How art & dance can change our communities

Cindy Jang-Barlow

March 21, 2021

During our first big lockdown, I saw a post on Instagram about small community get-togethers online: art and meditation, singing, crocheting, moving your body and self-expression. Cindy was one of the people doing a workshop on how to creatively express yourself by moving your body. I watched her and it was everything I loved: small scale, nothing fancy or over-the-top, so genuine and so humble. Ever since then I wanted to interview her. This interview is a heart-warming combination of why dance & art bring peace into communities, diversity, Asian heritage, connecting to your roots and much more.

Enjoy the interview and check out Cindy's upcoming event: Rest & Restoration! 


Let’s kick off with a question about your dance practice: how and why did you start dancing? 

Well my family is quite artistic, I remember my Grandfather drawing random cartoons to cheer me up when we were visiting South Korea, I was sad because my parents had to leave me to go see their friends.

When my mother was in her 20’s she paid for her university studies in fine arts, and that was really radical back in those days. Going to university was not something that everyone could afford and choosing something you actually wanted to study was an even bigger deal. My Grandparents were not supportive of her, so she’s really the driver for me to be an artist. I get the stubbornness from my mum as well and the fierceness in pursuing what I am passionate about. And she supports and steers me in the best directions.  

Dancing was something I kind of always did because most kids love singing and moving along to their favourite artist. My favourite singer/performer was Lee Jung Hyun who performed with a mic attached to her pinky, and dressed as this oriental medieval fairy -  definitely iconic.  

Moving to a new country at a young age was really great for me as I adapted really fast to life in Aotearoa. My parents - not so much. They were in their mid 40’s and had to learn a new language, culture, fitting in the whole diaspora migrant journey. Being in a new space heightened my attachment anxiety, my mum said that she had to spend the first 3 months in school with me because I would have panic attacks if she left me. Being adventurous and trying new things was not my go-to as a child, so entering a dance studio filled with pakeha girls on the North shore was intimidating and I felt like nobody took the time to know me for 10 years of my studio life there. 

The usual route people would take for dance in my opinion is you grow up in a dance studio background, go to do a Bachelors of Dance studies at University and become either a company dancer or dance teacher at a school. You stick to your one lane and it’s either you’re making it in the industry or you’re making a living as a teacher. Neither is good or bad, those are all great roles, I just think there is more to this industry then having those options.

There is an abundance of great ways to use movement as a tool to connect, for example as dance researchers, community dance practitioners working to create a bigger picture with a particular community in need or working with diverse clients, there is multidisciplinary artists, event coordinators, producers, marketing, collaborating and creating good in the community through art, there are a lot of ways where dance can be the tool to do more.

My technique in dance is shit, I also am terrible at picking up movements fast and it’s the worst when they say “now do it on your left side, in five minutes”, I would need half a day at least. What I am great at and love doing is improvisation, and making up my own quirky movements and teaching this to people who have never come from a professional background before. I love seeing people who have never learnt in a studio create their own movements, style and personality to it. I would rather see a whole range of diverse movers than synchronised robots. Nothing wrong with synchronised movements, there is something very satisfying about seeing the perfect lines angles and counts.

I’m just more interested in the messy, chaotic and risk taking movements as they represent the society we’re living in.  

So then if I’m a terrible dancer then why did I study Dance Studies at University? For some reason I went to the University audition and during my interview with the head of department, I said I wanted to use Dance as a tool for the community. I had no idea what the University had to offer and just my luck, that’s what they were passionate about. Community building and inclusive dance practices. I felt like this is where they would be able to support me into becoming someone who cared more deeply for those who could really benefit from arts.

Because everybody benefits from the arts. One way or another.

Photo Credit: Beka Hope,. Cindy with her arms wide and beautiful NZ bush behind her

What did your interaction with the audience and other interactive pieces you created, teach you in turn? 

