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Tom (Thomas) Tsai is a Los Angeles artist who was born in Taiwan. He began his dancing career as a breakdancer, evolving into a modern dancer performing with Pennington Dance Group and Laurie Cameron & Company. He has performed his solo works throughout California, New York, as well as internationally. He lives within two cultures and creates using two dance mediums. In Tom Tsai: PERSONAL PERSONA PERSON see and hear his inner conflicts caused by these differences, how he has dealt with or merged them, and the decisions his creative and personal journeys have lead him to make.

It is rare to come across an artist who can verbalize his/her thoughts, personal conflicts and creative ideas onstage with great clarity, while also communicating them beautifully through movement. Tom Tsai is one such artist. We got a glimpse into his life without it making us feel like voyeurs. He spoke throughout the evening about his process of creating work and how each part of his journey in life effected its outcome. At one point Tsai stated that he loved to write but that he hated to talk. He might not enjoy speaking publicly, but he did so extremely well.

The first part titled Phrases, took place in the lobby of John Pennington’s ARC in Pasadena. Tsai sat on the floor cutting out strips of paper with passages from his writing, while DJ and Sound Editor Arthur Lien played various Hip-hop songs. He then handed out these strips of paper to be passed around while a few of his favorite dance artist friends performed brief movement phrases in the center of and amongst the audience. We saw YT Wong move sensually and then suddenly collapse into the floor with ease.  Michael Szanyi beautifully performed a phrase from Tsai’s work MEAN while he voiced comments like “Tom holds this a long time. I can’t, so I won’t.” Lindsey Lollie did a phrase on the floor that was reminiscent of her work with szalt. Jay Carlon and Heidi Brewer performed a short duet before Carlon danced in the parking lot; visible to us via the ARC’s surveillance cameras. Wearing a vibrant blue dress, the beautiful and grounded Alexx Shilling moved in and out of the floor with ease and grace. Edwin Siguenza gave us a touch of humor by incorporating a lamp shade, and Suchi Branfman offered each of us homemade cookies while reciting a list of people that the dance was for. Also in the cast was the elegant Sarah Leddy who only performed on Saturday evening.

Tsai then handed several of us a sheet of paper with titles of different breakdance moves that he had created over the years. I chose Spokes and he performed that move. The next person chose a title and Tsai performed the phrase and next gave us a “Creativity 101” lesson on combining two moves together into a longer phrase. After presenting three examples of this process he directed us into the performance area of the ARC.

Tom Tsai - Photo: Nate Lubben Photography
Tom Tsai – Photo: Nate Lubben Photography

Tsai broke the different stages of his life and work into four sections; The Monk of Funk, Tom Xia Lai, Tom Edits, and Modest Thomas. He changed layers of clothing onstage while speaking his written text; each layer representing a different public persona. The first two focused on his breakdance career and each was followed by a dynamically performed section from Tsai’s repertory. He told us how these sections related to his life and why he titled them as such. Tom Xia Lai translates as Tom Lies Down. The phrase began with a huge build-up only to suddenly end with Tsai lying still on the floor.

Tom Edits moved us through Tsai’s period of transition into becoming a modern dancer and the pain of leaving behind his Monk of Funk self. He examines the struggle that a majority of dancers, and athletes, go through when age begins to limit what their body can endure. He explains this process without making us feel sorry for him, and he encourages everyone by demonstrating how he has edited his work to fit the body he now inhabits.

Tom Tsai - Photo: Nate Lubben Photography
Tom Tsai – Photo: Nate Lubben Photography

Modest Thomas dives into Tsai the person, his most personal persona. We see and hear how he equates himself to others and how he has embraced the shy, self-defacing or modest part of himself. Near the end Tsai sits down in a darker section of the audience and begins whispering as if discussing himself with himself. Soon, he returns to sit cross-legged in a chair lit solely by a single special.  Using only his two hands, Tsai brilliantly relates the coming together of his two worlds and his satisfaction with that decision. That simple, quiet moment was breathtaking.

Music for Phrases and PERSONAL PERSONA PERSON included songs by Dyke & the Blazers, Smoove, Funky Bijou, and Una Mas Trio. Allen Clark did a very nice job creating the separate scenes for Tsai’s separate stages of life and career.

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Jeff Slayton
Jeff Slayton has had a long and influential career as a dancer, choreographer, and educator. Born in Virginia in 1945, Slayton began dancing as a child in order to correct his condition of hip dysplasia. He enjoyed a performance career in New York dancing for Merce Cunningham, Viola Farber and others. In 1978 he moved to Long Beach, CA. where began teaching at California State University, Long Beach as a part time faculty member. He became a full time faculty member in 1986 and continued to teach at CSULB until 1999. Jeff Slayton was one of the faculty members that helped design the Dance Center at CSULB as well as develop and implement the BFA, MFA and MA degree programs. While in Long Beach, he formed his own company, Jeff Slayton & Dancers, that operated from 1978 to 1983. He continues to stage works in the Southern California area. He is also the author of two books, "The Prickly Rose: A Biography of Viola Farber" and "Dancing Toward Sanity". For more information on Jeff Slayton please go to www.jeffslayton.org.

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