November 30, 2023 Coverage and Posts, CSA, Dance

Next Pittsburgh: Point Park composer Yan Pang’s immigration story blends the ancient and modern

Yan Pang, center, watches as Amanda Sun, portraying Yan, left, and Mimi Jong, portraying Min, rehearse a scene from “One-Log Bridge” at Point Park University. Photo by John Beale.


Point Park composer Yan Pang’s immigration story blends the ancient and modern

Reshaping an art form that’s been in existence for nearly 1,800 years takes talent, vision and courage.

And break dancing. Lots of break dancing.

“One-Log Bridge,” Pittsburgh composer Yan Pang’s new performance work premiering Dec. 7-8 at the New Hazlett Theater, uses the centuries-old stylistic conventions of Chinese opera to chart her ongoing emotional journey as a present-day immigrant to America.

Pang, 34, is a visiting assistant professor of music at Point Park University’s Conservatory of Performing Arts. She is a native of Chengdu, China’s fourth-largest city and the capital of Sichuan province.

While earning a Ph.D. in Music with a minor in Theater Arts and Dance at the University of Minnesota in the 2010s, she began creating large-scale live performance pieces blending Western classical and Chinese traditional instruments with stage elements drawn from opera, theatre, media and dance.

“One-Log Bridge” is her third collaboration with choreographer Jason “J-Sun” Noer, a renowned street dance practitioner who teaches theater and dance at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

It is one of five original works in New Hazlett Theater’s 2023/2024 Community Supported Art series showcasing emerging Pittsburgh artists.

Richard Keitel, a Point Park University theater professor, directs the 13-person ensemble that includes pianist AJ DePetris, percussionist PJ Roduta, vocalists Amanda Sun, Mimi Jong, Lulu James and Braden Stroppel –  along with performances by Pang’s father, Jin Pang, on the erhu, a two-stringed bowed violin popular in Chinese folk music and Chinese opera since the 8th Century.

NEXTpittsburgh spoke with Pang and her dance collaborator Noer at the Spinning Plate Gallery in Friendship.

* * *

From left, Amanda Sun, who portrays Yan in “One-Log Bridge”; Yan Pang; A.J. DePetris, music director and pianist; and erhu player Jin Pang, rehearse at Point Park University. Photo by John Beale.

NEXTpittsburgh:  What got you started with music as a child?

Yan Pang: I couldn’t stop doing it. My music learning started with singing; I was in choir. I saw someone in the corner playing the piano and thought, “That’s way cooler!” I asked my mom if I could learn the piano, and she pulled out money from her savings and brought an electronic keyboard home. I haven’t stopped since then.

NEXTpittsburgh: Did you attend a music academy?

Pang: We couldn’t afford a private lesson teacher. So we had to carry that giant electronic keyboard to a park where the teacher had a class. Every week my mom carried that keyboard to the park, and it’s very heavy, and she’s only 5 foot 1 and very skinny, like 90 pounds. Can you imagine? Every time after the lesson, there would be a scar on her shoulder from carrying it. That’s how persistent my mom is. I felt like, if I quit, I’m the biggest jerk ever.

NEXTpittsburgh: Jason, how did you get involved with dance?

Jason Noer: I’d always been a big fan of martial arts and “Star Wars.” Then in the late ’80s, I began to gravitate towards hip hop music while living in Northern California where social dance is just as big as sports in a lot of places. That attracted me because it was competitive.

We were doing dances like The Running Man and The Cabbage Patch and The Reebok, and that was a way for me to carve out an identity. I was very socially awkward and kind of antisocial, I would say, until I learned dancing, which gave me attention.

Then I learned breaking, which is my main dance form, and that began to align with martial arts and “Star Wars,” because it was like doing these almost magical movements. These unexplainable movements. Somehow you’re spinning on your head and doing these things. For me that solidified the love of it.

How do we carve out a new path?

Seeking for courage in the waning daylight,

We ache for grace and guidance,

Beacon in the wind

To cut through darkness.      —    “One Mother’s Children” by Yan Pang

NEXTpittsburgh: Yan, besides your piano lessons in Western music, how did you learn Chinese traditional music?

Pang: I grew up on Sichuan opera. At the time, I didn’t like Chinese traditional music. But my dad is an expert erhu player.

NEXTpittsburgh: I’ve heard your father play erhu. He’s a virtuoso!

Pang: But to me growing up, it’s happening every day, and it was like background noise. When I went to college, pursuing my career as a composer, my composition teacher at that time forced me to memorize Chinese folk music — and then sing it. He said, “If you don’t have a library of your roots, then you’re not going to write anything that is authentic to you.” So I just did it as an assignment at that time.

I realized when I came to America that I still carried these folk tunes with me. For One-Log Bridge” at New Hazlett Theater, you are going to hear that the folk music melody is still in there, even though I’m using Western compositional technique and Western popular music style.

