This month in Speculative-Inspired Arts, performance and vocal artist Dawn Xiana Moon talks geekable bellydance routines, SFF-inspired music, and inclusive representation in the arts.
You have so many brands in the fire that it’s hard to pick a place to start, but let’s begin with fire! You’re the director of Raks Geek, a bellydance and fire performance company that incorporates a bit of everything, from Star Wars to Silent Hill. Who comes up with the various performance themes?
All of us do! We typically work in a variety show format with loose themes – I’m responsible for structuring the shows themselves, but the individual acts and choreography are all created by the performers. Most of our costumes are also made or heavily modified by the performers themselves, and they can be pretty intricate – it took me around 18 hours to craft my bellydancing BB-8 costume, not including design time.
My philosophy is to hire incredible artists and then trust them – our bellydancers and firespinners have performed everywhere from Germany to Morocco, Costa Rica to the Czech Republic, so they’re truly the best of the best. Sometimes I’ll get act descriptions from the cast and have no idea how it’s going to work onstage, but I’ve never failed to be absolutely delighted.
What’s been your favorite performance thus far?
I have so many! I love Gaea Lady’s Rey (Star Wars) piece, which starts with character moments, reveals to a series of flowy and weighted veils (which are originally the costume she’s wearing), and then ends with her spinning, throwing, and balancing double staffs on her head – which are, of course, on fire.
Lee Na-Moo is one of the most stunning bellydancers in the world – he frequently creates some of the most beautiful dances I’ve ever seen. And then he’ll switch modes entirely and shimmy and jump as (Super) Mario or Cookie Monster at an inhuman speed. With precision.
Kamrah has an incredibly creepy Silent Hill Nurse piece that remains one of my favorites – there’s a point where they get off the stage and move into the audience, and they feel so much like the video game come to life that I’ve seen giant, linebacker-sized men shrink back from the small figure approaching them (Kamrah’s only 5’3”).
I could go on, but the point is that our performers are amazing! I’m lucky to work with them.
Do your audiences lean more toward sci-fi/fantasy fans or bellydancing aficionados?
Our audiences are largely SF/F fans and the general public, but we often get bellydancers who are so excited they’re willing to travel a long way to get to the show. I think the current record is tied between Cincinnati and St. Louis – they each drove over 5 hours just to come to the theatre!
You’re also an accomplished singer and songwriter. Do you incorporate speculative fiction themes into your songwriting? If so, are they expressed through the lyrics, the music, or both? Can you share some specific influences?
I’ve been a geek and a musician my entire life, so it was bound to come out in the music eventually! Over the last couple years I’ve been working on a project to create songs based on SF/F work – I’ve written songs inspired by NK Jemison’s The Fifth Season, Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut books, JY Yang’s short story The Blood That Pulses in the Veins of One, and more.
The songs don’t sound like what I imagine SF/F might sound like though – my music is a mixture of folk and pop with influences from jazz and traditional Chinese music. It’s all acoustic – at heart, it’s me singing with a piano or guitar. Musically, I’m inspired by artists from Over the Rhine to Philip Glass – I grew up playing classical piano and flute, but a lot of music that resonates with me is closer to modern Americana.
You’ve penned several essays about your experiences and perspective as an Asian-American woman navigating modern geek culture. What projects have given you the most hope for a more-inclusive future in the industry, and where do you feel improvement still needs to be made?
We’re finally starting to get more projects featuring Asian-Americans in Hollywood, where there’s currently something of a renaissance – I’m also encouraged that SF/F is publishing more Asian-Americans and we’re being tapped to write Marvel comics. All of that didn’t exist when I was younger – we had Mulan and The Joy Luck Club and Ensign Kim and not much else. So things are changing, and it feels good.
That said, there’s still so much that we could do better. For example, Hollywood projects are finally showing Asian faces, but white people are still making the major artistic decisions, and that has an effect on the story – we still don’t have many stories that come from an Asian-American point of view, and it’s still difficult for Asian-Americans to get cast (Hollywood tends to cast names that are already big in China or Hong Kong). We still don’t have representational parity in front of or behind the camera, and we’re still pigeonholed into stereotypes.
In literature, it’s still hard to get work published that falls outside of the traditional immigrant narrative.
In the performing arts, it’s still common for major dance and opera companies to perform in yellowface and produce work that is, frankly, racist.
When we talk about Asia, we’re talking about 60% of the world’s population, 48 countries, and 2100+ languages – and then when we’re talking about Asian-America, we’re talking about an additional layer of experiences on top of all of that, because we diaspora folk have a very different perspective from sourcelanders. There are so many stories – so many different stories – that we could tell, and we would be richer for hearing them.
Have you considered venturing into fiction writing? Maybe a short story or a book?
All the time! Some of my songs actually started out as short stories.
Do you have any projects coming in 2020 you’re willing and able to share with us?
Raks Geek – and Raks Inferno, our show/company without explicitly nerdy themes – will continue to do monthly theatre shows in Chicago. I also have some video projects in the pipeline – we really need more and better video of all the incredible work our performers are doing – and I’m planning to record my third album, which will feature a lot of the SF/F-based songs we talked about.
Honestly, the only thing holding back the video and album recording projects is funding – doing them professionally and well requires substantial cash. So look for a Kickstarter in the near future!