Almost 20 years ago, visual and dance artist Veronica Lee-Baik founded a modern dance company called The Three Yells, and since then has combined art and dance to highlight current events and important social topics.
Born in Singapore, Lee-Baik found the Pacific Northwest offered a lack of opportunities for dancers and choreographers of color. “Though Asians are the largest racial minority in Seattle, it is rare to see an Asian female choreographer presenting work,” Lee-Baik said. “My work aims to amplify the lesser heard, or purposefully ignored voices.”
That goal, combined with her desire to integrate multiple artistic disciplines into her dance performances, inspired Lee-Baik to create and direct a company of her own. “My dedication to art, dance and desire for representation, along with taking breaks in between works to rejuvenate myself and my mind are what has kept me going,” she said.
Lee-Baik has earned accolades for her work. In 2017, she received a James W. Ray Venture Project Award from Artist Trust, as well as numerous grants for previous productions, and The Three Yells is currently receiving support from 4Culture.
The Three Yells’ current dance work is entitled A Crack in the Noise, and it focuses on the immigrant experience and the current plight of refugees. “Watching recent events unfold was difficult to sit back and watch passively without feeling complicit with those who cause these times of chaos,” Lee-Baik said. “I always felt art can be a powerful platform for the unacknowledged to be heard and recognized within a space untethered by political ideology. I do it through my art because it is the only way I know how to bravely communicate and sturdily represent my people.”
As artistic director, Lee-Baik is collaborating with over a dozen other artists on this project. “Any collaboration is always enlightening. It helps take my work and vision to the next level,” she said. “I combine other genres and disciplines in my choreography, because I believe a work’s innovation and positive force is driven by its inclusion and experimentation with other art forms.”
Visual design of the body is important to Lee-Baik as part of both her dramatic and social aims. “All performers for this project will wear a buzz cut as a representation of the coma that our humanity is currently experiencing as each day passes with no reprieve in sight for the world’s refugee crisis,” she said. “It signifies our mourning for every woman, child and man refugee that dies from our inaction and disregard.”
Lee-Baik seeks to demonstrate agency by dislocating identity. “I want to pack a visceral punch with images of women with really short hair to destabilize notions of traditional femininity,” she said. “I want to disrupt the audience from always concerning themselves with who is telling this story. At the end of the day, it shouldn’t matter, what race, sex or tribe. This story packs urgency and art is where we can de-politicize a humanity crisis.”
In addition to the two scheduled performances of A Crack in the Noise, Lee-Baik aims to reach beyond the traditional performance stage. “I hosted two open rehearsals for Seattle dancers involving them in the process by deepening awareness and understanding through movement of our current immigrant and refugee crisis,” she said. “I, along with my company are reaching out to people that we know who are immigrants and/or refugees and having them write a short message that they would like to share with the world. Each message will be incorporated into paper airplanes and flown out to the audience during the show.”
She has engaged in these extra efforts despite the challenges of running a dance company. “Funding a project is always a challenge because there is a sore lack of money for artists, especially choreographers,” she said. “I have also had to clear the hurdle of finding a place to rehearse on specific days and times over an extended period of time. This is so I can juggle between being a mom and running The Three Yells.”
All this effort stems from Lee-Baik’s fervent belief in her mission. “Hopefully to have created a work with thoughtfulness and emotional impact, so viewers reflect on issues related to refugees and immigrants, and to iterate that a refugee and an immigrant is like any other human being,” she said.
To that end, Lee-Baik quotes 19-year-old Syrian refugee Maya Ghazal’s comment on the refugee experience, asserting, “The change in circumstance does not ‘change us from a human being into a thing or from a person into a problem.’”
And Lee-Baik doesn’t plan to stop with this presentation. “A Crack in the Noise is just the first chapter in a trilogy documenting the struggles and hardships immigrants have to face everyday,” she said. “The two other chapters are Then We Cry, a dance duet inspired by my personal hybrid transnational identity of being too foreign in my homeland and too foreign for where I make home, and A Roomful of Scissors, an art installation tackling the detention of immigrant children.”
“A Crack in the Noise” runs February 1 and 2 at the Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center, 201 Mercer Street, Seattle. Tickets available here.