Going back to your roots is one way to acknowledge your whakapapa, sadly I don’t know anything about my genealogy. Growing up in Aotearoa with a single parent and being an only child as well, isolation is nothing but normal, we were very fortunate to have been able to get to know other people in church groups and in our neighbourhood who were supportive. However what happens behind closed doors is something no one knows about. I wish we had family surrounding us, I wish we didn’t have to fend for ourselves. If none of the bad or hurtful things happened in our lives I don’t think I would have been able to do as much as I have done, and have this drive to create safe spaces.

I’m still learning how to create these safe spaces and places for people, is it safe because you say it is? Is it safe when others feel safe in your space? Is it a physical space or is it a relationship between people who create that feeling of safeness? 

Why do I create interactive pieces, where there is audience participation? 

Because a passive audience is much less fun than an active one. Which is mean and being an audience member who’s just finished their 9-5 job I don’t want to participate in some random show. I still think it’s more fun to fuck with the audience, in a playful and safe manner where they’re able to really be a part of the show. Because they’re literally in it. 

My piece, Iron Eyes, was really experimental and structured at the same time, it was a mash up of sequences that didn’t really make sense, it was interesting to see what people’s reactions were as there were a lot of people being like “what did I just see?” And that confusion is exactly what we wanted them to feel, this power and oppression amongst not only the North [Korea] but within ourselves, authorities and rules we abide to. The rules in which society makes us conform, such as boys shouldn’t wear makeup or assuming people’s gender because of the way they look. To ridiculous beauty standards that plagues countries like most asian countries. 

Photo credit: Beka Hope., Cindy lying on a white sheet with her feet in socks up in the air looking peaceful

You raise a lot of questions and socio political awareness through your dance work. Why do you think art, particularly dance and movement is important to/for a community? 

For people to feel like they too can do it, what I’m doing isn’t technical or special, it’s how I love to move, create, feel and express. How do they like to do this? What’s in their world of creativity and how could they use their skills to make the world just that more inclusive.

Lately I’ve been touching on a lot of mental health topics, such as our upcoming exhibition R + R (Rest and Restoration) and the video we made over lockdown called Flow. 흐름 about feeling like you’re less human because you’re unemployed or feeling like you’re going backwards because you haven’t achieved as much as you wanted in 2020. 

I never want to just do one thing, so political topics are not my go to, I decided to create something to do with North and South Korea because that’s what I was fascinated about and it was my whakapapa. I always want to challenge myself and create new initiatives!

Was just talking to a friend about being a dabbler, just dabbling in everything and she was like we contain multitudes, and we so do! All the artists I work with and know, not just only hone in on one craft, they’re all so fluid and talented, working collectively across many styles of artworks, blending and combining works. 

Tell us a bit about your community! I know you work with so many amazing projects and people. 

For myself, whoever I’ve collaborated with or whoever that wants to work with me is a part of the huddle. I do have an awesome team of friends who are always up to do projects with me so am very fortunate to have them there! You’ll be able to catch their work at R+R as well, we’ve done Dancing in Parks and Garden of celebration previously as well.

Photo credit: Beka Hope., Cindy with her his up on a white sheet overlaying the sky

You talk about diversity, inclusion and honouring the Māori values and principles. Can you describe your work in such areas and what your imagination is for such a future for NZ?

Being tauiwi, I have a lot to learn about te reo and how we can create more platforms and space for others to learn and be accepting towards the real history of Aotearoa. 

This is something I haven’t made a work on before, however I have wanted to keep voicing what Asians for tino rangatiratanga are doing, be able to share not only through social media, but through the work I do outside of the arts world with Māori families and communities. Learning more about the language and culture helps me to get a deeper understanding of the land, the people of the land and how we can work together. As coming from a more communal family mind-set there are a lot of crossovers, which is really beautiful! 

I think diversity isn’t just about giving Asian artists a platform, as I’d like to be known as just an artist, and being asian is what I am. Yes I am proud to be asian however there’s been a lot of times where I’ve been the token asian, or the token cultural aspect of a group. 

Tell us about your favourite (or the weirdest / most interesting) projects you’ve been a part of? 

