by Addie Tsai
Originally meant to premiere as part of BalletX’s Summer Series, Love Letter, choreographed and written by Caili Quan and filmed by Nathaniel Brown and Eliot deBruyn, quickly transformed into a dance film when COVID-19 prevented BalletX from their regular season at their resident theater in Philadelphia and touring New York City. Caili Quan’s Love Letter proves what magic can take place when one’s limitations can bring about expansions in the art form.
Dance on film, also known as screendance in contemporary dance scholarship, is a medium dancers and choreographers have been making use of since the mid-twentieth century, when dance artist and filmmaker Maya Deren and others first explored the medium. Deren, known for “blurring the distinctions between film and dance and proposed a unifying poetics of movement and image,” stated that “There is a potential filmic dance form, in which the choreography and movements would be designed, precisely, for the mobility and other attributes of the camera but this, too, requires an independence from theatrical dance conceptions.” (Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film, 2005). As I’ve prepared to write this review, I’ve replayed Caili Quan’s Love Letter half a dozen times or even more, and it was only in this last viewing that I was brought to tears. As I let myself fall into the movement of the tremendous movement of BalletX’s dancers in this 13-minute short film, made available on BalletX’s streaming service, BalletX Beyond, I wept in longing for a time in which free movement was so much easier to come by, especially as the future of a time that we remember is filled with so much uncertainty. Even though Quan could have easily made a decision to have her dancers perform in an empty theater, I commend the integration of these ideas into a work that moves beyond the stage and into the world, one we all long for, are desperate to connect to.
MAHÅLONG: Yearning to Dance
The film opens with text in yellow on a black background to the sound of crashing waves and wind. The text defines the Chamorro word MAHÅLONG in English: “A yearning; to long for, to miss someone, something or some place.” The voice of Quan’s uncle is heard saying the next line of text displayed: “I long, I’m mahalang to do the dancing that I love.” Francesca Forcello appears on screen from the torso up, her back facing the camera. She looks to the right as the waves continue to crash, and then to the left, just as lightning breaks through a moody cloud at dusk. Forcello holds a contemplative but playful presence, one made more powerful with the closeness of the camera’s lens.
After a collage of quick jump-cut images that include Forcello, a skyline, a grassy field, and a woman’s legs lying on sand as water rushes over them, the film returns to another line of text, but this time Quan’s uncle utters the words in the language of Quan’s birthplace, Guam, as the English translates: “I long for everything I did in my life.” The text fades to Forcello, as the camera shifts from Forcello staring at the water to a shot of the water behind Forcello as she stares contemplatively back at the camera, the moon a ball of yellow behind her.
Guam as Matriarch, as Storyteller
For Caili Quan, Forcello’s framing of the film was an intentional one. “Since only a few of the dancers could touch, I knew I wanted to have Francesca as this storyteller who pulled us through the scenes. Guam has held on to its matrilineal traditions, so I thought it was right to have the work led by a female character.”
Forcello performs an extended sequence of contemporary movement barefoot on the beach in a white tank and a long, flowy, blue skirt, full of contemplative sweeping movements that are both filled with joy and playfulness. Throughout Love Letter, Forcello’s presence with the camera and her surroundings highlight what viewers are feeling too—the need for joy and connection amidst isolation and separateness. The beginning of her sequence to Harry Kalahiwi’s Granada is interspersed with cuts of Richard Villaverde gaze facing the camera on a roof with a view of the city, hinting at a connection between the two to come. Quan explains how she chose Granada as a song that reminded her of Guam for its Spanish origins. “Guam was a colony of Spain for over 200 years; therefore, there’s a huge Spanish influence on the Chamorro language, food, and culture. I naturally gravitate towards Spanish music, so I got very excited when I found Harry Kalahiki’s cover of Granada. The ukulele sound with this Spanish melody felt like home.”
Forcello stands before the camera with a deep, unflinching gaze, but soft in its approach, standing in front of blurred city lights. She gradually turns to her right and brings her hands up to her mouth, and blows on them. As she moves her hands away from her face, the camera moves in the same direction to transition to the next dance sequence.
