My year in South America

This past April I packed up my life in Oakland, CA and moved to Montevideo, Uruguay -- a small South American country of three million people and twelve million cows. Why? I was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to develop work in the field of inclusive dance, or dance that integrates people with and without disabilities. For those of you who don't know, music and dance are two mediums that I began studying at a young age (my mother fell into the stereotype of the Chinese mother who strove to make her children proficient in classical piano and ballet by the age of four). As a teenager I chose to break out of my classical training in both art forms in order to find the 'style' that best suited my personal voice, which has been a journey that I am still on as an adult. 

If you're interested in how I reinvented myself as a dancer with a disability, check out my blog post about my experience with AXIS Dance Company. In short, after two years dancing with AXIS (a wonderful, challenging, frustrating, life-changing experience), I decided to begin my development as an independent artist. So here I am in Uruguay until December. Despite all my fears and doubts leading up to this year, I have been pleasantly surprised at how welcoming the artistic community has been to me and my proposed work. In the two months that I've been here, I have partnered with the national dance conservatory, el SODRE, and the Fine Arts department of La Universidad República to give a variety of workshops. In addition, I'm collaborating with local dancers of all body types to create a series of short choreographic works that I hope to film or perform by the end of my stay here. Finally, I've gone to Argentina to work with an inclusive contemporary company called Compañía Sin Fronteras and I'm hoping to collaborate on a short choreographic work later on in the year (check 'em out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIrPgqvUt5o). 

 

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Despite the happy photos on social media, this experience has not come without its challenges. Just a few days ago I was turned away from a dance class, as the teacher adamantly argued that she did not teach people with disabilities. Furthermore, the city is far from being wheelchair friendly -- in some old parts of the city it feels as if you have stepped back into the 1970s. I certainly need to ask for more help to overcome the ubiquitous presence of stairs and severely damaged pavement, but I'm learning to soften my tendency towards fierce independence and embrace the obligatory interaction with the people around me. Aside from a few encounters with blatant ignorance, most people are happy to help and many times proceed to ask me questions about my work, a pleasant way to utilize the most organic form of self-marketing.

In this racially homogenous country there are few Asian people, and even fewer Asian people rolling around in wheelchairs so I generate a healthy amount of stares.  I am probably the first young Asian American woman in a wheelchair that many people have seen; and all my fancy mobility gadgets and wheelchairs that are not available in this country and that enable me to go wherever I please independently, make me even more of an oddity. Removing myself from California, a place that I have called home for the past seven years and that boasts progressive attitudes towards inclusion, in order to live in a challenging place where I am a complete outsider, has been exactly the creative fuel that I have been searching for. Every encounter I have, both positive and negative, further proves to me that my work as an artist is necessary in every part of the world. We are so far from a reality in which people with disabilities are accepted in any arena of society, whether that is the arts, politics, sports, or the media. My hope is that this year will be an incubation period for some good creative work that I know is simmering inside of me. Stay tuned. 

Collaboration: a terrifying way to make a music video

As a solo musical artist, I spend a lot of time alone either in front of my computer or piano. While that means I never have to compromise with anyone on creative decisions, it can be a very lonely and uninspiring place at times. Shortly after the accident I decided to learn how to make music using software called Ableton, which enabled me to construct multi-instrumental songs without any other musicians, after all I was still recovering from surgery and could barely leave the house on my own. Learning the production side of music has been an incredibly powerful and freeing skill, but I know that my most creative self thrives in the presence of other creative people. Collaboration is like a form of play -- through improvising ideas with other people I can see my own creations from a fresh perspective and watch as they absorb the influence of others. 

Over the past three years, what began as a lonely creative process has since grown to include other people, which has made it a far more interesting and rewarding experience. Just last month I teamed up with my creative soulmate, the talented William Tyner (Instagram: @santanastrikesagain), yet again to shoot my second music video for the song "Computer Love". Unlike the first video for "Brave One", which was purely a dual collaboration, we decided to scale up the production and work with six dancers, a lighting designer, and a costume designer. Including so many other minds and visions into the mix suddenly seemed to raise the stakes -- I felt the pressure to present a vision that inspired excitement and confidence in other people, at least enough for them to agree to attach their names to the project. Beyond that, the logistic challenges that come along with any collaborative effort were enough to keep me up at night. Throughout the weeks leading up to the shoot I found myself doubting my choice of relying on other people, and asking myself why I decided to be so ambitious when I could have just kept it simple. I felt the fear that my video would turn out badly creep up on me at times, which tempted me to change the entire concept so that I could get away with doing most of it myself. It was a terrible feeling: feeling so insecure devalued the whole experience of making art with my friends. Looking back, I should have viewed this as an opportunity to be fearless and to create something unexpected as a collective.  

