Performing Taiji

 

Last week, I gave myself a bit of a “freak out” moment. Two weeks away from my taiji performance as part of the APAture festival. “Why did I sign up for this?!” So many insecurities: I’m not ready. Taiji doesn’t belong at an Asian American arts festival with spoken word, and standup, or urban dance. I’m going to be the dud of the night. I should be more athletic, dramatic. People want to see acrobatic martial arts they know from the movies, not taiji. These thoughts became so gripping I felt paralyzed for days, and if there was a way to back out, I would have.

Then I thought, “you applied for this.” I chose this challenge. I wanted to know what it felt like to put my taiji practice out there as art. What I didn’t expect was how different preparing for an artistic performance would be compared to training for a martial arts tournament. In that case, the expectations are clear: time constraint, judging, technical skill level. There isn’t an artistry component nor an expectation to tell a story, to bring out an emotional response. Even though it is possible, it’s not essential. And now, in presenting a traditional form as my artwork, a form that is about the accumulation of generations of refinement, I see my role as honoring the work of teachers in my own voice. And without official scoring, I will still be judged on whether my work is moving, provocative, compelling. 

When I trained for a tournament, it was physical discipline - early mornings and high volume repetitions to breakthrough on postures. For my upcoming performance, it’s been about choreography and rhythm. I compiled music that reflected how I felt on this road as an apprentice, and the challenge has been matching moves to it. The postures I wanted to include weren’t working out, and unexpectedly, my newest form (the one where I feel the LEAST confident) is the form that fits the bill. Of course it would be! The process of choreographing using pre-established forms to music feels is messy and winding, tying together energy, pacing, intention. My teacher always advocates that prepping to perform or compete is really just a chosen circumstance that gets us to a new understanding of that form, and once over, there is still more discovery to come. I began with the idea that I should choreograph my best selection of moves. But the feelings I wanted to convey and the piece I wanted to create had others plans, and my level of confidence was NOT a consideration.

My curiosity around giving taiji a place in the world of arts, beyond being only a health practice or sport, was a feeling I couldn't ignore. Now, days away, I'm still scared, and realized I haven't tried something so "unknown" in while - so this feels like a healthy move for my practice. I am learning to shed myself of unproductive thoughts about whether the audience will "like" what I've put together, and focus on whether the piece I put together says what I intended.