Dancer Billy Chang isn't new to the area, nor to Ormao Dance Company. He met Jan Johnson, the company's executive director, while at Colorado College for a guest artists program a few years back. And he choreographed the closing ensemble for Ormao's 20th anniversary show in April 2010.
But when the 27-year-old former Cirque du Soleil soloist returned to teach a class at CC in February, and Johnson asked him to choreograph for the company's five-piece spring show, Within / Without — a component of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center's Great Depression-based Resilience exhibition — he had to do a bit of research.
"Yo, I'm from Taiwan," Chang says, laughing with his whole body.
The Great Depression wasn't exactly taught in his high school history classes, so he and Johnson started with a trip to the FAC, where they met with museum director and curator of American art Blake Milteer. Together, they took an up-close look at the exhibition's yet-to-be-matted Works Project Administration photos. Johnson says as Milteer flipped through them one by one, Chang's "wheels started turning immediately."
He went on to read everything he could about the era. Chang was struck in particular by the way people at the time expressed their frustrations with the current president by naming common items after him. The "Hoover flag" was a turned-inside-out, empty pocket. The Hoover blanket? The newspaper they used to cover themselves at night. And the shanty towns and homeless camps that popped up when people lost their homes became known as Hoovervilles.
The images Chang took from these elements become a part of a dance he titled "1929: You and Me."
"Why I say '1929: You and Me,' because after 83, 84 years, we still feel the pressure, you know," he says. "From the family. The gas is coming higher and higher. Electricity. Taxes. Right now the people can't handle that anymore. ...
"But I don't want to create a very sad feeling. ... There are always people who are willing to help you, to support you. So in my piece, I build a Hooverville ... the people from the community, they all build a house together."
More generally, Chang was also struck by the all-female modern dance company's tie to the era. In his research he found that during the Great Depression, women began to discover their own value, taking on more important roles at home and in the government, and laying groundwork for future fights around equal rights.
"This is such a strong company that collects all the female energy together," Chang says. "So that will be a part of my choreography, too. ... They have the wisdom and the courage to improve themselves. They are women, and they are powerful. ... And they want to encourage and inspire people."