When the day of the shoot arrived, my little team gathered in a chilly warehouse in West Oakland and the long-dreaded filming process began. However, unlike all the worst-scenarios that I played in my mind, the day went smoothly and we wrapped up way ahead of schedule. The stills from the footage looked beautiful and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. My pessimistic premonitions were proven so wrong by the amazing contributions and support that my friends had to offer. The dancers learned the choreography and concocted their own in minutes with barely any prior rehearsal. My lighting and visuals extraordinaire, Conor Grebel (@_bedtimes), transformed the warehouse space to something way sexier using colored LED lights and mirrors. Our costume designer, Ashley Tyner (@superfreek_), brought my concept of "80s vogue" to life using a box of clothes from Goodwill, a few feet of tulle, and a bouquet of roses. Watching everyone put their individual talents to work made me realize that placing trust in others is one of the most important ingredients of collaboration. I had to accept that I could have never achieved the high caliber of dance, lighting, and style on my own, and embrace the idea that my original vision might not turn out as I expected, but rather could be so much better as a final product. 

Now as I wait for the footage to be edited, I am more excited than ever to share the final product of the largest collaborative endeavor I've ever attempted. When I first envisioned the video, I wanted it to be a dance video that showcased the individuality of all the dancers. Now the video represents (at least to me) more than just individuality of dancers' movements. Rather, it represents a community of artists that I assembled -- a group of people I love as individuals as well as creative thinkers, and who make what I do as an artist so much cooler. 

Carina Ho
Leaving AXIS Dance Company and setting sail as my own artist

If there is any silver lining to my becoming paralyzed, it is that I was able to find a pathway to becoming a professional artist -- something I had always dreamed of but never took the time to seriously pursue. I trained in classical piano and dance since childhood; however, growing up I was always told that professional artistry was an unpredictable path that often ended up in failure, so the wiser choice was to keep my dancing and musical interests as hobbies. That notion never sat well with me, but the pragmatic guiding voices of my family always veered me on a traditional pathway of climbing the corporate ladder. 

I joined AXIS Dance Company as an apprentice a year after I became paralyzed. When the former artistic director Judith Smith extended me a job after only a few weeks of dropping in on company classes, it felt like a serendipitous opportunity to finally be the full-time artist I always wanted to be. Despite this exciting prospect, I still wrestled with the fact that the reality of my life was so far from what I had envisioned. For the first few months of my apprenticeship, I was extremely resistant to the idea of dancing in my wheelchair as I no longer felt like a graceful dancer. I avoided watching myself in the mirror: always struggling to keep my balance, slow, and uncoordinated. To me what I was doing was definitely not dancing, it was just me waving my arms around in my chair. Fast forward two years later -- I had become an official company member, toured around the country, performed for thousands of children who had never seen a person with a disability on stage, taught numerous workshops for dancers ranging from novice to professional on how to create dance that is accessible to people of different abilities. Although most days I still don't feel as graceful as I want to be, my experience with AXIS has completely reshaped how I view inclusivity in the arts and my role as an artist. 

 Photo by Dino Corti. Yuko Juma and I performing Marc Brew's "Radical Impact" at AXIS's 30th home season performance in Oakland. 

Photo by Dino Corti. Yuko Juma and I performing Marc Brew's "Radical Impact" at AXIS's 30th home season performance in Oakland. 

In integrating my unique movement as a dancer using a wheelchair with that of other dancers of completely varied body types, we were able to produce beautiful and unexpected results that I could have never predicted at the beginning of my AXIS journey. After performing in AXIS's 30th home season in both the Bay Area and New York City, I felt a great sense of pride in being a part of a small but powerful movement to demonstrate how dance, a traditionally exclusive art form, can be opened to people with disabilities yet still maintain the same rigor, physicality, and artistic integrity as any well-known dance company. After two intensive yet enlightening years with AXIS I am now preparing to embark on a separate journey as a dancer on a Fulbright Fellowship to Uruguay. I've gained an incredible amount of knowledge as a practitioner of inclusive dance and taking these lessons abroad is a terrifying yet thrilling thought. 

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In the few years that I have been disabled, I've come to personally experience what exclusion and discrimination feels like. To being chased out of a restaurant who did not want to accommodate me to continually receiving the question "how does dancing a wheelchair work?", the world doesn't quite feel like an accepting place yet. However, having had the opportunity to be back on a stage and be told that I can still bring something valuable to an audience has given me so much power to share my music full force. I always lacked the confidence to declare myself as a musician, I always feared people's judgment of what I created. Right after I was injured that fear intensified -- who would want to watch a girl in a wheelchair perform? That fear still creeps in the back of my mind but the positive experiences that I've had as a disabled performer eclipses it most of the time, and I'm ready to get out there and sing my heart out. 

