Navigating the In-Between: An Interview with Cindy Jang

Cindy Jang identifies as a 1.5 generation Korean. She is mainly in the dance scene, creating with new artists and bringing together diverse communities. Cindy is also the artistic director/choreographer for Jang Huddle, an experimental collective focusing on topics in the NZ Asian community and inviting audience interaction through an element of play. Anuja and Janna sat down with her one Tuesday night to talk dance, community, identity, and authenticity.


Iron Eyes (by Isabel Su)


How did you get into dance?

I went to a studio on the Shore for ten years. My mum put me in so many things — you know Asian mums — like Jazz, Tap, Contemporary, and I really enjoyed it as well, so that’s why I kept going. I really loved it in high school, that’s probably where I grew the most choreographically, and then I just really wanted to pursue it more. I did a Bachelor of Dance and then Honours as well. Unitec’s a bit more practical, but University of Auckland I’d recommend to anyone who’s doing dance because I’ve learned so much not only choreographically but also how to teach in a school, how to teach communities with elderly people, people with special needs, about the body even, about different cultures.

How have you found dance as a medium to approach other cultures? Because people may not really think about that in terms of the bodily aspect.

I guess it’s a way of communication, a way of bringing people together. I did a lot of dance activities in Thailand for two months through my Summer Research Scholarship. I taught a few girls there, and even though we had a language barrier they still understood the point of doing certain activities. I don’t know if they fully understood, but at the end of the day does that really matter? Isn’t it more about them being able to do something creatively and learn more about themselves through it?

Teaching has that interactive element, and you have a lot of interaction with the audience in your dance shows. Is that where it comes from?

It’s definitely all connected in the sense that community and inclusive practices are really important to me. I really like to include each of the people that I’m working with on a show, so I try to get their opinions as much as possible, I try and hear them out. It’s not just my way — I have the ideas but I want them to help me fulfill those. And that kind of translates to the product as well, where the audience gets to be involved in getting to know the story. People are used to being the passive audience, where they’re sitting and being fed all this information and being a consumer. But I definitely think that to show a message, you have to involve the audience physically. Get them doing tasks, get them to move around in the space rather than just sit around and watch.

Do you find you prefer pieces that you perform with the audience?  Does the piece take on a different purpose when you leave the audience alone?

Well, how do I put it: It’s not because I really want to involve the audience sometimes, because it’s actually really challenging getting them off their feet — especially in Kiwi culture where it’s like “don’t look at me, why are you pointing me out?” I really like working with that culture because it’s like, why don’t you get out of your comfort zone a little bit? You have to really get them moving and create an environment where it’s okay to do that. So I guess by choice you definitely just want to dance, get offstage and go home. But if you know there’s a purpose to it, you keep going, if that makes sense.

Does that come from any of your own culture, especially the more communal aspect?

Yeah, actually! I’m involved in a lot of church communities, and when I was growing up in New Zealand as a migrant we’d all stick together. We’d always have meals together, we’d always group together. Because I’m a bit of an extrovert, I love community; I love the idea of doing something together. So I guess my culture stems not only from being Korean or Kiwi but from the church itself — people gathering together to talk about their weeks or study something, but also just having time to bond with one another.

How have you found that that affects the way that you mediate Kiwi and Korean culture? As in, is it a way to bring them together? Where do you figure your identity between that?

To be honest, I’m very absent from the Korean community. It’s only recently that I’ve actually started talking about my culture and being a 1.5 generation migrant, and understanding what that means. I think that’s how I found my identity, being like, “Oh, I can form myself without Korean culture”. That’s probably how I became less confused because I kept trying to be part of Korean culture and I was like, “Why am I not a part of that? why do I not act like these girls? why am I not friends with these people?” And it’s like, you don’t have to be friends in order to relate to being Korean! I guess I realised that on the other side as well, like “why don’t I relate to these Kiwi people?”

Is that what prompted you to explore the Korean side recently?

Yeah, I guess it’s like opening up stories. When I started opening up about my questions, more and more people started responding. I’d never met so many people in the arts who are migrants as well, and people of colour, women of colour. It was really awesome. When you open up about something, more people want to grow with you and share in those stories.