Man Piaba: Pantomiming Belafonte’s Spoken Word
The next section features an ensemble performed by Zachary Kapeluck, Blake Krapels, Savannah Green, and Andrea Yorita, dressed in pedestrian clothes and toms, ballet shoes, and yoris (Chamorro for flip flops), to Harry Belafonte’s Man Piaba, in the grass next to a city bridge in Philadelphia. The movement in this section is playful, at times pantomiming Belafonte’s spoken word, at times playfully teasing out their hips. Quan grew up listening to Harry Belafonte knew she would use his music in Love Letter, a piece she always imagined she would choreograph inspired by her childhood in Guam. Although I found this section a bit light and less narratively tethered and dramatically centered as the other sections in the film, Andrea Yorita’s swift movements and fierce yet flirty energy in this section is among my favorite performances in Love Letter.
Yorita, now in a more formal red dress, pulls Kapeluck from the end of the previous sequence into the following one, only to push him away as she steps into a paved walkway surrounded in light-colored brick pillars.
PoiPoi: A Movement Vocabulary of Ritual and Femininity
In between the pillars and above them, greenery pushes through, and the camera pans back to reveal Forcello, in the same clothes as she was wearing on the beach, and then Ashley Simpson, in a blue strapless dress, facing the camera. This ensemble movement sequence is among the most powerful in Love Letter, as the three women move to the powerful rhythms of David Fanshawe’s recording of Poipoi – Taro Pounding from the Austral Islands. The movements in this sequence have a tribal and almost ritualistic feeling to them, and combined with moments of stillness, promenade, and fluidity, express a kind of earthy wholeness that expressed the fullness of Quan’s love letter, both to Guam and to Philadelphia. Each dancer had a unique but compatible movement vocabulary, and felt like its own language, which smoothly transitioned to their movement in unison, but in their own unique expression of movements, as they began to dance in a grassy field. It was in this piece that I felt the deepest connection of Guam’s matrilineal culture.
Promenading among Palm Trees and Philadelphia, Guam, and Harry Kalahiwi
Perhaps the section that felt most expressive of Quan’s divide between her two homes of Guam and Philadelphia was the next vignette, where Richard Villaverde and Forcello walk down a city street next to a restaurant with a mural of blues and greens and reds that complement Forcello’s costume, and Wendell Turner’s palm trees lining the street. Villaverde’s joyous stroll dance crossing the street as Forcello smoothly walks behind him with Harry Kalahiwi’s cover of Clair de Lune has such a universal infectiousness to it. I love the way the street and the palm trees give the moment this perfect blend of city and island. When Villaverde rests against a tree in his white tank top and the camera gradually pans up to focus on the fronds of the trees, time slows down, and I feel it could be summer again, on an island town, somewhere.
Seaman’s Dance: A Duet Cloaked in Black Intimacy and Power
With The Navy Yard as a backdrop, the most powerful moment in the film is the duet between Black dancers Stanley Glover and Roderick Phifer, dancing in identical white button-down short sleeved shirts, long pants, and toms, to the Kosrae Tribe’s Seaman’s Dance and a Tahitian Choir’s Tangi Maha Te. Quan felt the huge ship at The Navy Yard an apt location for Love Letter. “I felt the location and the water naturally referenced the military presence in Guam.” The chants and rhythms were a perfect companion to Glover and Phifer’s tension as they mirrored one another and also danced in unison side by side. There’s a wonderful moment where one dancer begins to fall, and the other catches him by a wrist, and gives him that knowing look of support. Just as they begin to grab one another’s hand, they each bend back, and the moment is gone.
I really appreciated the racial and sociopolitical textures in this short duet most out of the entire film, as the percussive textures of the song along with the powerful vocalizations, combined with the setting of the ship behind the two dancers, brought out the struggle, connection, challenge, and intimacy. I would have loved to see this sequence extended, or perhaps even braided with the trio of women in the PoiPoi section. Glover and Phifer’s movements are electric and thoughtful, and I appreciated Quan’s choice to include a male duet in the film. Without as many other racialized moments in the film, I admit that this section risks tokenization, especially given the backdrop of the ship. But the connection between the two men and the sharp movements of their call and response, as well as supportive fluid movements with each other, help bring that back from any sort of anti-Black trope. The choices made in this duet offer a blend of masculinity and softness, and strays away from some of the more common tropes featuring Black male dancers, such as hypersexualization or a visualization of the internal struggle oppression turned outwards in this physical medium.
