Choreographer, dancer, educator, and musician Megan Lowe wears her Chinese and Irish ancestry with conviction. In an interview prior to the Sept. 1 world premiere at ODC Theater of her Gathering Pieces of Peace, a new work for her eponymous company, Megan Lowe Dances, she says being mixed race is not just one experience. Even so, there are traceable commonalities shared by the work’s cast of four dancers (including Lowe) and five musicians — despite their differing backgrounds.
Gathering Pieces, which runs through Sept. 9, explores mixed-race Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) identity and tells stories arising from diverse cultural traditions. The hour-plus production includes 14 songs, four of which are sung by the dancers. In terms of movement, the artists stretch contemporary conventions with aerial dance, ballet, hip-hop, Chinese traditional dance, and martial arts.
Lowe says that throughout the work’s 20 sections, including moments when performers mingle with the audience, organic sound is encouraged. “We’ve really been leaning into the sound of our voice and breath. There is a range of emotions explored, and we hope audiences feel empowered to be present in how they are feeling during the performance. There is room for laughter, curiosity, tears, excitement, deep thinking, and smiles.”
Lowe often composes and sings the music for her projects, along with developing the dance and text. She says the balance of elements has everything to do with the people involved in a production.
“It really depends on what my collaborators are excited by. When folks are interested in text and storytelling, we dive into that. When they are interested in singing, we can explore incorporating that as well. And collaborators don’t necessarily have to be expert in a particular practice in order to play with an idea. If there is interest in a certain modality and an excitement around growing and developing skills around it, I love supporting collaborators on their artistic journeys.”
For Gathering Pieces, the dancers investigated personal stories, which are manifested in spoken or recorded text and in songs mostly performed a cappella. Lowe says the stories are specific enough to allow viewers to get to know the performers but also open so that people can relate in their own ways. She believes audiences will recognize themselves while also seeing the dancers and musicians as real people expressing lived experiences, not just performers creating characters onstage.
During the work’s development, Lowe and her collaborators put out a call to mixed-race AAPI communities to share their experiences. Gathering Pieces will highlight 12 responses in the ODC lobby gallery. Among the recurring themes were a sense of not belonging, being asked, “What are you?” because of the ambiguity of physical appearance, and people making assumptions based on ideas related to racial profiling.
Asked if fractured identity and the desire to belong are things everyone experiences to some degree, Lowe agrees that longing is universal. “Yes, this is totally true, and something we are leaning into. Though the subject matter of our discussions and the stories that we share in the performance are personal and specific, there are ways that everyone can relate.”
Smaller performing arts companies can also relate to the challenges Lowe experienced while working on Gathering Pieces. “The number-one challenge of creating this work was scheduling. I’m working with some terrifically talented dancers, and they are super busy people. I work collaboratively when it comes to setting schedules so everyone can be accommodated. It takes a lot more time, but when we are all there, it is truly wonderful, and we have a lovely time. I’m really grateful to be working with these amazing artists.”
Of course, Lowe wears multiple hats. “I’m a choreographer, dancer, performer, singer, composer, teacher, administrator, scheduler, budgeter, payroll person, website designer, graphic designer, marketer, promoter, grant writer … the list goes on. In addition to that, I work 20 hours a week for the UC Berkeley Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, as well as dance and teach for other dance companies. I love the work that I do, but sometimes I wonder about sustainability.”
But the joy of creating drives her on. She makes special mention of the “totally beautifully lighting design by Harry Rubeck” for Gathering Pieces and says the work involves more storytelling, group singing, and theatricality than she has previously done. In tender moments as well as in humorous episodes, the production invites viewers to join with performers and reminisce, wonder, laugh, learn, and discover a place of mutual peace.