Tinka Gutrick Dailey is currently a dance instructor in the Theatre Department at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, WA. She had a professional career as a performer with Lee Theodore’s The American Dance Machine in New York, and has performed on Broadway, at Carnegie Hall, and Lincoln Center, as well as toured the US, Canada, and Japan.
We interviewed Tinka, who is Asian-American, as a part of May’s celebration of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month. We started the discussion with a passage from Tinka’s own writings about her experiences in dance.
“When I was a child, my brothers and I would be bullied and called racial slurs. Seeing my brother coming home bloodied and bruised after being singled out by the police because of his obvious Asian heritage was beyond heartbreaking.
I discovered dance at a young age, and aspired to become a professional dancer. I remember asking my mother if she could dye my hair blond. I wanted to look like all the other dancers I saw in DanceMagazine. I just wanted to fit in.
Imagine my surprise when in the 1980’s Lee Theodore, founder and artistic director of The American Dance Machine, personally invited me to join her company after seeing me perform. For the very first time I felt valued solely for being myself – my individual talent and uniqueness.
I was cast by Agnes de Mille in the role of Maggie in her Lincoln Center production of Brigadoon, opposite a Cuban dancer playing Harry Beaton. Her casting people of color in two lead roles gave me hope that change was possible, and that I could be a part of it.”
During our discussion, Tinka reflected on her professional journey from her perspective as an Asian American dancer:
The first musical I was in was Flower Drum Song, a community theatre production in Connecticut where I grew up. I remember that all the cast were required to have their eyes taped to look Asian – including me. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I was very aware of how awkward that was, and it made me feel that I may not be able to do Broadway because I wasn’t American – I wasn’t “white” American.
When I was a young, aspiring dancer, I dreamed of becoming a member of the groundbreaking dance company, Lee Theodore’s The American Dance Machine – a living archive of original Broadway musical choreography - which was performing on Broadway. I never believed I could even hope to join this company, mainly because I was of Asian American decent.
Before arriving in New York, I studied dance where I grew up in Connecticut, eventually attending the Educational Center for the Arts, which was affiliated with Yale. I auditioned, was accepted, and I studied dance all afternoon long. I was exposed to many different types of dance, including African dance, which I loved. I joined a small chamber ballet company that performed at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, where Broadway shows used to do trial runs before opening on Broadway. That led to me learning about an audition for the Harkness Ballet in New York, the dance training center created by Rebecca Harkness. I auditioned, and they took six men and three women. I was the only dancer of color.
It was through Harkness that I discovered Lee Theodore’s theatre dance class which was being taught in the same building. Every day at 11:30AM, I would stand in the hallway and watch. She did everything – dances from the 20s, 30s, 40s…
I had wanted to be a ballet dancer. I was told I had a ballet body. But that all changed when I got a telephone call from Lee Theodore, inviting me to join her company. Dance Machine was a living archive of Broadway dances, and I was a featured dancer. My calling turned out to be theater dance – both performing and teaching. I wanted to do that type of dance, and was inspired by Lee’s teaching of Jack Cole, considered to be the father of musical theatre dance. Buzz Miller, a former Jack Cole dancer who also taught at Dance Machine, became a mentor. Later I would be coached by one of Jack Cole’s protégés, Gwen Verdon.
Race was clearly not an issue for me at The American Dance Machine, as I not only had the opportunity to perform de Mille dances from Carousel and Brigadoon, but was cast in many great choreographer’s work including Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, Patricia Birch, etc., performing work that was not originally created on dancers of color.
ADM’s earliest piece of Broadway repertoire, Floyd’s Guitar Blues, was a dance taken from the first Black dance show on Broadway, Tropical Review, which was conceived, choreographed and created by the great Katherine Dunham. Dunham was African American, an anthropologist as well as a choreographer, and created her own dance vocabulary which was informed by her research of cultural specific dance.
John Jones, one of the first African Americans to dance with New York City Ballet and a former member of the Dunham dance company, chose me as his partner and would only dance Floyd’s Guitar Blues with me. While I was grateful for the opportunity to dance Dunham work, that role was extremely uncomfortable for me, being so aware of not being African American. I was very aware of its origins in jazz dance. While I had a level of discomfort around being cast in this role, I performed the piece regularly, which I attribute to youth, my lack of understanding the situation, and my naïveté at the time. If asked to do the role today, I would decline as I believe it should be danced by an African American dancer, in order to really do justice to the piece.
