Donna Weng Friedman and Ariel Grossman: Never Fade Away and Ariel Rivka Dance’s 15th Season
In celebration of its 15th season, Ariel Rivka Dance will present a new dance and music film, Never Fade Away, that tells the story of acclaimed pianist Donna Weng Friedman’s father who fled his hometown of Ningbo, China in the 1940’s due to the Japanese invasion. As the writer, director, and producer of the film, Donna Weng Friedman cast New York City Ballet principal dancer Chun Wai Chan in the role of her father, choreographed by Ariel Grossman, Artistic and Executive Director of Ariel Rivka Dance. Never Fade Away’s world premiere will take place on May 31st at 7 p.m. in the Jack Crystal Theater at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and will be shown through June 2. The evenings will include two dance pieces choreographed by Ariel Grossman: Microvids, 19 vignettes inspired by Stefania de Kenessey’s piano movements with live piano accompaniment by Donna Weng Friedman, and What You Want, a collection of “expressive duets, lingering solos, and powerful collective displays” to live performances by Summer Dregs.
Donna Weng Friedman and her father – Photo: courtesy of Donna Weng Friedman
Donna, your film “Never Fade Away” honors your father and his incredible story of survival and resilience. Please tell us about it.
Donna Weng Friedman: I’m so grateful that I can honor my father and my parents’ memory in a very unique way. The film is also shining a light on the immigrant experience. All those who came over from other lands have stories to tell, and these stories are important because they connect us. Our country is so divided that I felt this would be an important project for me personally, to take responsibility as part of my Asian American community. Never Fade Away is the true story of my father. He left his hometown in China in the 1940s during the Japanese occupation and came to this country with no money, no friends, no family. He barely spoke the language and he got himself a lousy job with long hours of manual labor. He lived in a dingy little room in a basement. He became very depressed, but after saving his pennies for a couple of months, he bought himself a nice special gift: a radio. From that point on, he would come home to that dingy room to eat one meal a day, which was peanut butter and rice, and he would turn on the radio and enter a world of glorious music. That gave him hope.
Still from the film Never Fade Away: Chun Wai Chan – Photo: courtesy of Donna Weng Friedman
Music is a universal language; it’s helped me get through the pandemic and all of the difficulties. This project idea actually started from an incident in early March 2020 when the pandemic became official, rumors about the coronavirus were spreading like wildfire, and crimes against the Asian American community were rising. I was assaulted for being Asian and I didn’t leave my home for seven months, which gave me a lot of time to think and to immerse myself in music, especially by composers of Asian descent. That’s how I created my first Heritage and Harmony program to share stories and the music of leading Asian American composers. Music has been my life. When he grew up in China, my father was so poor that he never had the opportunity to learn an instrument so that radio brought him something so empowering because it made him feel like he could get through that very dismal time. Then, when I started taking lessons, we found out that he was so talented; he had a natural gift, and anything that I could play he would sit down and play too.
In the film, the role of my father is danced by Chun Wai Chan who is just an extraordinary artist and human being. When I first approached him to do this beautiful dance that Ariel choreographed, he asked to read the script. I sent him the script and it really moved him, it resonated with him so much that he wanted to do it. I was overwhelmed. He is the first-ever Chinese principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, so this was huge for me. The Chopin waltz my father had heard on that radio and the pas de deux that Ariel so beautifully choreographed represent not just the beauty of the music and the dance, but also the story behind the struggles, and how all of it impacted me. My parents are not here, and this is the memory of their love and their sacrifices. I know they will never fade away and that’s why I chose the title, because all of these emotions, all of these stories should always be remembered.
Ariel Grossman – Photo: Whitney Browne
Ariel, congratulations on your 15th season! This upcoming program is significant on so many levels; please tell us what it represents for you.
Ariel Grossman: I just turned 41 and I’ve been looking back, reflecting on how I’ve grown as an artist and how the work has evolved. My collaborators have certainly changed significantly and this project that Donna brought to me was very different than anything I had ever done before. I really wanted to honor the story that she was telling and I’m so thrilled that we were able to include the film in our season. Another exciting part of the season for me is that each piece is a premiere. The first one is called Microvids, which was composed by Stefania de Kenessey. She wrote these little vignettes, tiny little moments of stories, relationships… 19 of them for COVID-19. Donna is going to play the piano live for the dancers. It’s a gift to have live music and such a very different kind of piece, like an amuse-bouche. The other piece I’m premiering is full of female fury, intensity, and a real journey. It’s the full version of What You Want, a piece that I started last year, and I’ve added another 20 minutes to it.
Donna Weng Friedman – Photo: Michael Falco
The program intertwines the universal and the personal so vividly in how the three works convey them. What does it mean for each of you to present your own profound stories within the larger contexts of history, the immigrant experience, and humanity?
