Invisibly visible

People The Arts

May 1, 2022

Charlotte dancer and choreographer Audrey Baran’s newest work — recently staged on a national platform — challenges Asian stereotypes. 

by Michael J. Solender | featured photograph by Nancy Pierce

Audrey Baran is troubled by what she describes as the current dichotomous state of invisibility and hyper-visibility of Asian Americans in the United States. The Filipina-American dancer and choreographer is using dance to address head-on perceptions and stereotypes of female Asian Americans, ranging from the obedient and subservient manicurist to dehumanized sex workers. 

Baran, 40, just completed a new work tackling these themes after being selected through Joffrey Ballet’s 2022 Winning Works Choreographic Competition. 

Baran moved to Charlotte at age 4 from New Jersey. She is a visiting assistant professor of dance at UNC Charlotte and founder and artistic director of the eponymous troupe Baran Dance. She’s long been a creative force on Charlotte’s burgeoning dance scene. Her work has been featured at the Charlotte Dance Festival, North Carolina Dance Festival, Tobacco Road Dance Productions, Triangle Dance Project, Women’s Showcase and numerous self-produced productions. 

A woman dressed in athletic apparel jumps in the air with her legs bent backward and her upper body facing the opposite way
photograph by Butch Delatina

Joffrey Ballet started in 1956 as a boundary-pushing touring company and has been Chicago’s resident dance company since 1995. Winning Works, now in its 12th year, was created to recognize talented and emerging ALAANA (Asian, Latinix, African American, Arab and Native American) choreographers. Baran is one of only four artists — and the only woman — selected through this year’s competition. She was chosen from a pool of nearly 100 national and international applicants. 

Her 12-minute contemporary piece for the Joffrey, entitled Porcelain, addresses the stereotyping of Asian American feminine identity related to the image of the Oriental porcelain doll. “Silent but gestural, beautiful and exotic, superhuman yet subhuman,” Baran says. “She is strong yet breakable, but once she breaks, she will cut you if you are not careful.”

“Porcelain represents an abstraction of various stigmas around Asian Americans,” Baran continues. “I’m interested in this idea of being ostracized and ignored at the same time. The feelings and the physical actions come from the part of someone who’s being targeted. There are a lot of power dynamics going back and forth between control and caring for someone. At the end there’s this rebellion and feeling of taking back your own power and not needing permission to do anything or look a certain way. I think a lot of the dancers related to that on a lot of different levels.”

A woman dancer poses in front of a dark yellow background dressed in a yellow sleeveless tanktop and burgundy booty shorts
photograph by Exulting images

Baran’s proposal stood out to the team at the Joffrey. “Her letter of intent was beautiful,” says Raymond Rodriguez, Abbott Academy director of the Joffrey. “We read her letter, and Christopher Marney (head of Studio Company and trainees at the academy) and I viewed her previous works — we thought she would be a great fit. Audrey had a beautiful voice in what she wanted to say with her work.”

Upon her selection, Baran auditioned members of the Joffrey Academy Studio Company and trainees, about 40 in all, ultimately choosing 15 dancers to perform her piece. 

“We fly in each choreographer for a two-week period individually, where they audition a workshop day and then choose their cast with understudies as well,” Rodriguez notes. “They have a minimum of 30 hours to choreograph their work, work with our team, and return for more rehearsal and the performance.”

Baran’s work was performed in March at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s Edlis Neeson Theater. She also received a $5,000 stipend as part of her award. What most impressed the team at the Joffrey is the collaborative way Baran worked with the dancers in creating her piece. “Audrey brings a blend of work from the concert stage and academia in her approach,” Rodriguez says. “It’s made the dancers think in a different way, where they have a voice in the work. She explained her concept and ideas and workshops together with the dancers to create the work.” 

Baran says it is important to her to incorporate the voice and movement of her dancers into the work she creates. “Being collaborative with the dancers and letting them have a lot of ownership over the piece and the content gives me a great deal of energy and translates into the work,” she says. “We spent time in the beginning talking and writing about invisibility and hypervisibility and our individual experiences … We inspire each other with our own thoughts, words, phrasing and movement.”

A dance teacher shows a group of her students dressed in black how to do a move.
photograph by Carolyn McCabe

Two primary byproducts came from the experience for Baran: newfound inspiration and motivation to tackle more ambitious projects. “With every creative process, I learn a lot about how I work and how I interact with other dancers and makers,” she says. Baran hopes the chance to show her work on a national platform will lead to other opportunities. 

As far as what’s next, Baran says she’ll continue both her teaching and performance in Charlotte, with a special affinity for performing in small venues. She’s no stranger at Petra’s and has often performed there accompanied by live music. Baran Dance is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. She’s planning a party and a performance at Charlotte Ballet June 18 and 19. “We’re performing 10 works that represent our past, present and future. We’ll have dancers who have been with us since Day One, new dancers, understudies and our youth company participating. It’s going to be a fun time.”

For Audrey Baran, a new muse is always in sight.  SP

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