Irene Hsiao


I write about the arts, especially theater and dance. My stories have appeared in SF Weekly, Chicago ReaderLos Angeles Review of Books, KQED Arts, Bay Area Reporter, Newcity, Dance Studio Life, and In Dance.

Find me on Twitter or Facebook for the most recent articles.

Link to author page and archive at SF Weekly.

Link to author page at Newcity Stage.

Link to author page at Chicago Reader.

Link to author page at LA Review of Books.

Links to selected articles:

Probing and Penetrative, review of Vladimir Zaytsev’s Out of the Blue in its US premiere by Organic Theatre Company, NewCityStage, June 2016


There is no such thing as love in this world. Poets, more than anyone, know that this is true, because they invented it, and, capitulating to the inevitable, called themselves realists in order to give themselves license to mediate the dismantling of their invention. Homophobia is just a byproduct of this anxiety about love, this need to assert, define and then ravage that darling of human civilization, that mirage of no substance, that sick paste that barely holds together the twin oppressions, one spiritual, one legislative, of monogamy and marriage.

Alvin Ailey at the Auditorium Theatre, NewCity Stage, 14 March 2016

Battle’s “Awakening” brought Ailey properly into the twenty-first century with the blaring clarion call of John Mackey’s driving score. Twelve dancers entered the stage, running in a ring at such speed that their white costumes blur as they unleashed arms that appeared to both hail and respond. On the darkened proscenium, they gathered and whirred like a windmill or the bright slits of a zoetrope blown near but not to a chaos, resisted by the reflexive commitments to geometry and esprit de corps that bodies trained like warriors exhibit.

Elegies, Allergies, and Other Elusions: Marilyn Chin Talks Hard Love, Los Angeles Review of Books, 3 April 2015

Hard Love Province 9_10.indd

IRENE HSIAO: Does it change a Chinese American poet’s relationship to the Tang dynasty poets once T. S. Eliot declares that “Pound is the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time”?

MARILYN CHIN: I don’t want Pound to have the last word on Chinese poetry. A lot of Asian American writers don’t want to be Asian anymore. They don’t want to be Chinese. They think it’s a post-Asian era. Is it okay for Pound, [Amy] Lowell, [Kenneth] Rexroth, and [Gary] Snyder to be influenced by Chinese poetry, and not okay for Marilyn Chin, who studied Chinese poetry all her life, to show off her knowledge? To “make it new,” might just mean a Chinese American woman poet writing some badass polyvocal poems to take on the Modernists. I am not afraid of my “Chineseness” and I’m not afraid of my “Americanness.” I begin the day reading Li Bai, Tu Fu, the Shijing. Some of us have to do this. It’s very important to me that I leave that mark, that I write this hybrid poetry. I want to showcase the brilliance of both literary traditions. 

Astounding Antigonick by Berkeley’s Shotgun Players, 25 March 2015


No curtain hides the long, curved lick of bare wood that forms the set of the Shotgun Players’ production of Antigonick. Made of light, long planks, it swerves from the floor up to the top of the theater like an asymptotic bowling alley, a daredevil’s roller derby jump, an echo chamber, an arena turned on its side. It might be playful, were it not for the figure of a dead horse suspended perilously over the stage by ropes lashed about its belly. Before the play begins, under interrogation-bright lights, barefoot Nick in tight white jeans revolves slowly upstage right. The message seems clear: no tricks to taint this scene.

Ode to Oakes, Los Angeles Review of Books, 8 January 2015


We cave dwellers have ever been intoxicated by representations, loving the illusions more than the original, the selfie more than the self. The conventions of art and mathematics have abstracted the world down to two dimensions, even while speculating about a universe of 10 to 26. The three in which we manipulate our meat bodies seem mundane and irrelevant within these complex structures, incommodious compared to the flat images and concepts we can file or frame. The labor of translating the many dimensions to a picture plane has been assisted by instruments such as the camera obscura, the camera lucida, the concave mirror. But the tools for representing what we see, contend the Oakes brothers, have always existed within the eyes.

Waxing Poetic: Charlie Levin’s Paintings as Performance, 15 December 2014


“The end result of the painting is not the point. It is only an artifact. The way I see life is that we are the product of our experiences, including who we are born as, and our families, and our environment, and the things that happen to us. When you meet somebody, you can’t see that. You see little bits and pieces. And they change, and we change.”

Interview with Alonzo King: Talking about LINES Fall Season, Shostakovich, and More, 11 November 2014

Photo by RJ Muna

But, he says, we would be foolish to rely on our senses: “‘Ah, that looks like a crow in the sky. It’s black so it may be a crow’—when in fact it’s just a piece of carbon that’s flying somewhere.”

Stark Minimalism: AXIS Dance Company’s 2014 Home Season, 9 April 2014

Photo by David DeSilva

Disability is often characterized as a lack that requires elaborate compensations: prostheses, apparatuses, mechanisms, and manners.

Hamburg Ballet’s John Neumeier Talks Shakespeare, Love, and Beer, 10 February 2014

Photo by Steven Haberland

What are you, fairy, mortal, or mechanical?

I’m a combination of all of them, actually, at different times of the day and night.