Carina Ho
The story behind the song #3: "Brave One"

This is my first single, my first music video for this project, and the first song that I felt really expressed the anguish that I was experiencing in the early days of my injury. When things go terribly wrong in life, there is a pressure to pretend like everything is all good in order to assure those around you (especially fair weather friends) that they will only have to temporarily deal with your hardship. Not all the people I expected to stick around through the thick of things did, and some amazing people surprised me and stepped up to support me through it all. I suppose tragedy brings out one's true color. Perhaps I also pressured myself into forcing a smile each day in the hospital when receiving visitors; looking back I think I was trying to shield them from experiencing the true magnitude of the catastrophe. I didn't want people I loved to freak out and abandon me, after all I had heard sad stories of lovers and friends leaving each other after life-altering events. That pressure combined with all the other crap the universe had served me began to crush me, like a paper cup crumpling into an indistinguishable little ball. 

So I wrote this song. It was an honest backlash against the weight I was feeling: of forcing that smile, of feeling afraid that people would leave me, of pretending like everything was ok. I felt liberated to belt whatever air I had in my punctured lungs, even if it didn't change anything. Over time as I refined this song and worked with my producer friends, Modern Future, to give it that cinematic polish I realized that this is a universal experience. Whether someone experiences a tragic accident or simply goes through a hard patch in life, we all feel kicked down at some point and struggle to keep the people around us from separating themselves in order to not be dragged down (I think of the classic blues song "Nobody loves you when you're down and out"). "Brave One" is a sober and dramatic tune, but more than anything, I hope people can connect with the sense of honesty I tried to convey. 

When I shot the music video with my good friend Will Tyner, we excluded the wheelchair and made the concept very simple. I'd constantly be in a state of falling, not wearing much makeup and sometimes not very much clothing. I wanted to bare my paralyzed body as it was without detracting people's attention with the presence of my chair. In making this music video I decided that this was to my purpose as an artist -- to tell it as it is. My story is clearly not relatable to most people but my hope is to convey the greater human experience in the pursuit of love, fulfillment, and resolution after great loss. 

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Carina Ho
The story behind the song #2: "Computer Love"

I began writing "Computer Love" way before my injury. At the time I was playing with my band The Ethel Mermen, a time when I was far more focused on writing catchy songs than anything else. We started to rehearse the song but the band broke up before completing it so it returned to the large vault of unfinished songs in my head. After my injury I revisited the instrumentals and lyrics I had already written and began to add on new lyrics and sections, but this time they reflected my sense of desperation to stand up and do all the things I was able to do before paralysis. However, that desperation also came with a sense of determination to not allow the world tell me that I was useless or crippled, which I noticed was the common assumption of most people who didn't know me. So here is "Computer Love" and a deliciously silly music video I made with The Ethel Mermen in which I wrestle my bassist Alisa in several pounds of gold glitter (a very painful experience). 

Carina Ho
The story behind the song #1: "The last thing she heard (Intro)"
 My mom Candice second from the left. 

My mom Candice second from the left. 

I released my debut EP last week on August 15, which also marks the three year anniversary of the car accident that killed my mom and rendered me paralyzed from the chest down. Finally sharing my music with the world has been both an exciting and bittersweet moment, mostly because I began writing this EP shortly after leaving the hospital during the darkest days of my life.

As I reassessed my future in a wheelchair, I began to turn to music to cope with the catastrophic curveball my life had taken. What began as a few simple songs evolved over time into a coherent music project that narrated my experience of loss, pain, and being forced to rediscover self-love and my inner badass. "The Last Thing She Heard (Intro)" is the first tune I wrote in this process. The lyrics "It will be ok..." over the piano refer to the few words my little sister managed to mumble right after we were rear-ended by a truck, and as I panicked thinking she had died. Additionally the clip of Dolly Parton in the beginning of the song haunts me because her voice was the last voice my mother ever heard. I decided to produce this song as a lo-fi soundscape to portray a fast-forwarded version of the car accident, which is what the event felt like. After all, it was only a split second that changed my whole life forever. 

Radio interview with APEX Express KPFA 94.1

I recently did an interview on women and disability for APEX Express. It was the first time that "Brave One" was played on the radio, hopefully the first of many more times to come! My segment starts at 26:23, interview is in the link above. 

 Photo by Jaclyn Le 

Photo by Jaclyn Le