We had the good fortune of connecting with Karen Chuang and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Karen, how has your work-life balance changed over time?
When I moved to Los Angeles in 2008 I was privy to the idea of being balanced, or at least to some version of it. I picked a “real major” that balanced my interest in dance, and I joined clubs and a sorority to remind me to have a balanced social life. But there was no denying that dance was always my number one priority. I remember skipping social parties or club meetings to take class at Millennium Dance Complex, and almost missed my Econ 134 midterm for a Lady Gaga audition. Despite all my efforts to be practical and “balanced” (I even interviewed for positions at Deloitte and Bain & Company), after I graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Business Economics I still decided to become a freelance dancer.
In those years between ages 22-26, I was consumed with my career. I toured with Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, and Lady Gaga, and appeared in television shows, award shows, and made for TV musicals. But I also missed numerous family trips, birthdays, and important life events. As my career took off with more and more high-profile opportunities my world perspective became extremely narrow. I chose dance over everything else, and in my mid-twenties I experienced an emotional collapse. My life felt as immaterial as my accomplishments, whose fleeting significance lasted the same amount of time as liking a post on social media.
What I had to learn to rewire was the years of self-worth I built from being “the dancer”. I had to find joy and pride in all the other facets of who I am: a dancer, a choreographer, a daughter, a sister, a partner, a friend, etc. I worked hard to shift my perspective, but the change was slow and imperceptible. Several years and many therapy sessions later, I finally feel like I have a clear vision of what I want my life to look like.
Now as I continue to navigate my professional career as a choreographer/dancer/educator, I find that balance is a physical and emotional state in which I am grounded, healthy, and content. Being balanced means that I honor all emotional states. Being balanced means that I am present in every moment whether it is work related or not. Most importantly, being balanced means showing up for the people and things that bring out the best in me today and that challenge me to be a better person tomorrow. Sometimes that includes prioritizing my professional life, and other times it doesn’t at all.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
My art exists at the intersection of many genres, and has lived in many different places from a Carly Rae Jepsen music video to the Laguna Beach Dance Festival. One of my greatest challenges is understanding where my work is truly meant to be and what exactly I want to do with it. I am motivated to not only create work that is visually interesting but also something that inspires deeper meaning for the audience and the performer alike. Two questions that are sometimes paralyzing are: “Am I trying to create concert or commercial dance?” and “Am I trying to dance or choreograph?”. My answer to these questions so far is “all the above”.
I grew up training to be a part of the “concert dance” community, which is dance that exists more in a stage/theatre setting and presented as its own product (think LA Dance Project or Batsheva). When I moved to LA I was immersed in “commercial dance”, which is dance that is used to bring to life a broader vision/brand/product separate from the artform itself (think TV/film). Concert dance is the deeper and more complex sibling that only certain people have access to and like, and commercial dance is the fun and popular sibling that most people recognize and love.
As a result, my understanding of dance is a mixture of different theories, techniques, and languages. Even now I maintain a diverse spread of interests, and the classes I take can range from gaga with Bret Easterling to jazz with Dom Kelley. I’ve learned that it’s okay to be interested in a variety of dance ideas and techniques, and that it’s also okay to not know what I want to create for. The most important thing is that I keep creating and to keep passing information along to the next generation.
Currently, I wear a lot of different hats in the dance community. I am a freelance dancer, and still look for ways to push myself as such. I am a dance educator, which means I teach and set choreography on pre-professional dancers. I am also a freelance choreographer, which means you might see might work on TV, in music videos, or on stage in a theater. The last title is the one which I am most eager to gain more experience in. When I look back on my different career highlights, I’m extremely proud that I’ve been a part of a huge range of projects. When I look ahead, I can’t help but feel that all these different experiences will culminate into something that transcends these dance boundaries. I’m excited to see the lines between concert and commercial dance blurring, and even more excited to contribute my work and voice into this new landscape.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Day 1 – Outdoor Day. Head to the Atwater farmer’s market to buy fresh produce and ingredients for a homemade brunch. Bread from Roan Mills for sandwiches, and fresh OJ for mimosas. After brunch we take a long hike through Elysian Park. Early drinks and dinner at Lowboy. They have a delicious highball and vegan burger!
Day 2 – Echo Park Day. We’ll start with coffee and pastries at The Black Cat. From there we spend all morning/afternoon shopping. Vintage/thrift: LOOK Vintage, Sunday’s Best, American Vintage, Lemon Frog Bazaar, and Luxe Deville. Boutiques: Nooworks (amazing printed clothing), The Raven, Big Bud Press, and Stories Book Cafe. Late lunch at Sage Vegan Bistro (buffalo cauliflower wings are a must). Everything is walkable and worth a visit.
Day 3 – Museum and Little Tokyo Day. Start off at MOCA at Brand, then to Institute of Contemporary Art (I’ve been wanting to go), and finish off at The Geffen Contemporary. From there we stroll through Little Tokyo. Drinks at Wolf and Crane, and then dinner at Daikokuya Ramen (I’ve also been wanting to go).
Day 4 – Pasadena/Monterey Park Day. Start off with dim sum at Longo Seafood in Rosemead (another place I’ve been wanting to go to), and then spend the day walking through the gorgeous gardens at Huntington Library. Depending on what’s showing we can catch a show at the Pasadena Playhouse in the evening.
Day 5 – Beach Day. I hardly go to the beach, but it wouldn’t be a CA trip without at least one stop to the ocean. Crystal Cove in the OC is really beautiful and clean, and there’s a lot of delicious food in Laguna.
Day 6 – Movement Day. Start off with gaga with Bret Easterling at SGLA. It’s an amazing class for all bodies, whether or not you have a dance practice. In the evening, we head to Culver City to CAMP LA and take the power flow and chill class with Dana Trans. Great way to finish off the day.
Day 7 – Pamper Day. Book an appointment for a massage at The Now in Silverlake. From there we head to Wii Spa in Koreatown and spend the day soaking our troubles away. Dinner at Noshi Sushi in Koreatown (my favorite sushi spot).
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
My shoutout is dedicated to my parents, Judy and Yie-Min Chuang. As Taiwanese immigrants their courage and diligence are constant sources of inspiration. They taught me to have integrity, nurtured my love of dance, and made it possible for me to live a life doing what I love.
I’d also like to dedicate this shoutout to Entity Contemporary Dance. Will Johnston and Marissa Osato (Co-Directors of the company) are two of the most consistent and supportive people in my life. The rest of the company members (Angel, Diana, Derek, Emily, Eugenia, Grayson, Jason, Kent, Shiori, and Vickie) keep me motivated, curious, and grounded.
Camryn Eakes, Liz Tiamzon, Kenzie McClure, Jeremy Fabunan, Ben Adams