CHAMPAIGN, Ill. —Renowned artist and National Medal of Arts winner Ping Chong is working with dance students to create a performance based on racial history in the U.S.
Chong is an artist-in-residence during January at the Illinois Department of Dance. The public can hear him speak at two events this month and watch an open rehearsal of his production on Friday.
An interdisciplinary artist in theater, dance and visual arts, as well as a pioneer in the use of media in the theater, Chong received the National Medal of Arts last fall.
Chong’s work has long dealt with issues of social justice. That was one of the factors that led the dance department to bring him here, said Jan Erkert, head of the department.
While at the U. of I., Chong will create a new piece that will premiere at the “February Dance” performance at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
“Students get a fabulous experience working with this incredible artist. They get to be on the ground floor of making the piece,” Erkert said.
The production, “Baldwin/NOW,” uses the text of a 1968 speech by writer James Baldwin, which Chong also used in “Collidescope: Adventures in Pre- and Post-Racial America,” created at the University of Maryland in 2014 and inspired by the killing of
Trayvon Martin. “Baldwin/NOW” will use the monologue in a different way and incorporate dance, and it also will reference people of color killed by police in the past year.
“That’s been central to my work – engaging different communities that are either stigmatized as ‘other’ or simply treated as ‘other,’” Chong said, adding that his theater company, Ping Chong + Company, differs from traditional theater groups in its close interactions with the social justice community.
One of the hallmarks of Chong’s work, Erkert said, is his poetic way of speaking about social justice issues.
“He really knows how to use the power of movement and dance and images to evoke these sensations of knowing these political ideas we talk about,” she said.
“Our society divides so easily around words,” Erkert said. “(Art) takes it out of the verbal. It brings us to common ground of something really powerful, emotional and visceral.”
Chong said theater is “definitely a more active and sensual way of dealing with issues. It’s more alive than having a panel discussion. People feel something.”
His recent productions include “Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity,” an interview-based show that uses young Muslims, rather than actors, who speak about their experiences of living at a time of increasing hostility toward Muslims.
His company also produces an ongoing series, “Undesirable Elements” – community-specific storytelling theater that looks at issues of culture and identity of people who are outsiders from their mainstream communities.
An important part of Chong’s visits at universities, in addition to teaching students about art, is teaching them about citizenship, civic responsibility and history. While working with students on “Baldwin/NOW,” Chong will show them videos on racial history, give them readings and have discussions about race in America.
The public can get a preview of “Baldwin/NOW” at an open rehearsal that is part of the dance department’s First View Series. The open rehearsal is from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Friday at the Colwell Playhouse at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
Chong will talk about his work at a DiversityEd Conversation Café Lunch Series event, from noon to 1 p.m. Jan. 22 at the Women's Resources Center, 703 S. Wright St., Champaign. The talk is hosted by the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations.
Chong also will present a MillerComm lecture at 4 p.m. Jan. 26 in the Knight Auditorium at Spurlock Museum, 600 S. Gregory St., Urbana. Chong will talk about his interdisciplinary approach to theater and how it can be used as an avenue for social change.
“Baldwin/NOW” will premiere at “February Dance” at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 4-6 at Krannert Center. Each performance will be followed by a post-show discussion on issues of race in America, with various campus leaders serving as moderators to generate a conversation with the audience.
“We’re using the arts as a springboard for these discussions,” Erkert said.
Chong’s residency was funded by a grant from the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation and the Center for Advanced Study George A. Miller Endowment Visiting Artist program.