NEXTpittsburgh: How did you get the idea for this piece?

Pang: The idea started in 2019 when I was at the University of Minnesota and studying with David Walsh, director of Opera Theatre. The first idea was to just write my story. As I met more people, I realized my story is not uncommon. I met a lot of other first-generation immigrants who share a similar story with me, so I decided this is something that speaks to first-generation Chinese-American immigrant women’s experience.

Yan Pang poses at the piano in her faculty office at Point Park University. Her office door is covered with notes made by students about what makes them happy. Photo by John Beale.

NEXTpittsburgh: What is the storyline?

Pang: The storyline follows a character based on my story. She leaves her parents and comes to America as a grad student. At first she promised her parents that she will come back to China and write in authentic Sichuan opera style and have a concert in China. But throughout her journey, she learns about artistic freedom in America and meets a lot of collaborators she wants to work with. So the first conflict is whether she should go back home or stay in America to pursue her artistic dream.

Noer: The story also uncovers some of the myths about immigrants, the Model Minority Myth. Yan comes here on scholarship. She doesn’t come because she has a rich family. She comes here because of her accomplishments. But she is first in her class for many years, which causes her a great deal of stress to remain No. 1 in schools of thousands and thousands of people. One theme in “One-Log Bridge” explores that myth and debunks different parts of it while trying to get to the root of what it’s like to be here from another country, let alone get a Ph.D. in a different language.

NEXTpittsburgh: What does “one-log bridge” represent?

Pang: It represents our journey, how in life we move from one place to another. You go to cross the bridge, but it’s only one log and very narrow. That means it’s lonely. There might not be many people before you or after you. And there is no way back.

NEXTpittsburgh: And if someone is trying to cross from the other direction?

Pang: You don’t have a choice to go back because you might block other people’s opportunities. So I feel like, being a model minority or the model student is a lot of pressure, but also a lot of responsibility. I want to show people after me that this is a possibility. I did it. You might do it too. A lot of people are going to fall off the log, and only the people who have persistence can get to the other side

Yan Pang, right, stretches before a rehearsal for her “One-Log Bridge” opera at Point Park University. Photo by John Beale.

NEXTpittsburgh: Jason, as dance and movement choreographer, what styles did you draw upon?

Noer: We have a mixture of breaking, of house dance, what we call rocking. As well as ’90s social dances. A lot of it is the aesthetic Yan and I have developed. We’ve done several pieces together where I’ve choreographed and she’s made the music and she also dances.

NEXTpittsburgh: Do Chinese operas typically present stories about modern characters?

Pang: No. This time my story is the starting point, and I’m hoping in the future I can feature other people’s stories.

Noer: Yan is writing opera about everyday people, not a Chinese royal family or aristocrats. This is an innovation in and of itself within the idiom. Yan is putting this together with music and dance genres not normally associated with each other. One of the most engaging parts of the story is how it talks about the everyday struggle immigrants have.

NEXTpittsburgh: What were some challenges in your collaboration?

Pang: The music sounds Chinese, and then there is Jason’s aesthetics and the street breaking. That means I have to understand American street dance aesthetics and Jason has to understand what Chinese music is about.

Noer: When we’re doing this work, I get more and more of a feel of what she likes to have, and so we make things together. I will offer up ideas, see if she likes where that’s going. Her focus is on the composition, on the music and making sure the libretto stays true to her experience.

Rich Keitel, director for “One-Log Bridge,” talks with actors, musicians and crew before a rehearsal at Point Park University. Photo by John Beale.

NEXTpittsburgh: The Community Supported Art series is intended as a development step for new work. Where do you think “One-Log Bridge” might go from here?

Pang: I’m so grateful because the [Community Supported Art series] is such a great program. They take care of everything else so you can do what the artist is good at. And they walk you through complicated stuff like, how do you contract people? How do you build your team?

Noer: They take the time to meet with you once a week to talk about, “OK, where are you at in the process? Let’s talk about what’s the obstacle. Let’s figure it out.” And then they help her.

Pang: If the audience finds this topic interests them, or this art form interests them, I’m thinking about what is that metaverse of stories I can tell about other people.

That’s why I am pursuing playwriting for my second master’s degree. I want to be a documenter but through dramatic music as a platform. There are so many theater pieces that are super abstract and experimental; we have a lot of good pieces of that, and we have a lot of good pieces of the royal high class and luxurious life. I want to describe how people’s life is right now, so that maybe 50 years later you can look at it as somewhat true history because we’re all connected.

“One-Log Bridge”, Thursday, Dec. 7 at 8 p.m., Friday, Dec. 8 at 10 a.m., 8 p.m. at New Hazlett Theater (6 Allegheny Square East on the North Side). Tickets.


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