Donna: You know, it’s so complicated. I grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, and my parents, who had escaped China, encouraged me to keep my head low, not be noticed, and blend in. But that really couldn’t work because I didn’t look like anybody at my school. I was the only Asian kid there. My mom would wake up at the crack of dawn and make these incredible lunches that I’d give anything to have today, like homemade curry puff pastries, dumplings… With all these things packed into my lunch box, she’d send me off to school and I’d sit there during my lunch hour by myself and not eat it because I didn’t want kids to make fun of me. I asked my mom to make me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch and she just laughed. So, growing up, that was how I navigated my way through being the only person who looked like me. After years of feeling very guilty about that, because I did not embrace my Asian identity, it has come back with a vengeance in the way I feel so strongly about where I come from, who my parents were and who I am today, and I’m really proud to be able to feel that. I’ve spoken to several of my Asian childhood friends growing up in different areas throughout the country and, incredibly, we all felt the same way, even down to the lunches; it’s just the oddest thing, not wanting to eat your mother’s Chinese food in a classroom or in a cafeteria.
So, this is a time for me to celebrate not only my parents’ heritage but also to really state so proudly that this is who I am and where I came from. The assault on me in Central Park pushed me even more in this direction. My father was inspired by music, which was a beautiful positive experience, while this was a very negative experience, but it had a similar effect because it woke me up. I’d like to think of it as an awakening. Since I was seven, at Juilliard, I’ve always felt more comfortable on stage than anywhere else because I could actually express my emotions through the music. I have developed more of a confidence in myself in how I relate to my Asian identity, and now I want so much to be sharing stories through music, through dance, and through actually telling these stories. It has all returned to me in such a big, overwhelming, full, powerful, beautiful way and I hope that people will resonate with it. After the Heritage and Harmony live concerts people came up to me in tears because they related so much to the story. I remember this one man from India who told me that he came to this country and he lived in a basement, in a room just like my dad’s. My hope is that we will be bringing people together of all backgrounds through this story.
Ariel Rivka Dance – Photo: Whitney Browne
Ariel: When I was creating one of my first pieces in my senior year of college about my grandmother who was a Holocaust survivor, I remember saying to the dancers: I want this to feel cathartic for you emotionally and physically and I want the audience to feel that. Now, with What You Want, yes, it’s my story that I’m telling, but the dancers are telling their story, they’re not dancing, they are being! There’s a tenderness and honesty in the range of emotions, experiences, and relationships that are just part of being human. That is my goal as an artist: to create something that is meaningful to me and feel pride in sharing my story and my vulnerability while knowing that other people will connect to it, hopefully in a lot of ways. Not only is the whole work a conversation, but I want people having conversations and thinking about it and talking about their feelings. I don’t think we always do that enough in an honest way and then we feel so alone.
Any special message for your New York City audience and potential audiences?
Ariel: I grew up in New York City and the city informs everything I do, so I’m really excited to share these three premieres here. We have a range of ticket prices because we want this to be accessible for those who might not be able to afford a regular ticket. There’s live music for the two dances and I think it’s going to be a really meaningful event.
Donna: I’m really looking forward to these three nights at the Jack Crystal Theater. During the pandemic I must have done something like 120 virtual programs, which was great for reaching a wider audience and also converting some people who would not normally go to a classical music concert because it’s expensive, and with these programs they could just tune in with the click of a button. But there’s really nothing like live performance. I think that what will be special in this particular program is that it will be achieving that intimacy that you can’t get virtually and that you certainly can’t get in a gigantic hall, because the audience will feel the electricity and the connection that makes live performance so incredible.
Still from the film Never Fade Away: Chun Wai Chan and Xiaoxiao Cao – Photo: courtesy of Donna Weng Friedman
Then, of course, with the film I’m just over the moon! Besides the waltz that is the pivotal piece, there are two pieces by living composers, my dear friends and colleagues from our AAPI community. I share some cultural aspects, and of course you can’t have a film about a Chinese family without showing some good food. I think it will appeal to a lot of people from many different backgrounds. I hope that people will enjoy it and want to see it again. I’m also very grateful to Ariel, for her gift in the way she choreographed this; it was so important to me to be able to see and imagine my parents. I’ve been crying through every step of making this film. It has been an emotional journey that I never knew was going to happen, but it’s just been unbelievable!
Ariel: I’m actually surprised, Donna, that you didn’t tell me to change more. I think part of it is that I could relate to some extent, but also hear the delicateness of the relationship with her parents and her being there. It’s also because my mom’s parents were Holocaust survivors and I know that they were very poor, and we had a piano in our apartment growing up, so there’s a lot of connection the music and the art getting you through hard times. And it’s about remembering and allowing the experiences and memories to inform you but not bring you down. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the sadness of it, but there’s so much joy that Donna has and so much pride in her family and what they were able to give her and what she’s now able to give her children. I feel that myself too.
Donna: I do want to address something people have asked me which is: “Why didn’t you get an Asian choreographer?” Of course, the dancers are Asian because they have to portray my parents. But for me art transcends nationality, it transcends everything. When I saw Ariel’s work, I knew instantly that she would get it. She understood. This is a universal story and that’s why I wanted the dance because to me that is almost like sign language: using the body to communicate is another form of a universal language, like music. So, from watching her work, I knew that Ariel would be able to relate to it and to me. The fact that she’s not Asian was even more compelling because I want this story to go across borders and boundaries. I want it to be relatable for everyone who had to leave their homeland and struggled or whose parents did; it just happens to be based on my parents’ story.
Top: Dancers of Ariel Rivka Dance – Photo: courtesy of Ariel Rivka Dance