Lisa Chow of Desert Dance Theatre on the Arizona Première of South of Gold Mountain

Lisa Chow, artistic director for Desert Dance Theatre, performs this week in the Arizona première of South of Gold Mountain, a multi-media modern dance work exploring the lives of Chinese immigrants in the American South during the post-Civil War era.

H.T. Chen & Dancers, a New York City-based company that blends contemporary dance with traditional Asian aesthetics, performs South of Gold Mountain Friday and Saturday, March 27 and 28, at Tempe Center for the Arts. Chow notes that it's part of a program that also includes work from the H.T. Chen & Dancers repertory and a community dance featuring local performers.

See also: 13 Must-See Dance Performances in Metro Phoenix This Spring

The performance has Tempe roots going back to the 1999-2000 season, Chow says. That's when Chen participated in ASU Public Events' Asia, Arizona, and the Arts project -- and premièred Bian Dan, a piece addressing acculturation and the generation gap, on the Tempe campus.

The project inspired Chen and Dian Dong, the company's associate director, to spend three years traveling through the southern United States to interview immigrants and their descendants, and collect related source material. Their findings drove the development of South of Gold Mountain, which premiered last year at Chen Dance Center in New York City's Chinatown.

During the mid-19th century, many Chinese immigrants came to America to join the California gold rush. South of Gold Mountain tackles the discrimination they faced living in the American South. For Chow, the subject is personal. Her own grandfather moved from Canton, China, to Greenville, Mississippi, during the 1920s.

"He and some other gentlemen opened up one of the first stores run by Chinese people," Chow says. "It became a big mercantile." A photograph of that same mercantile is part of the multi-media backdrop for South of Gold Mountain, but Chow says it's purely by coincidence. "They didn't know that at the time," she says.

"There was a lot of discrimination," Chow says of her grandparents' early life in America. "Whites didn't want to patronize Chinese businesses," she adds. "But Chinese people were more accepted in black neighborhoods." In some ways, she says, South of Gold Mountain is a history piece that exposes audience members to an untold part of American history.

The piece incorporates recordings of oral histories, a video created with historic photographs, childhood songs and stories told in a Chinese dialect called Toishanese, and several styles of music including the blues. Sets are minimal, and there's no dialogue. Instead, Chow says, there are stories of immigrants' experiences are told through dance.

H.T. Chen & Dancers is doing an artistic residency program this week, which includes school performances, movement workshops, and other community outreach activities. Following both TCA performances, they'll present a Q & A for audience members with guest speakers including John Jung, author of several books on the Chinese American experience including the memoir Southern Fried Rice: Life in A Chinese Laundry in the Deep South.

H.T. Chen & Dancers performs South of Gold Mountain Friday and Saturday, March 27 and 28. Tickets are $18 for adults, $15 for seniors, and $13 for students. Find more information on the Desert Dance Theatre website. Buy tickets through the TCA box office online or at 480-350-2822.

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