We’ve found that with Oscen: People have all these experiences, and then suddenly they’re articulating them. You’re telling these stories that resonate.

Tell us a bit more about your show Iron Eyes — the process that led you to using that story, and the part that audience interaction played in it.

That was my first show in the Basement Theatre in April this year. It was about the social and political conflict between North and South Korea, and how I as a 1.5 generation migrant related to that story and that trauma. How that kind of control and power still goes on in society. Why do we do the things that we do? Why do people tell us to do things and why do we follow that?

There was an interactive aspect where we used a lot of props — we used an egg which represented the breaking of the shell, or how the yolk and the egg whites separate, symbolising being ‘in between’ two things. A pump was used and it was likened to a weapon as well as something very different. There was just element after element that we layered on as we developed it. It was definitely a challenge because we didn’t have an audience to practice with. When you’re practicing in the studio with your dancers you’re like, “And now we move the audience this way!” But our first night was packed to the brim, and when we tested it out for the first time it took forever!

It was really based on my grandma’s story, as she was born in North Korea and then escaped to South Korea as soon as the war started. That’s such a common story that lots of people don’t really share, like my family is from North Korea and that was sort of not a big deal because Korea was Korea. But now the two sides are so different and yet so similar, because it’s about power and control. It’s more prevalent on the Communist side, but the Capitalist side is still about power and control. It was just a big topic, so I think the only way I could minimise it was to bring myself into it. The audience definitely left with more questions than answers.

Is that your aim — to make people aware, even if they aren’t left with a resolution?

That’s definitely for the Kiwi community, but [the aim] for the Korean community or other Asian communities is for them to relate to it. So there’s an element of empathising and relating, but also having those discussions and making those conversations happen.

For something that’s so huge and conflicted, did you feel afraid to tell your story? That you could be judged or that someone could take it the wrong way?

I was actually really scared before the show, because I was like, “Who the heck am I to talk about North and South Korea?” I’m just one person who did a dance degree and is trying ideas out. So I definitely had a lot of fear and that’s why I didn’t even talk to anyone who was Korean about my show! Then the Korea Post people found out and interviewed me because the Herald had posted about my show. Through that, Korean people who were really interested came forward. There was more encouragement than discouragement.

That’s really good.

Yeah. Some people hated it — some people were like “I don’t ever want to go to your show again” but like, that’s fine!

They hated the interaction aspect?

I think so. But, I don’t know, they hated the topic too.

I suppose there is an element of wanting people to be confronted in a show like this. So if they didn’t like it, it means you made a point, right? You wanted to touch on something outside of their comfort zone, to get them in a space they wouldn’t normally be in.

Yeah, this show was definitely more about confronting and singling out. We had this segment where the dancers kept saying “if only I had this, if I only I had that”, and it was about consumerism and parallel worlds, and went from “if only I had the latest iPhone” to “if only I had food”. We directed it to the audience and handed the pump to an audience member, like handing the power over. And then we criticised a funny thing: “If only you wore socks with your shoes” or “if only you didn’t have holes in your jeans”. Something really minuscule, with that element of playing.

That’s really cool to think about in dance, especially compared to something like writing. When you move into a different medium your tools and the way in which you translate your story change.

I’m kind of all for blurring the lines between practices. I was hesitant to talk about my show as a “contemporary dance show”, because it involves so much theatre as well as dance as well as audience interaction and words and poems and all sorts of things, so I said “we’ll just call it physical theatre for now”. I get inspiration from texts, poems, images. I don’t think anyone can create out of one medium. Everyone gets inspired by different things and so why don’t we add all of those and actually show them in the finished piece?

My hope for the future — I’ve been talking to Yery [of imugi 이무기] about this — is to create a show for people of colour, women of colour, that has music, visual arts, dance…it’s like a performance night. We’d love for it to be a long term thing, a gallery space that’s open and has visual art displayed as well as gigs at night. Something that’s interactive but where people can come and go.

The curator that we talked to at St Paul’s Street Gallery [Balamohan Shingade] wanted to do something similar: You have an exhibition that shows the rhythm of the artist. Rather than having something static that stays on the walls, it’s something that comes and goes, something living.

