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Puppet master: avant-garde artist Ping Chong has worked with ink, paint, video, dance, and music. Now he's channeling his vision through haunting puppet shows. (theater).

Like his work, Ping Chong defies easy classification. And that suits him fine. "I don't belong to any group," he says. "I'm just not a joiner." Yet for those who've followed his 30-year career, Chong is an original theater director, choreographer, video artist, and, with his acclaimed last project, Kwaidan, a captivating puppeteer. "In the end, I'm a maverick artist," he says. "I'm not part of any niche. I'm on my own path."

His latest stop along that creative road is titled Obon: Tales of Rain and Moonlight, which, like Kwaidan, is an adaptation of three Japanese ghost stories and features puppets, props, and captivating sound and visual effects. A haunting meditation on love and death, the work premiered at Seattle Repertory Theatre, where it's now finishing up a six-week run before heading in late May to Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C., for 11 performances.

Raised in New York City's Chinatown, the 55-year-old Chong is the child of Chinese immigrant performers. He says his earliest passion was not for theater but for painting and drawing. He attended Pratt Institute for art and design during the 1960s and, struggling with his bisexual and creative impulses, floundered in the drug counterculture before becoming interested in dance. He took a class with dance and movement impresario Meredith Monk, who immediately recognized his talent and brought him into her troupe. By the early 1970s, Chong was creating innovative stage works of his own, and in the last three decades he has won two Obies, two Bessies (New York Dance and Performance Awards), a Guggenheim Fellowship, and six National Endowment for the Arts fellowships.

Chong says that while his experiences as a bisexual Asian have influenced his work, which deals extensively with the issue of "otherness," he primarily identifies as a creative artist. "The Chinese are essentially pragmatic people interested in business," he explains. "So growing up in Chinatown, there really wasn't a place for an artist like myself. It was the beginning of my search for a community." He found the gay culture equally irrelevant to that search. "The gay community is nothing but a microcosm of the larger society, with the same patriarchy and operations of power," he maintains.

Despite his resistance to identity politics, Chong's work reveals an awareness of the struggles facing Asians and gays. In the early and mid 1990s, shows like Deshima and Chinoiserie explored East-West relations; Kwaidan, conceived in the late 1990s and concerned with the afterlife, concerned an Asian-American artist who died of complications from AIDS. "Before the '90s I was fortunate in that I lost very few people to the disease," Chong says. "But by the mid '90s I got whacked by the death of many friends--and not just from AIDS. Right now I have a close friend who's dying of cancer."

Obon's eerie tales are ripe with sorrow, but, as Chong points out, they are also life-affirming. "Obon is about how important it is to value those you love," he says. "They are not here very long."

Bahr writes for The New York Times, Time Out New York, and Poets & Writers.
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Author:Bahr, David
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 28, 2002
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