Vancouver contemporary dance artist Juolin Lee doesn’t have the typical bio for a performer in the Early Music Vancouver Summer Festival. First of all, Lee is not a baroque musician. Nor is she an opera singer.
However, since completing post-secondary training with the Modus Operandi Contemporary Dance program in 2021, Lee has benefited from working alongside with some big local names.
They include the founder of dumb instrument Dance, Ziyian Kwan, Astrolabe Musik Theatre founding artistic director Heather Pawsey, and Ne.Sans Opera founder Idan Cohen. These and other mentors have given Lee confidence to perform as a dancer in the upcoming world premiere of Early Music Vancouver and re-Naissance Opera’s The Queen of Carthage.
This interdisciplinary show reclaims the story of Dido. It does so with the help of commissioned works by contemporary composers Jessica McMann, Robyn Jacob, and Afarin Mansouri along pieces by baroque composers Henry Purcell and John Dowland.
According to Early Music Vancouver, The Queen of Carthage celebrates Dido’s legacy as a political leader, empire builder, and woman of colour in ancient times in North Africa.
In fact, after choreographer and fellow dancer Marissa Gold told Lee about the production, she recalls thinking, “Wow. That is super cool to advocate for female BIPOC leaders.”
Lee, who was born and raised in Taiwan, can identify with this story. That’s because Taiwan’s elected president, Tsai Ing-wen, is a female leader also facing monumental challenges.
“President Tsai is like a big role model for me,” Lee tells Pancouver over Zoom.
Now in her second term, Tsai has had to face down threats from the People’s Republic of China. She has also legalized same-sex marriage, supported stronger environmental protection, advanced reconciliation with Indigenous people, and improved Taiwan’s reputation.
Lee focused on ballet and folk dance in Taiwan
Lee points out that tales about women leaders often revolve around love and heartbreak. This is why she’s thrilled to perform in a story about what a female leader did for her people.
“I feel like typically, that’s just done for male leaders,” the dancer says.
Lee was born in Changhua in west-central Taiwan and her mom enrolled her in dance classes at a young age. She quips that back then, she was too young to appreciate Cloud Gate. Later when they moved to Yilan in northeastern Taiwan, Lee’s mom enrolled her in a ballet program with the high-profile Lanyang company.
“I was there for two years, and the training there was awesome,” Lee recalls.
However, it was also strict. So she switched to the Luna Rhythm Dance Troupe in Yilan, where she really found her niche.
“We did a lot of Chinese folk dance,” Lee says. “There are two branches. One is more martial-art inspired, with sharp and powerful movement. And the other style, sheyun, focuses on the softness and articulation of the body, often performed in the palace of dynasties in ancient China. It is a form I love.”
Watch the trailer for Juolin Lee’s Luna.
Choreographing dance in high school
At the age of 13, Lee moved to Langley, where she later enrolled at Langley Fine Arts School. It enabled her to study choreography and composition classes.
“I choreographed my first-ever dance in high school,” Lee says.
She likes to joke that she learned English in kindergarten in Taiwan, thanks to a Canadian teacher, but says that her skills went downhill from there. In fact, Lee is completely fluent in English. Plus, she speaks Mandarin and can read and write Traditional Chinese script, which is commonly used in Taiwan.
After graduating from Modus, Lee interned with Ziyian Kwan at dumb instrument Dance.
“I shadowed her for many projects,” Lee recalls. “She’s definitely a person who has a vision and just pursues it. That’s really inspiring.”
One of the dance works that Lee is most proud of is Luna. She choreographed this solo, which straddles the line between fantasy and reality. The show includes a Taiwanese rice cooker.
Luna is rooted in Lee’s belief that everyday mundane events—such as waiting for rice to cook or the completion of a laundry cycle—are like portals.
“Those pockets of emptiness allow our imagination to kick in,” Lee explains. “We could be going through a landscape of emotions and journey into our internal world while physically, we might just be sitting there in a state of waiting.”
Lee created Luna last year and performed it at What Lab in East Vancouver. She remounted it during Asian Heritage Month in May at Morrow, a performance space and gallery on Richards Street founded by dumb instrument Dance. Lee also plans to perform Luna again on the Labour Day weekend at TAIWANfest in downtown Vancouver.
Lee appreciates her mentors
Another career highlight was being cast as one of the three dancers in Astrolabe Musik Theatre’s production of the George Benjamin opera Into the Little Hill. The choreographer was Idan Cohen and it featured Heather Pawsey and Emma Parkinson in the singing roles.
According to Lee, the research process on that production began a year before the premiere. Lee joined the team fairly late in the process after one of the original dancers had to bow out.
“We actually had only two weeks before the premiere of the work to put everything together,” Lee says. “I was super nervous. Oh my god, I really appreciated how much they trusted me.”
In The Queen of Carthage, the role of Dido will be performed by mezzo-soprano Cecilia Duarte, who was aa soloist on the Grammy-winning album Duruflé: The Complete Choral Works. Her other recordings include Curzar la Cara de la Luna and Reencuintros.
Lee emphasizes that she has been very lucky to have had so many mentors who’ve inspired her along the way. She adds that they celebrated her for who she is rather than for her look or what she does.
“People talk about their stories being ‘othered’ and neglected,” Lee says. “I’m not saying this doesn’t exist because it does. But I just feel really lucky that my story is not like that. I have, in a sense, had a smooth sail.”
Early Music Vancouver and re:Naissance Opera will present the world premiere of The Queen of Carthage at 8 p.m. on July 27 at the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. It’s the opening night of the 2023 Early Music Vancouver Summer Festival. Tickets are available on the EMV website.
Juolin Lee will perform Luna on the Pancouver Stage at šxʷƛ̓ ənəq Xwtl’e7énk Square (north of the Vancouver Art Gallery) at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday (September 3).