I realize this perspective is different from my performing the role of Maggie in Brigadoon, which was originally created on a white artist. The whole show is based on a mythical town in Scotland that comes alive for a day every 100 years. As it is make believe and not rooted in authentic Scottish culture, I think it represents a very different situation. I had some mixed feelings performing the role, although clearly de Mille did not feel race was an issue. Again, at that time, our society, as a whole, was not as culturally aware.
Early on, I didn’t have the confidence that I could do Broadway, as I had come to New York on a ballet scholarship. One of the first lead roles I did was June is Bustin’ Out All Over from Carousel, choreographed by Agnes de Mille. The work was staged by her assistant, Gemze de Lappe, and Agnes de Mille would come in later to say “yea” or “nay.” After viewing the rehearsal, Miss de Mille said “Tinka is mine.” That was the beginning of a long relationship during which she would not only cast me, but also ask me to assist her in staging both existing and new choreography, including The Informer on American Ballet Theatre. She would call my apartment and leave a voice mail with no message – simply stating her name in her grand signature voice – and I knew that I was to call her back ASAP.
I remember being scared and very intimidated by her the entire time. My race was never an issue for her. When she cast me in the Lincoln Center production of Brigadoon, I anticipated that I might be asked to wear a wig, but that was not the case. I wore my own hair, straight, long and black. I was most grateful for the opportunity to work with de Mille and be in that production.
At one point in my career, I had a manager who sent me out for jobs and wanted me to do an Asian accent, which I couldn’t really do. I was very uncomfortable with this, as I felt like it was making a mockery of a beautiful culture.
When I was younger, being familiar with the Japanese culture, I had a level of discomfort with work that was based on Asian culture, but not authentic. At the same time, I was grateful that the Asian culture was being recognized and highlighted. My upbringing was to be quiet and accepting. Now when I see a production of The King and I, I can appreciate the beauty of it. I can remember seeing it when I was young, being blown away, and not giving race much thought. Because it wasn’t a “thing” back then, I didn’t find it disturbing, yet I wished it could be more authentic.
Balanchine created a beautiful ballet, Bugaku, for New York City Ballet. It was his idea of a Japanese wedding, performed to classical music that had an Asian influence, and costumed for the ballerinas in kimono-type costumes, complete with chopsticks in their hair. On its own, the choreography is a work of genius, and the ballet is still performed today. It was also in the repertoire of Dance Theatre of Harlem, performed by African American dancers. There is nothing about the piece that represents authentic Asian culture, but it in some ways pays homage to Asian culture, and was created many years ago, and is from a different time. As an Asian American, I wish that there had been some representation of authentic Asian culture, or Asian input in the creation of the work.
There has been a “no more yellow face” movement in the ballet world, calling for the end of cultural specific make up and the reinforcement of stereotypes in dance. One of the most prolific examples of this is the Chinese section from The Nutcracker, the most often performed ballet in America. People are actively trying to get rid of the idiosyncratic finger gestures and the use of makeup to create slanted eyes and a yellow complexion, as the roles are usually performed by white dancers. Even though The Nutcracker is a tradition, I would love to see sections, like Chinese, re-imagined.
In my youth, I did find some value in being represented at all, even if it was not an accurate representation. But now we are much more culturally evolved as a society, and so much more educated with regards to different cultures. There is an expectation of some accountability involved with how people of color are authentically represented.
When reconstructing work, with the goal of retaining its integrity and authenticity, I realize that a dance is never performed exactly the same way twice – even if performed by the same artist. With every generation of dancer, things are subject to interpretation while maintaining the integrity of the choreography. It is a fluid art form. Jack Cole wouldn’t just choreograph an Eastern style dance without experimenting with putting bells on the ankles, etc. He honored cultural traditions. Jack Cole, in his story telling through choreography, did lift up the origins of where dances from different cultures which he built upon as he developed his style of jazz.
I keep going back to origins, and right now is a time to acknowledge that and celebrate it. When I was first invited to dance with The American Dance Machine, I was actually dancing with a ballroom dance company. But being familiar with those origins prepared me for the Broadway theater dance I would be performing. As an artist, I feel it is important to study many types of dance, and I think it is important to introduce my students to different styles and cultures. But I would never teach a Dunham, Horton, African dance, Afro-Brazilian dance, or Capoeira. Rather, I bring in guests artists as I feel those classes should be taught by African American teachers who connect to their origins.
One might ask how it feels to be training in dance from a white culture if you are a person of color? Currently I am doing a lot of training to decolonize our dance classes. I believe we can honor the origins of all dance, which has been influenced by many cultures. And at the same time, we can celebrate and honor many cultures.