreographic collaborations with brands Tod’s Shoes and Yayi Chen. She will be in residence at ReMo Studios (Amsterdam) and will present work at Triskelion Arts in 2023.
1. How did your artistic journey begin?
My artistic journey began during my early childhood when I would play make believe for hours, put on dance shows in my backyard, and write and illustrate hundreds of stories. Simultaneously, my mother put me in creative movement classes at several studios at age three or four. My commitment to these physical classes was absolute– there are videos of me at this age going a mile and beyond when I heard the teacher’s instructions. “March with your knees higher!” she would say, and my dad’s camera pans over to my tiny leotard-clad body yanking my knees up and bashing my head down violently. Which is all to say that my artistic journey began as both a love for fantasy and pretend, as well as for physical movement. As I grew older, I trained predominantly in eurocentric techniques such as ballet, modern, and classical jazz; I was training at Cornish College of the Arts’ Preparatory Dance Program in Seattle, WA, and at some point a great teacher of mine, Wade Madsen, invited me to a compositional class with the third year BFA students. As an 18-year-old, I loved photography and writing, two mediums which were exciting to me because of their compositional possibilities. Even now, as I continue to create, I find both the visual and narrative influence of these mediums in my work. I went on to study dance at NYU Tisch Dance, where I was permitted and encouraged to develop my specific choreographic voice, and I’ve ended up here (wherever that is) making more and more work. I remain still so inspired and excited by the same modes of performance as in my childhood: make-believe, carefree dancing, and stories.
2. What drives you as an individual artist? What do you hope to express/convey to the world through your work?
Each of my works has their own life, and perhaps like one’s own child, I believe that it is my job to nurture each of their characters until they can live on their own. I think I leave remnants of myself in all of my creations. If there’s any sort of throughline (which I’m sure an outside eye could have a different understanding of), I think it has to do with finding freedom and agency beyond imposed expectation and identity. As an Asian-American artist, I think that 2023 is a pivotal time in which we have the possibility to make work about ourselves, even more so than about our assumed “identities.” There are so many incredible AAPI artists gaining recognition and so many stories that are being told. This is such an important step in nurturing empathy for others. With my childlike glee and affinity for fantasy, I am excited to create work that transcends the everyday. Using material copy and pasted from everyday life, I create movement collages that decontextualize the regular and create ridiculous fantasy. I grapple with that which is physical and that which goes unsaid, a theme I find is both universally relatable, and specific to my Asian-American experience. I am driven by the hope that I can create fantasy and also change the ways my audiences experience time during their presence in my worlds.
3. When do you feel most powerful?
I feel most powerful when I am physically present; whether in the creative process or in performance, the reason I work with performance is because it is the chance to shape and control time, even if just for 30 seconds, an hour, a day. I feel both immensely powerful and delighted when I enact the most non-functional, non-utilitarian, nonsensical movement. To create my own world is an extraordinary excitement, and as someone who grew up in a world that often taught them to be invisible, I am hungry to build these moments of honesty and witness. I feel this immense power multiply when I am with other artists as well. I am so inspired by all of my collaborators and peers, and feel uplifted and infinitely creative when I work side-by-side with people who believe in and who challenge my ideas.
4. What has been your biggest challenge and your proudest moment during your artistic growth?
A massive challenge has been to move past the flashing pixels, Instagram aesthetics, and capital demands to create honest work. I work beyond ocular expectation, and it is hard sometimes not to feel like I have to make something look a certain way so that it becomes appealing to the social media eye. Furthermore, it is especially challenging in our political landscape to create work beyond the greater and our own expectations. I am extremely proud of my pacing of my most recent work. I am currently really excited about the prospect of spanning my process over long periods of time. Months, years, etc. I am convinced that my choreographic work needs to live a life as well, and that with time and with my continued commitment, I can mould performance that is uniquely experienced and seen. I am proud to have been working on my project Garden Tongues since 2020, and am currently in the works with another project that has already been spanning 2023. In the performance industry, and as a young emerging artist, I feel it is rare to have the time and opportunity to continue to work on one or two projects, and so I am so grateful to be working in this modality. Although in my dream world, I could work all day, every day on developing these works, unfortunately it doesn’t quite work like that. Although despite the challenges, I am constantly searching for ways to make these long-term projects possible physically and financially.
5. Can you describe your creative process?
My creative process begins with creating non-linear source material. Sampling from various images, ideas, feelings, and scenes, I amass a number of physical ideas that can be reordered and spliced to create an image. In the space, I layer, scrap, tear, draw, fold and play with my collaborators. These specific scraps are generated from ideas I build up around a theme or idea, and then unravel to create a linear performance project.
In a tangible sense, my studio time is spent playing and building. I use tools such as timed improvisation (something I picked up recently and am still toying with. This process includes setting a prompt and a specific time limit, extending duration each time I revisit the prompt.) I find that after the comfortability of 2-3 minutes wears off, the excavation becomes much more fruitful. I also use writing/drawing, systems, and games frequently in group rehearsals. I align a lot with ideas of physical theater, and so a lot of the work I do with collaborators includes not only building physical movement material, but also scenework. After this playtime, I experiment with all the different ways that these chunks can weave together to create the unexpected. This is when the fun really begins– I love to layer not only physical movement onstage, but also elements like costume, prop, sound, tasks, games, etc. The more references, the more insanity, the better!
6. What do you do when you are not creating? What things outside of the dance industry inspire you and fuel your creativity?
I am particularly excited by other mediums, some days even more so than dance. I like to think of performance as a medium, rather than an end goal or industry that I exist in. Things that fuel me right now include: going outside to feel the sun on my skin, enjoying and making scrumptious food, collaging, drawing, writing, karaoke-ing, hiking, going to the movies, working/playing with my students, practicing new skills (this summer: roller skating), and swimming.
7. What is next for you?
My latest project, which has many names and faces, is off to Amsterdam in a few weeks (May 2023) for an incubation residency at ReMo Studio. With the help of the Netherland-America Foundation, I am so excited to be bringing on a great friend and collaborator of mine, Micaela Pirzio-Biroli, who works with both sculpture and performance. Along with composer Phoebe Frances, we are so excited to be developing something very new and likely ferocious! Some of this work will be shown during my Split Bill at Triskelion in Nov-Dec 2023. I am also looking forward to performing with some other folks in Munich and Seattle this summer, as well as doing some NYC teaching. I absolutely adore summer, and will also be making sure that my next steps include several beach days! Longer term, I am not quite sure what the next years hold, but I am so eager to find out. I am open to everything that may come my way.
A brief look at Grace Yi-Li Tong's Choreography