Yeah, I was at a workshop earlier this year and it’s really interesting to see someone make something — but then after that person has made something and they’ve left, and you come into the space, you’re kind of like “wow, what happened here?” How did these things happen for this to be made?

It’s like the space has changed, and then you change the space by entering and putting your own ideas onto it.

Yeah, it’s really interesting. You’re creating your own world. That’s what I love about dance, you create your own world where you make your rules.

How does that relate to identity? There’s the freedom to create a version of yourself for people to see, but do you feel that you’re also constrained because it’s a fiction? Or do you feel like you are making yourself into something that you want to be?

I think there are definitely characters you play. I try to be my authentic self, but it’s funny because after [Iron Eyes] some people wrote feedback like, I did not know this side to Cindy, I thought she was so happy and nice but she’s actually really scary sometimes. “Cindy is scary sometimes” was my favourite piece of feedback! I think trying to show my authentic self is really important, but at the same time I love to be someone who can slip in and out of characters. I want to be able to portray stories that are not just about myself — I don’t want to be some narcissistic artist that’s only talking about themselves until they don’t have any more stories.

How do you approach telling other people’s stories? Because it’s a responsibility as well.

I think I’m trying to figure that out. Currently I’m talking about 1.5 generation Koreans, so I guess it’s just finding brackets where I can include myself but I’m not talking about myself. I am in that group, but it’s not about me, it’s about that group.

How are you finding solo work as compared to your group work?

It’s hard because you don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of. This show [tonight] is just me talking about my raw self as much as I can. Usually I don’t really like talking about my mental health and myself as an artist because there’s always people you know in the crowd—family and friends, and you can’t talk about personal issues that have really stirred you up.

In the piece tonight there are actually segments of my voice messages where I’m talking a friend and telling her how hard it’s been, how I’m finding it really difficult to control my emotions and be this happy person. And I think I’m able to do this performance because I know the people in the crowd won’t really know my story as well as those close to me. I find it really hard sometimes to express who I am, for example, through things like nudity or wearing skimpy outfits for shows. I think that’s beautiful in art but it’s so contrasting to your beliefs and how you should be represented in the community. But I’m quite liberal in that aspect, like “well, this is how I want to portray myself today.”

Cindy Jang

That’s really brave! There’s always that thing—it’s easier to tell your secrets to strangers than the people close to you.

Definitely. I think there’s a safety net too and people really need that. You don’t have to share your work all the time to the people that are close to you, because I feel like … I don’t know, there are things that you do for yourself.

It’s interesting, because you think that when you are with your close friends and family you’re sort of suppressing some part of yourself — but then when you talk about working with people and bouncing ideas off of them, there’s an aspect of yourself that’s formed that way as well. Is one any more authentic than the other?

I feel like I always live in two parallel worlds, like you’re a different self wherever you go. You can’t really be your full self wherever you are. I know people say that you can, but I find it challenging because in each different circumstance you’re a different you in a way. Which is all you, but I think the most authentic you is when you’re with yourself or when you’re with certain people — for me, it’s my mum. But even with her I’m like, I can’t open up to you about everything because you don’t understand everything. I think it’s learning to know that with your art, your mental health, your lifestyle, people won’t always understand where you’re coming from. People won’t empathise with you because they’ve never been there or that world is very foreign to them. That was a huge learning thing for me this year. I really wanted people to understand where I was coming from in my shows, but if they don’t get it, that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with them.

It’s enough that they got to see it and be like, “Oh, people feel like this”. To think about it, to be aware of it.

Exactly. It’s hard just telling people, “I do dance”, and they’d be like, “Do you just teach, or…?” Those are the only boxes that they know, and you can’t broaden those boxes immediately by one conversation. It’s okay if they don’t get it! I was so involved with people who understood what I was doing but then you go out to a party and they’re like, “What are you doing with your life?” and then you tell them you dance and they’re like, “Oh, so is your main aim to go to New York?” I avoid these people but I need to try better to befriend them or not avoid them.

It’s so hard because you don’t want to expend free emotional labour trying to educate the whole world, especially when the topics are so heavy. Do you find yourself returning to certain themes or obsessions?

