Arts & culture, Performing arts, Visual arts

Tender and aggressive: Student dancers embody Asian American Greek life

Members of Fei Tian Dancers, UC Berkeley's only officially recognized student group for traditional Chinese dance, worked with artist Kenneth Tam, whose sculpture and video exhibition on Asian American fraternities was on display at BAMPFA

By AJ Fox

Members of UC Berkeley's Fei Tian Dancers worked with artist Kenneth Tam to give a live performance complementing Tam's exhibition at BAMPFA, The Founding of the World, based on the artist’s extensive research into the history of Asian American fraternities.

Fall semester is coming to an end, but for four Berkeley students, their recent experience creating and performing a dance at the Berkeley Art Museum and Film Archive (BAMPFA) about their experiences as young female Asian Americans will have a lasting impact.

The highlight was working with Kenneth Tam, an interdisciplinary artist who works in video and sculpture, who collaborated with the undergraduates and choreographer Juri Onuki on an original dance that complemented Tam’s BAMPFA exhibition, MATRIX 281 / Kenneth Tam: The Founding of the World, which ran from Aug. 16 to Nov. 26.

Tam’s exhibition at BAMPFA centered on a video and sculpture installation, The Founding of the World, which is based on the artist’s extensive research into the history of Asian American fraternities — a space where young Asian American men perform rituals of identity and belonging that can manifest as both tender and aggressive.

For the eponymous dance performance, Tam flipped this gender dynamic, enlisting four young women from the Berkeley student body — Isabelle Huang, Sophia Luo, Virginia Sun and Lindsey Wu, all members of Fei Tian Dancers, Berkeley’s only officially recognized student group for traditional Chinese dance — for a work that focused on representations of Asian American femininity, both in Greek life and in campus culture more broadly.

an artist performs a dance in a dark room standing in front of a blue screen with hard alcohol bottles hanging from the ceiling
Installation view of Kenneth Tam, The Founding of The World, 2023, at Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles.
Paul Salveson/Courtesy of the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles, Mexico City

For Tam, the pivotal period of identity formation that students experience during their undergraduate lives is a generative source of artistic potential.

"It’s a really interesting period of a young person’s life, being on a college campus and getting your first taste of independence as a young adult," said Tam. "At the same time, you’re still figuring out who you are as an adult. Greek life is one option that is presented to a lot of people as a way of negotiating the social pressure of being on a campus and having to reevaluate who you think you are. Especially for young people of color, where questions of identity become more urgent, fraternities and sororities are these ready-made structures that people can find meaning in."

While each of the students are experienced dancers, working with Tam and Onuki over a compressed four-day rehearsal period gave them a crash course in an entirely new form.

"It was very different than [Chinese folk dance], which is quite traditional. This was something quite modern and contemporary," said Sun, who along with Luo is a co-executive director of Fei Tian. "I thought it would be good to have a break, since I’ve been doing Chinese dance for twelve years. Taking a step into a new style was a different world for me. It allowed me to learn a lot more about dance, in general, and I thought about how I can apply the things that Ken and Juri taught to my dancing and teaching, as well."

Tam and Onuki’s choreography for The Founding of the World drew on a wide range of contemporary influences, ranging from sorority initiation rituals to contact improv to K-pop and conventional step dance. 

In a nod to Berkeley’s vibrant history of protest culture, Tam also incorporated the use of bullhorns into the 20-minute performance, along with audio recordings drawn from the Free Speech Movement and the archives of the Department of Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies.

four dancers wearing all black hold bullhorns up to their mouths during a dance performance in a gallery space
In a nod to Berkeley’s vibrant history of protest culture, Tam incorporated the use of bullhorns into the 20-minute performance.
AJ Fox/BAMPFA

"I was definitely interested in this history of fraternities and tying it back to the formation of the very first Asian American fraternity in this country, [founded at UC Berkeley in 1929]," said Tam. "I was also reflecting on the history of student-organized protests on this campus, things that were happening from the late ’60s to the present day. Fraternity culture and protest culture are not often thought of in the same breath, but I wanted to see if there could be some overlap. I wanted to see if those things could be confused, like when an initiation chant becomes a protest."

Tam first proposed the idea of a live student performance to Victoria Sung, BAMPFA’s Phyllis C. Wattis senior curator, who curated his exhibition at the museum. The two of them worked with BAMPFA’s program manager Sean Carson to reach out to student dancers on campus. Eventually, they made contact with Luo, who helped to recruit her fellow members of Fei Tian to participate in this unique opportunity.

For Luo, working with an acclaimed Asian American artist like Tam was an inspiring experience.

"As someone who has been in AAPI art spaces and dance spaces, it’s great to see nowadays how many artists are working on stories that express our own histories, and especially things like [Greek life] that we don’t talk about a lot," said Luo. "Exploring the violence that takes place in fraternities and sororities is really interesting, and a really different take than what society associates with the AAPI community."

"Kenneth Tam’s closing performance for The Founding of the World was the perfect encapsulation of what makes BAMPFA so special" said Sung. "I am immensely grateful to Ken, Juri and the four student dancers for their cross-campus collaboration, for their commitment to experimentation, and for making and premiering a remarkable new performance that I hope to see out in the world."

MATRIX 281 / Kenneth Tam: The Founding of the World was on view at BAMPFA from Aug. 16 through Nov. 26 as part of the museum’s MATRIX Program, a vanguard exhibition series that highlights distinctive and important voices in contemporary art. 

The live performance The Founding of the World can be viewed on BAMPFA’s Youtube channel. Learn more about BAMPFA’s upcoming exhibitions and programs.