Coco Ono's head-caged piece at Asian BurlesqueEXPAND
Coco Ono's head-caged piece at Asian Burlesque
Greenbag Photography

Performance Artist Kayla Tange Breaks Boundaries of Asian Culture Wide Open

Kayla Noriko Tange steps onstage in an elaborate robe, her face illuminated by an inverted copper pyramid set with LED lights. Designed for Tange by artist Jeff Davis, "the head-cage," as she calls it, evokes both the Rothchilds’ 1972 Surrealist Ball and Anaïs Nin in Kenneth Anger’s masterpiece film, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. The latter reference is especially pertinent, since like Nin, Tange weaves tales of sexuality and gender fluidity into her performance art, which incorporates the written word, dance and now film.

Dear Mother, written by Tange, directed by Matthew Kaundart and produced by Luka Fisher, screens Thursday, May 10, at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. In it, Tange's tangled family history is explored: The Korean-born artist was adopted as a baby by a Japanese-American family and raised in central California. Her adopted mother died when Tange was in her early teens. As an adult, Tange sought out her birth mother, who agreed to meet with her. Tange flew to Korea, only to learn that her birth mother had changed her mind and refused to see her. The short film intercuts Tange’s daily life as a dancer and artist with childhood home movies and photos, shown as Tange reads a letter to the mother who gave birth to her and then gave her up. It’s a visceral exposé of love: wanting it, needing it, searching for it and ultimately finding it in oneself. The camera tracks Tange through a film noir landscape, never shying away from her day (well, night really) job as a burlesque dancer and her work as a performance artist, which are intimately entwined.

Burlesque is one way that Tange explores and comments on gender and race. She has performed striptease routines as Hunter S. Thompson and Andy Warhol, and as a wide range of Asian and female stereotypes, including a Japanese schoolgirl and a devoted housewife disrobing to the crooning of Doris Day.

“My dance routines are a way to provoke inner dialogue for the audience as well as to express myself," she explains. "Some people may not get the points I am making in a three-minute dance, but I like trying to make people think beyond the obvious.”

Kayla Tange references Asian culture in provocative ways.
Kayla Tange references Asian culture in provocative ways.
Jason Kamimura

To some, the obvious may be Tange’s black garter belt and pasties, but to get to that place, she has stepped onstage with giant clown hands and an orange wig, in a lunch lady uniform, or as a hoochie with bleached blond bob. But to others, including a legion of loyal fans, Tange has become a must-see on the burlesque circuit, combining pop culture, feminist cultural theory and literary references with an equal quantity of shimmy and shake.

Tange performs burlesque as Coco Ono (“a tribute to the classic Coco Chanel and the amazing Yoko Ono,” she explains) throughout Los Angeles with productions including Bootleg Bombshells, Tease As You Please, Night Scene, and Belle, Book and Candle. A vacation to Tokyo landed her a guest spot at one of the city’s top burlesque shows, staged by Lady Dyana at After Party Tokyo. Tange also works out new routines at Jumbo’s Clown Room and has pushed boundaries at Poetry Brothel and Queer Cabaret. Her performance art, seen at Coagula Curatorial during Miami Art Week 2016 and at Highways, explores the psyche through the use of confessions, both hers and the audience’s.

“People tell me things all the time, intimate things. I have confessions, too," Tange reveals. "So I began by writing down these admissions and asking attendees to also write down their confessions. I would read them, dressed as a nun, sometimes in an enclosed Plexiglas box. People hear themselves in the words of others, and the act of confession, both writing them and hearing them, can be a transformative act that unites us.”

Tange built on those performances to create "Boundaries," a piece she debuted last year at Highways. Along with the audience’s confessions, the piece highlighted her transcultural identity. Tango dancers and a violin player matched their movements and music to the confessions, which Tange randomly selected from audience contributions and from her own collections; it all climaxed with the artist dropping her evening gown to reveal self-shibari. The traditional Japanese rope binding, which Tange had tied onto herself, references the constraints of her upbringing and restrictions she feels from that culture, along with Japan’s complex relationship with Korea, and how those directly and personally affected her. 

“My use of shibari celebrates the beauty of Japanese culture, but now this art has crossed over into the mainstream as a form of transgressive sexuality, almost to the point where it isn’t transgressive anymore," she says. "This type of rope play has been fetishized in part because it’s exotic, in the same way Asian women are fetishized.”

Tange’s performance art caught the eye of acclaimed artist Ron Athey, who cast her in Gifts of the Spirit, his full-scale collaboration with avant-garde composer Sean Griffin; the performance filled St. Vibiana’s downtown with clattering typewriters, trilling glossolalia and soaring music. Taylor Mac also cast her as a drag king and other roles in A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, which just ran at the Ace downtown. On Saturday, May 12, Tang debuts her latest dance piece in New York, at the Asian Burlesque Extravaganza, before bringing it to Belle, Book and Candle at El Cid on May 16, celebrating the occult burlesque revue’s one-year anniversary. [Full disclosure: L.A. Weekly culture editor Lina Lecaro is the DJ.]

“I’m wearing a hwarot, a traditional Korean wedding dress, and a hwagwan, the headpiece," Tange says of her props, which see her delving into something new that is, in fact, not really new at all. "I’ve played with being many other Asian and Caucasian characters onstage, and now I am finally tackling being Korean.”

Dear Mother (along with
China’s Forgotten Daughters) screens Thursday, May 10, 2 p.m., at CVG Cinema, 621 S. Western Ave., Koreatown. Free to the public but tickets are required for admission; they'll be distributed online and at the box office on a first come, first served basis. More info here. Belle, Book and Candle's one-year anniversary show is Wednesday, May 16, at El Cid, 4212 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake, at 8 p.m. (doors at 7:30). 18 and over. Tickets here.

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