Sometimes I have like a memory loss when it comes to people asking me what projects I’ve done, my mind just goes blank, or I start thinking, are these works that are in my head or by projects are they shows that people have come to and they’re more “legit”? Not sure if anyone else has felt this way haha

It was one of my favourite outdoor activations, we called it “Have a smashing Xmas”, all about the ridiculous consumerism that happens over this period, that we’re all buying into.

This was for First Thursdays on Karangahape road, where the K'road Business association sponsored these street parties and activations. It was Christmas time and I wanted to do an audience participation activation, so I got a couple of friends who play the violin to play cheesy Christmas songs, while we encourage people to smash Christmas ornaments and baubles (which we all got from op shops, there was some really tacky ones, you’d want to smash it up haha). People really got into it, they just stopped by and smashed one and carried on. There was a little table next to our performance where people could sit and do some crafts while eating some Korean snacks, so they would make their new ornaments with the ornaments we smashed up, it was beautiful and hilarious. 

"Have a smashing Xmas" activation on K'Road: Cindy and her elfs, all in red playing violin and smashing toys

We tend to forget that imposter syndrome, day-to-day challenges, health, family, exhaustion from a pandemic (hello?) affect us all. Would you mind sharing some of your recent contemplations around all of this?

Come to R+R (rest and restoration) 7th-10th of April at Strange Haven, we’re all burnt out to our very core. Don’t get your shit together, just come as you are. 

We’ve created a space where through the madness of post-lockdown there is a space of calmness and a space of mindfulness. Where people can come as they please, there is a performance night however you can attend online if you can’t come in person. We’re creating spaces for those who want to see and experience some peacefulness. 

There will be workshops too such as healing herb seed bomb making, clay play meditation session and so much more!

How do you self care? I don’t think I knew the meaning of self care, and that people actually practiced this on a regular basis until a few years ago. 

It takes me months to post something on social media lately, because life has been beyond hectic, and I don’t love being this busy. I’ve found myself in the same place overworked and under pressure so many times. It’s like a cycle of being an artist, it’s hard but you do it in between your lunch break and after work, because you want there to be more good energy in the world. Which is why I want the art that we see, we consume, we create to be for the love of doing it. 

Because we genuinely care about community and others who are needing the power that art brings. Does that mean that I’ll get better at self care because I’m making a multi-art space about rest and restoration? Hopefully? We’re all on a journey of learning right? I hope that we can get better at loving ourselves so we can love others more. 

Sharing stories of...

Brandon Lin: Event Planner, Graphic Designer, Photographer & just an amazing artist to work with

Brandon with an iced coffee in his hands looking at the camera

One of the key ways I rest & restore is by having time to myself. Life gets hectic pretty quickly, so I like to give myself time to chill out. Playing high intensity games doesn’t sound relaxing on paper but it helps me stop overthinking, since my focus is concentrating on one thing only. Self care is a key part of not feeling overwhelmed and taking care of yourself in the long run, its different for everybody but still super important! 

I haven’t known Cindy for that long but through all the projects we’ve worked on together I feel like we’ve known each other for ages. Working together with my friends has taught me a lot about their creativity and how to make something magical out of a mixing pot of ideas. It’s been awesome having the opportunity to work in the huddle and I look forward to many more opportunities in the future :)

Beka Hope: Beautiful concept designer, photographer, videographer, also an awesome person to work with! 

Beka on a green hill with blue sky at the back, standing on one foot with a camera in her hands

Rest and restoration was an elusive little ghost until I found out that for me it’s not about resting my body, it’s about resting my mind. I’ve begun to embrace the physicality of rest - even if it feels counterintuitive. All of my best self care activities are physical now. I knead bread. I go to yin yoga. I walk up my maunga. I make things out of clay. I paint that clay. I run down a hill. I get into the sea with my surfboard and do something (I wouldn’t call it surfing just yet). I chop vegetables. Every day I tell myself “stop thinking about being and just be” and then I do something physical and it helps me get there. That’s my rest.

I love collabs with Cindy! She provides such a warm, open space to let art happen. There is something special about our practises being so different, and yet being on the same page about the kaupapa. I feel like a world of potential is opened up when we make things together! I want to keep making art with you for a long time!

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