Mixing art and documentary ‘ALAXSXA | ALASKA’ comes to UAA

What does it mean to be Alaskan? Who are these people — the insiders and outsiders — who call the Last Frontier home, and what happens when they encounter each other? An upcoming performance at UAA looks to answer these questions.

“ALAXSXA | ALASKA” is a multi-media performance by Ping Chong + Company, an innovative theater company based out of New York City founded in 1975 by artist Ping Chong, who was awarded the National Medal of Arts 2014. The company describes the show as “a collage of striking contemporary and historical encounters between indigenous Alaska Native communities and newcomers to the Great Land.”

Along with puppetry, recorded interviews, video installations and Yup’ik drum and dance, performers Gary Upay’aq Beaver and Ryan Conarro will assume the roles of “insider” and “outsider.” Using the prerecorded interviews along with Beaver and Conarro’s own stories, the performance will show the varying perspectives and histories of Alaskans while delivering a modern performance. It’s more of a modern theatrical vocabulary and less experimental theater, Chong said.

The show was conceived in 2015 when Conarro, who is also credited as co-director and co-creator, approached Chong about putting together a show. After Conarro told Chong about his 13 years in Alaska and his time working as a radio reporter in Nome, Chong surprised Conarro by suggesting they do a show about Alaska. Chong’s work addresses cultural issues and merges documentary with theater, so the concept was a natural fit.

Conarro and Chong recently worked together on a performance called “Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity.” The show combined elements of interviews with performances and addressed Muslim stereotypes.

“I’m really just creating a space for people to speak. Because the media is not creating a space for them to speak, the media is just perpetuating stereotypes,” Chong told the Michigan Daily in February of this year.

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Last year Conarro and Chong traveled around Alaska conducting interviews that would eventually be used in the performance. Conarro said the archive of interviews and ones conducted after the show will be used for an ongoing project.

Performing with Conarro will be co-creator and choreographer Beaver, who was born in Bethel and grew up in Kasigluk. Having learned Yup’ik drum and dance at an early age, Beaver is the leader of the Kasigluk dance group and teaches his craft at schools in Southwest Alaska.

Along with the small crew that will run video, sound, lighting and costumes is puppeteer, designer and performer Justin Perkins. According to his website, Perkins’ work “unifies, sometimes uneasily, the organic with the mass-produced, baroque refinement with punk anarchism.”

Performances at UAA will occur from Thursday, Aug. 31 to Sunday, Sept. 3 at 8 p.m., followed by shows in Bethel, Kasigluk, Nome and Homer.