and male boxers whom I was working with. That was just one kind of research. I don’t think you really can reach for or do new creative projects in
whatever art form unless you really dig into knowledge that you don’t know about. You have to dig into new knowledge for yourself.”
For The Greatest, Choy trained in martial arts and boxing. She has a need to drill down deep into her subject matter and then authentically express it
through the artistic styles that she is portraying in her works.
“Having brought up two wonderful artist kids, I really feel that if you are trying to do something new that you haven’t had a precedent for or there is no
precedent for at least in my own knowledge, you have to research and you have to have an educational perspective, that you are really trying to educate
the children for the next generation of action as well as the public right now,” Choy said. “You actually have to explain and educate about your
A research challenge that Choy has recently taken up is to express her concerns about climate change through an artistic work. And again, she is
drilling down deep into the subject matter.
“I am going in a new direction of trying to combine dance and the sciences: the biological, ecological and environmental,” Choy said. “It’s exciting
because I’ve been consulting with scholars and scientists on the UW-Madison campus about climate change, about change at the microbiome level and
things that we don’t see every day that surround us in the fungus and the microorganisms that live on our bodies and around in our environment. And
also it’s been interesting to learn how they are stressed, how our microbiome is also suffering with climate change. My new project will look at that
perspective. My working perspective is how can the arts, particularly dance, look at and investigate what is happening in our environment and our
planet and reach people at a very deep level of transformation of attitudes as well as some action.
I think there is a reason for that.”
Choy brings a certain level of social consciousness to her work for she also wants to challenge her audiences artistically, intellectually and
emotionally. For instance, Choy is concerned with the attitudes that many Americans have about the Middle East, which creates a lot of political and
social tension, but also serves as a barrier to learning from and understanding the different cultures of the Middle East.
For her latest project, Choy gained inspiration from the Persian author Farid un-Din Attar’s epic poem Conference of the Birds to create Flight: torn like a
“I took Conference of the Birds and I refashioned the story for my dance project,” Choy said. “In Conference of the Birds, the birds of the world are in
search of their king. They didn’t have a king and they are in search of one that they feel they need. In my story, the birds of the world go on a dangerous
journey, as they do in Conference of the Birds, to find the rose of love. It’s the ultimate rose of all-consuming love, which is a truth. It’s like God, but I am
making a metaphor of the rose as the thing of ultimate beauty and truth. The Conference of the Birds interweaves human allegorical stories and the bird
allegorical stories. It’s all allegory. I’m using the allegory and just centering on the birds. I’m not going back and forth because I want it more focused.
The birds of the world are different species. They come together and they argue and fight. They don’t get along. But somehow the pivotal bird in my story
is the nightingale. And he, through his sweet song, tells the other birds of his love for this rose and inspires them all to join him on a flight to discover
the ultimate rose, even more special than the rose that he is in love with. All of the birds have their own attachments in their lives. Allegorically
speaking, we humans also have our attachments that we can’t let go of to discover the deepest love in ourselves or in the world. The birds are able to
let go of their attachments. And then there is this surprising ending. They go on this dangerous journey together, many don’t make it and fall away. Many
die or are injured and lose the spirit to go on. But some do. And then what they discover at the goal, which is the very top of the greatest mountain in the
world, the ultimate rose as promised by this nightingale. They reach the summit and then they have a surprising discovery.”
While Choy doesn’t incorporate any Middle Eastern dance movements in her work, she nonetheless had some Middle Eastern influences.
“Graham Haynes is a really talented composer,” Choy said. “And he has experience traveling to the Middle East and the Gnawa sect in Morocco, Africa.
He has gone to this community of Gnawa musicians and improvised with them. He has great world experience in different music genres and he brought
them to the composition that I commissioned especially for Flight.”
Choy also incorporated more complex costuming for Flight.
“The costumes are elaborate and they were designed by Andrew Jordan,” Choy said. “We had brainstormed and I had wanted costumes for birds that
were inspired by Japanese anime, but also with the image of armor, Asian war armor. The birds do have to fortify themselves to travel on this
dangerous journey. And so hence some of the imagery and meaning that I had wanted for the costumes. I wanted color to emphasize the different
species of the birds. I think the costume designer did a great job with the color.”
While Choy created and choreographed Flight — and has a strong idea of what the performance should look and feel like — she also trusts the dancers
and their artistic traditions to provide nuance vitality to their performances as well.