I try and prove myself to a lot of people that I am an established person who can make art. People keep describing me as, what’s that word, an “up and coming choreographer”, like not an established choreographer.

It’s quite artificial, because when do you actually become an “established choreographer”?

Exactly. If that becomes my main income, does that make me an established choreographer? Is it the quantity? The amount of awards? I learned this year that even if the topics are heavy, you have to simplify things. Ideas are ideas, but you have to strip them down — people add their own interpretations to it anyway. You can refine something again and again, but then there’s a point where it’s like “this is enough for right now and this is how I want to show it.” It’s hard because everyone’s their worst critics, but you have to let go of that.

Where are you at with that letting-go process?

Oh man, it’s been really challenging in the sense that saying no to things is really hard. I want to get better at understanding when a job is stressful, but before breaking point. I feel like you need to get to know yourself a bit better to know when to pull back.

It’s hard, because as women of colour we need to work twice as hard to get to the starting point of someone who’s, you know, within the accepted demographic.

It sucks, it really does. Even in jobs like hospitality — for me to be able to get a cafe job I have to work my ass off at so many other different kitchen hand jobs. Kitchen jobs are lower than being a waitress, and it’s the fact that when you’re a waitress at the front you’re able to be seen by other people.

How do you find balancing work with your art?

I’m still trying to figure that out. Next year, I’m thinking of doing my graduate diploma in teaching so that I’d be able to get some kind of stable income in the future. I’m never going to be able to find — it sounds so pessimistic or cynical, but it’s the reality —  I can’t find work where I can do my creative work and get funded full time. So do I find work that is open to me doing shows, taking time off to work on creative projects, or do I put that on hold and do something that will feed the family?

Even in creating the art itself, do you ever find that you have to compromise yourself for commercial purposes or to appeal to a certain audience?

Yeah, definitely. I’m trying to find a niche of audience members that really do appreciate my work and experimental things. But I’m not really for artwork, contemporary dance for example, that is just so abstract you’re kind of sitting there like “what am I watching?” I want to steer away from that as well.

You do want some level of connection with the audience.

Yeah! Whether it’s as simple as some products that they’ve seen. The other day in a piece we were showing we covered everything in white and made supermarket aisles, representing the international aisle at Countdown with items like nori, ramen, things like that, and how ridiculous that is because everything is international, like pasta. But yeah, just showing something like that or throwing out some words that the audience can grab onto is really important. But sometimes in dance, you do just have to suck it up and do it for commercial purposes because it gives you money.

In the arts you can often can see the same kinds of styles emerging and think, do I have to create something like that to receive recognition, even though that’s not really me? It can also be hard if you are in a niche space among others who create similar art to you, because when you change style for commercial purposes do you become a ‘sell out’?

Yeah. Even the marketing side of a show — it’s so fake. I did it so much for Iron Eyes that I just didn’t want to see another Facebook like button! I had to be fake in order to get people to come to watch an authentic piece. My producer was such a great help, but I did a lot of marketing on my own as well which was really hard because it was my own piece.

Do you have anything in the works at the moment?

Probably the 1.5 generation show, the international food aisle one. I just had a studio showing for it. It was really just the beginnings of it but people came and gave me feedback. I’d love to have more of those showings where it’s an open process and people get to see the piece in a skeletal way. So that’s in the works, and I’m also just organising more dance events.

One final wrap-up question: Where are you at with navigating your own identity?

I guess I’m just trying to find more people that relate to being in between two cultures. I’m still trying to navigate myself in the Korean community as well as the Kiwi community. I have like two, three Korean friends that are pretty much Kiwis as well so it’s whether I want to involve myself more in the Korean community and get them involved in dance, or stick to my own safety net. I’m seeing where I can involve the Korean community in the Kiwi community, whether it’s through Kpop, whether it’s through community dances for elderly Korean women. There are so many different ways to do that which cross over, not only crossing over practices but generations as well. So yeah, I’m finding myself within those different groups.

Cindy Jang (by Yery Cho)


Find Cindy and Jang Huddle on Facebook and Instagram.