Conclusion: I just want to be where you are
The film closes with what feels like a love letter to all the viewers of the film, alone in their separate houses, isolated from the needs of quarantine. Micah Manaitai’s Be There/High Tide speaks of loneliness and longing as Forcello and Villaverde dance in phrases that continue and extend back and forth as Forcello dances on the beach where we were first introduced to her and Villaverde on the roof, dancing before Philadelphia’s skyline. They ultimately dance in synchronized, mirrored movements, six feet apart, their hands reaching out but a wall of space between them. The closing moment returns to Quan’s uncle speaking as the camera pans through a collage of images of the dancers’ faces gazing at the camera from the various locations of Love Letter: Mahalang means a lot of things, but it ultimately leaves you with both happiness and sadness.” As we see Forcello walk towards the water, Quan’s aunt Floria Baza Quan’s Hagu can be heard faintly in the background.
I found Caili Quan’s Love Letter to be a contemplative and moving tribute to her two homes Guam and Philadelphia, but also a tribute to the world beyond our electronic devices that are our primary access to so much of the world during this surreal era of quarantine and lockdown. As her uncle said of Mahalang, a word whose meaning inspires the entire thematic thread of Love Letter, I was left with both happiness and sadness watching this film. I was filled with joy watching the dancers move through these natural environments with playfulness, contemplation, and their own sense of power, but it also made me long for a time where our bodies can be in such earthy environments together again. Although I appreciated the symbolism behind the music featured in Love Letter, as well as the colors, costume, jewelry, and settings, I would have loved to see Quan delve into more of the racial and political textures of Guam, especially resituated in an American landscape. For that reason, I was most invested in the trio vignette at Stoneleigh Gardens and the duet at The Navy Yard.
Although I am aware that what bodies are cast in dance works, especially now when travel and working with one another is so limited, I found myself wondering how this piece would have changed if, given that Quan herself stated this was a love letter to her two homes of Guam and Philadelphia, there was a more explicit intention to express not only the racialized history of Guam, but also that of Philadelphia. In its current form, Love Letter seems framed by a kind of loose romantic narrative between the maternal storyteller of Forcello and Villaverde. It offers a kind of softened edge to the work but leaves the more cultural expressions of the sections danced to PoiPoi and Seamen’s Dance feeling sandwiched by the more palatable heteronormative overarching romance. I felt there was a missed opportunity to really explore what a love letter, from a choreographer of color, towards the complex racialized history of Guam as well as that of Philadelphia could express within movement. How would Love Letter have been different with not just featuring more Black dancers, but also by casting dance artists who represent the varying Asian culture that have inhabited Guam? How would this piece have been different if it was Quan herself that symbolized Guam’s matrilineal culture, given that it was a love letter to Guam itself? What kind of education could Quan have given to those who are unfamiliar with what Guam is now and how it came to be in its present form? What would have changed in the cultural symbols of the PoiPoi and Seaman’s Dance sections if they had not been small vignettes in a larger work but contextualized the entire piece as well? I felt most engaged in these moments and would have loved to see Quan dig in more to those complexities, where there is a clear gap in contemporary dance, as well as visual media.
But all in all, I found it a powerful dance film and a salve for this time. As Quan stated when I asked her what she wanted viewers to take away from Love Letter: “I hope it makes you want to dance. I hope it brings you somewhere else. I hope it brings you joy. I hope you feel the humidity and the sun’s warmth on your skin. I hope it confirms these uncertain times don’t last forever.” Most certainly, Love Letter left me with longing for dancing, and for a time away from our screen, and in sand, grit, street, and city. I hope that opportunity returns sooner than we imagine.
About Addie Tsai
Addie Tsai is a queer, nonbinary writer and artist of color. She teaches Creative Writing, Dance, Humanities, and Literature at Houston Community College. She received her Master of Fine Arts from the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and her PhD in Dance from Texas Woman’s University. The author of the queer Asian young adult novel Dear Twin, Addie is a staff writer at Spectrum South, Nonfiction Editor at The Grief Diaries, Associate Editor at Raising Mothers, and Assistant Fiction Editor at Anomaly. She collaborated with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater on Victor Frankenstein and Camille Claudel, among others. Her work has been published in Foglifter, VIDA Lit, Banango Street, The Offing, The Collagist, The Feminist Wire, Nat. Brut., and elsewhere. She can be found at http://www.addietsai.com, @addiebrook on Twitter, and @bluejuniper on Instagram.