“I’m trying to reach a new level with movement,” Choy said. “And that means constantly inquiring, working with the gift of the dancers and some of the
dancers are different who are new to this performance of Flight. You have to work with their gift, guide them to discover new levels of their gifts and
communication with the audience. It’s always a process and it also is guided by the dancers I work with because they are collaborators with me. They
bring what they know and they all have to cross-train in more than one style of dance. So in this ensemble, we have dancers who are b-boys — hip-hop
dancers — and some of them cross-train in martial arts such as Capoeira Angola or Japanese sword fighting. Some have ballet training. Some have
contemporary dance training. And they are very versatile dancers. I like to privilege a very diverse group of dancers, so they are very diverse. In
creating the solos for each bird that is highlighted, we have the two African Blue parrots, the hawk, the heron and the nightingale. I rely upon
improvisations. I am inspired by improvisations to help me build their solos because I want to bring out their own creativity and their own focus and
inspiration. I can’t preset the work. It’s not always the safest way to work. You don’t have all of the answers right at the top. And so I think that’s been a
learning process for some of the dancers.”
Choy performed as one of the dancers in Flight. But that doesn’t mean that she has forgotten her expectations for the other members of the ensemble.
“They know I am watching,” Choy said. “Whether I am performing or in the wings, the ensemble is very well aware that I am watching every move.”
In order to also bring depth and a different perspective to Flight, Choy brought Sonoko Kawahara on to direct Flight.
“She is a contemporary theater director with her own unique perspective,” Choy said. “She has lived in New York for many years. Her vision is just as
much from a New York perspective and the art scene there as it is from her Japanese heritage. It’s been very inspiring working with her. She will give
a workshop on contemporary theater on campus in my Asian American movement class on Wednesday October 30th. I could possibly let in some
general public members if they let me know and I approve.”
Kawahara isn’t directing in the traditional sense. She is more of a collaborator helping Choy to reach her vision.
“She understands that I have my vision,” Choy said. “She is trying to get deeper and closer to that vision, her understanding of my vision. She is trying
to help instead of takeover, which is a great place. And also I am receptive to her inspirations because sometimes it is very creative. It’s in rehearsal
and she’ll just bring something up. Often it is great. It’s a help for me. I feel it’s a creative help. It’s not like, ‘Who’s in charge.’ It’s about the creative
process and what we can learn from each other and yet everyone has to understand that it is give and take.”
With the Madison performances of Flight, Choy hoped that her audiences’ imaginations took flight with an openness that will lead to a higher level on
internal and external knowledge.
“With this dance performance, I am asking the question with my dance performance, ‘In an age where the U.S. is very weary and distrustful of Middle
Eastern countries, can we discover and take action to express great love in these chaotic times and times of distrust of cultures and countries that are
Middle Eastern,’” Choy queried.
With this performance of Flight, the answer is yes.
Flight was performed on Thursday October 31st and Friday November 1st, at UW-Madison’s Lathrop Hall in the H’Doubler Performance Space.
Editor's Note: This story was re-edited to reflect past performance of Flight.
|Left: Lacouir Yancey (l-r) and Ze Motionin, the
Parrot Brothers in Flight in a photo talen by
Fernando Sandoval Right: Peggy Choy in
performance in a photo taken by Andy Toad
Peggy Choy’s Flight torn like a Rose in Madison last October 31-
The Perilous Journey for Perfect Love
By Jonathan Gramling
From her Korean American roots, Peggy
Choy — director of the Peggy Choy Dance
Company in New York and associate
professor of dance at UW-Madison’s
School of Education — has been on an
intellectual and expressive journey to
test her personal and professional
boundaries through the fusion of different
art and dance forms.
A beautiful example is The Greatest: A
Hip Dance Homage to Muhammad Ali, a
martial arts-boxing fusion performance
that Choy choreographed and directed
that was performed in Gleason’s Gym
where Ali once trained.
“The Greatest: Hip Dance Homage to Mohammed Ali was about Mohammed Ali and his Afro-Asian
perspective,” Choy said. “And I brought b-boys and boxers together. For me to walk into the gym,
because it was a sight-specific performance, I had to train in boxing and I had to train in breaking
and other hip-hop genres to be able to communicate with the boxers and the b-boys, both women