On Being Raymond Chandler

Being Raymond Chandler

The vodka in my drink was strong enough to steam the gangrene off a GI’s leg and tasted as bitter as my last heartbreak, so I left it on the bar. On my left was a vivacious redhead. She’d had a few but don’t let that fool you: she was as sharp as the icicle you use as a murder weapon in a lateral thinking problem and an expert in Chandlerology. The room was dark but not so you’d have to grope, unless you wanted to.

Making It Rite: Rite of Spring by Bill T. Jones and SITI

Photo by Paul B. Goode

It must be mentioned that what A Rite does for walking is nothing short of transcendent. It is by nature and definition pedestrian, but it also creates a scene of persons as a scene of particles in motion, random, accidental. It appears throughout, because to step and to dance is first to walk.

Joe Goode Performance Company’s Hush: A Soundscape of the Real and the Imaginary, 30 September 2013


In dance, the body is substituted for the voice, the urgency of muscle and bone taken as universal, various languages codified in the form of techniques. All this replaces the dominance of the mouth and makes the lungs more engine than bellows.

Bodytraffic: Animal Magnetism from LA, 27 September 2013


Despite their ostensibly subordinate role within the dance, the piece belonged to the women: disgruntled bachelorettes, stymied seductresses, future real housewives of Tel Aviv.

“Uncomfortable Touching is Now a Performance Piece,” 22 July 2013.


But there are also moments of embarrassment, of primitive impulses to probe each other’s orifices, sweat that wets and stains the clothes in unseemly regions, the unavoidable attention to the palpable knobs and blobs of the body. All these are consequences of being close enough to give up the distance that keeps us civilized. What makes an invitation to move: a look? a smile? a breath? a desire to mirror the other?

“Quantum Choreography: Kinetech Dance Explores the Finest Movement in the Universe,” 17 May 2013


The logic behind each piece bears resemblances to the philosopher’s thought experiment: Suppose, as in Rag Doll, a dancer were placed in a box with another being, neither sentient nor quite inanimate, programmed to attempt to stand using a random array of joints and forces — at what point would they have collectively touched every point in the box?

“Cool to the Touch: Eifman Ballet’s Rodin,” 13 May 2013


In contrast to other choreographers after Balanchine, who have practically made abstraction synonymous with contemporary dance, Eifman often returns to stories and refers to his works as “stage psychoanalysis.” Yet the idea of abstraction hovers beneath a piece like Rodin, which, though ostensibly about the love triangle between Rodin, his wife, Rose, and his mistress and muse, the sculptor Camille Claudel, is also l’art pour l’art: an ekphrasis of sculpture, an aesthetic transformation of ugly feelings.

Cinderella, or, The True Ballad of Benjamin and Clementine,”  6 May 2013


In our post-Harry Potter world, portraits should move, chairs should fly, trees should whomp, ceilings should show the constellations — and they all do at the San Francisco Ballet. But also, love should be funny, and Wheeldon’s choreography seems the most sincere when it is.

“Theory and Practice: Hope Mohr Dance, Reviewed,”  7 May 2013.


“Language: the skin of the mind,” the voice says, condensing Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan. The dancers recreate the contact between Adam and God, evolve through stages of uprightness, attempt supported flight. The others utter gutturals while Schwab explodes through an astonishing solo that mimics the way sounds deform space. The stage periodically grows dark, which might indicate time passing or reproduce a primal voracity for aural sensation (“Metaphor causes the mind to experience itself, making a mistake”).

“Sean Dorsey’s The Secret History of Love at Dance Mission Theater,” 1 April 2013

Photo by Lydia Daniller

Reminiscent of Cherubino’s “Voi che sapete” in the Marriage of Figaro — a boy’s song about his infatuation for his godmother that is frequently performed by women, as it happens — Dorsey’s opening is the innocent but exuberant inquiry: what is this marvelous thing that he’s never felt but is sure he must, yet fears he never can? Yes, that is wordy, but love is complicated, and queer love is even more so, as we are reminded by the nearly constant narration, in voiceover, spoken, or sung onstage, that accompanies and leads the dancing.

“Black Letter: San Francisco Ballet’s Onegin at the War Memorial Opera House,” 29 March 2013

Photo by Eric Tomasson

Reading and writing occupy a certain idleness; the life we perceive in text is not real, and time spent writing is time outside of action. Thus a verse narrative that has a heroine who reads romance novels and two of its central dramatic moments taking place in the form of letters hardly seems the ideal subject of a ballet.

“Spiritual Intimacy: Shen Wei Dance Arts, Reviewed,” 26 March 2013


As in a gallery, the audience does not touch the art. The experience of being present with many people, each engaged in a private experience, is oddly intimate and alienating.

“Cultural Rituals & Core Experiences: The Work and Play of Enrico Labayen,” Bay Area Reporter, 22 July 2010


Art in America is always connected to a life of labor – of desk jobs in advertising agencies, of teaching and learning, of serving food and tending children. The lives of women in particular exemplify this multiplicity of roles – to nurture and support, to carry and create, to defend the home and open it to others – and to Labayen, the laboring body is the dancing body, entirely rooted in the human, in the aching specificity of individual hunger, sadness, and triumph. As Labayen terms it, the dancers come to the studio to “play.” But it is a highly spiritual play, with far more than technique at stake.


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