JuYeonRyuJu-Yeon Ryu

Ju-Yeon Ryu is a choreographer, performance artist, and dance researcher, portraying people’s lives interwoven with political events in symbolic and metaphoric narratives through bodily experience, using voice, movement, lyric, Korean drumming, and Korean Shamanistic ritual elements. She says that life in Philadelphia was inseparable from her work with the Asian Arts Initiative, which included meeting and collaborating with wonderful beautiful Asian American artists, finding her "better half," participating in Something to Say, co-curating the 10th anniversary exhibition, loving every part of the space at the former home of the Initiative in the Gilbert Building, and wondering about the little turtle.

What was your first experience wth the arts?

My mom took me to a dance studio near where I lived, when I was five years old. I didn't know what was going on. She told me that she wanted me to try it out. There were two dance teachers teaching Korean traditional dance. I really enjoyed it, and my mom decided that she's not going to send me to pre-school, but would let me continue getting in training in dance studio. So that started my journey.

One year before I became a freshman at University, there was this really, really big rally that happened in Korea. It was a really politically chaotic situation back then-it was 1987. At this rally, a woman did a dance performance, commemorating a college-age student who had been killed by a police officer. This woman was Aeju Lee. The performance was really, really inspiring. In a way, it was shocking to see a dance performance in the street during a rally. She was commemorating the life of the person who passed away, and at the same time showing the people's will to fight against injustice. That really inspired me. She was really a strong person, and that was the first time I felt the power of art, and artist.

How do you see art connecting to social change?

I believe that art is political. Art cannot be not political. I have been thinking about youth a lot because of the Sori Mori Korean drumming group that I was part of in Philadelphia back then. I don't think this is just a case of Korean American youth, but in a lot of the APIA community where the parents are first or second generation immigrants, the children are kind of confused and have a hard time in general. Because it doesn't matter how many years you live here, how many generations that you go back as immigrants, having a yellow face in this country will entitle you to some kind of difficulties in your life. So for youth, arts can be a really good tool for them to identify themselves, and kind of get some kind of clearer picture for them to figure out who they are in this harsh society where they have to face racism and injustice and inequality. So for youth, and for the Asian community in general, I think art is a really important piece. I experienced this myself mostly in the Asian Arts Initiative and through the Korean drumming group, Sori Mori.

Korean drumming is really political; it has a strong tie to street performances which mainly have been demonstrations in cities. So we in Sori Mori got to perform a lot during political rallies back then. And at the same time, Asian Arts Initiative would invite us to perform at their space, so we did small performances within events at the Asian Arts Initiative. And the other performance that I cannot forget was, I don't remember what year, but Asian Arts Initiative decided to a commemoration in a performance for Vincent Chin, and there was a program organized to provide the opportunity for artists to come together and learn what happened to Vincent Chin, and we really studied what happened, at the same time trying to kind of explain through our own languages as an artist to express how we felt and what we wanted to deliver to others who didn't know about it . . .

Asian Arts Initiative is different from other organizations in that they really nurture, foster young artists or emerging artists and help them really develop their skills. That's the difference from other organizations who might just invite other developed artists and do a show, but Asian Arts Initiative has this continuous relationship with artists through their lives. So it's kind of like a parent who is helping artists to become more mature, developed artists . . . thinking of the community-not just themselves, but the community-and giving them opportunities to make connections with other artists.

Can you describe a show or project at aai that had a lasting impression on you?

Oh my own first performance! Wow! It's really interesting because my husband was a performer, and that night at the Asian Arts Initiative was the first time that physically he and I were in the same space, but at the time we didn't meet; he just came to see the performers, and I never knew he was there. The performance was about the Los Angeles uprising in 1992, and I was fascinated by the fact that what I knew about what happened back then, in 1992, was different from what it was; the Los Angeles uprising was not really about the conflict between the American and African-American community, but it was more about propaganda, and how media portray specific events in a way that gets misunderstood and problems happen. I really wanted to touch the foundation and essence of what happened from my perspective, and I guess it was more about the pain and suffering of the community members, not because they have done something wrong but because the society forcing them to have some kind of hatred. So, I wanted to talk about it, but not in a verbal form, but in a dance performance.

That was the first time that I performed in the United States. I had two Korean drummers; they were my friends. They played as musicians, but at the same time, they actually came into the scene that I was performing, and they became different characters within my piece. I used the AAI space kind of as a gallery, and I made a mural on the floor, and I had four glass jars of water on the floor, and I actually had a live rooster in a cage that was covered in long piece of cloth, hanging from the ceiling. At the end of the performance, I planned that I would cut this really long piece of white cloth into small pieces and give it to everyone who came as a kind of symbolic gesture in Korean tribalistic ritual that you share your money, food, whatever you have during the ritual; so I decided to just use the cloth as a symbol of currency or asset that you have, because long time in Korea, before Modern Era, they used fabric or cloth as a form of currency. But then time was running out, and it was supposed to be a one-hour performance, but it turned out to be longer than two hours and a half, and I had to finish at a certain point, so I decided, "Ok, I'm just gonna give pieces of white cloth to three or four audience members," and I did. The thing is, actually, I found out a year later that one of them was my husband.

Do artists have a responsibility to address social justice issues?

It's not just responsibility-if you're an artist you can't help it, you can't help it. You know it-you have to do it. I never felt like, "Oh, I have to do it because I'm responsible because I'm an artist." It just comes into my mind automatically. Usually the way that I choreograph, I have nightmares and dreams, and I get images through my nightmares and dreams, and I create movements from my dreams. That's why I feel like when I describe my art, it's kind of like painting, a collage of images, stream of images relating to an event or a historical moment that I portray within my performance. And even naming, defining what kind of dance you do-that's political. The society does not give you an option; everything becomes political. You feel urged to address specific issues or events through your art because it's your destiny-the artist's destiny.

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