“There’s Nothing Else Like This” –An Interview with the Creative Team of CALLING: A DANCE WITH FAITH

by Amy Zhang

Hala Shah, Jesca Prudencio, Natsumi Sophia Bellali.

Calling: a dance with faith is a new workshop production by Ping Chong + Company. This dance theater piece centers on the religious and artistic journeys of Natsumi Sophia Bellali and Hala Shah, two women who are both Muslim and professional dancers. Directed by Ping Chong + Company member Jesca Prudencio, the show uses interview-based scripting and a devised process to create a wholly personal vision of the artistic self in relation to Muslim identity.

Our Communications Associate Amy Zhang headed over to Downtown Art during rehearsal, to ask the director and performers about their experience working on this unique piece.

The workshop production will take place June 22-23 at 7pm at Downtown Art–the free tickets are currently sold out, but there will be a waiting list at the door starting at 6pm.


Natsumi: I just was yearning. I always wanted to have Muslim friends or a Muslim community, especially in this new city. When I saw the post, I couldn’t believe that the two words “Muslim” and “dance” were even put together, and right away posted on my Instagram story saying, “LOL I need to do this. I feel targeted.” And then a couple of friends were like, “I was going to send this to you!”

Hala: I first heard about Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity with Ping Chong + Company through Steven Hitt back in 2014 when I was creating a dance for the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center’s Beyond Sacred season. And then in April he forwarded me an email announcement for this project, saying, “I think you’re perfect for what Ping wants to do.” And I was like, “Yes!” It was that kind of moment where you’re like, “Wait, what? Really? Is this actually happening?”


Jesca: I’ve been with Ping Chong + Company now for ten years, and have written and directed my own Undesirable Elements shows. When I was on the Julie Taymor World Theater Fellowship last year, I was thinking about how I can use the interview process as the trigger to create something.

For this piece, I posed the question: can the body be documentary? We know text, film, and theater can, but can dance be documentary? Dance is the text, movement is the text. We’re saying the body is a language in this piece, dance is a language. So this piece started with interviews and I did some writing, but they created a lot of movement and we started shaping together.

Hala: The interview was probably the most unfamiliar part. It brought up so much that was the underbelly of our movement. If Jesca didn’t dig that out of us and get it to the forefront of our minds, the movements we created wouldn’t have meant anything. She was digging it out, tilling the soil, getting us ready, and then we would dance and the movement would come out.

Calling header by Idris Ademola
Photo by Idris Ademola.


Natsumi: On a religious side, I really struggled with Ramadan in New York for the past few years because I don’t have my family here and I don’t really have a Muslim community. Last year was rough—I didn’t know how to be a dancer and still fast, and be alone doing it.

So, when I learned that this was during Ramadan it was like the light at the end of the tunnel for me. I right away grabbed it and it was just such a privilege. We’re fasting and we’re dancing, and the dancing is about the religion.

Hala: It’s always hard as an artist. You want to be as open for the director/creator as much as possible so they can not only extract the info from you, but so that you can make yourself available and take in whatever they’re throwing at you. So, it’s a constant stream going both ways. In other times of the year we’re so saturated with our jobs, with all of our other things, and it’s just like, “I don’t have room, I don’t have space for anything more.” But, in Ramadan, this is the time when we’re trying to find our focus and get down to the core.

Natsumi: What’s really cool when you’re really hungry and feeling powerless and tired, you don’t have the energy to overthink things. You don’t have the energy to choose extra options or be insecure about things. You just let yourself go and be what you really are, versus your thought taking over.

Hala: This is the first Ramadan as a dancer I’ve actually enjoyed because it usually is “ugh.” This is the first time I’m like, “Wow, I actually had a real Ramadan. This is what it’s about!”

Natsumi: It’s real! And I don’t want it to end.


Jesca: As an art form it’s a really exciting, riveting piece that mixes testimony and movement. It’s an exciting evening of dance theater. It’s also two people not only telling their stories, but having a really honest, emotional experience on stage, because it’s not all text. Their body is their primary language. It’s an evening of pure honesty.

Hala: We were saying as we were walking down the street…there’s nothing else like this.

Natsumi: Nothing else. And it’s questions that we’re still exploring, questions that are pending for us and that are forever going to be, throughout our entire lives. It would be lovely to have people think with us and experience that with us through this show.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


EMAD RAHIM Community Spotlight

This fall, Ping Chong + Company is extending our latest production in the Undesirable Elements series, Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identityinto a touring module with a suite of performances aimed at educational and public audiences. These presentations are taking place in venues around New York City and the region. 

Today’s Community Spotlight is on a past UE participant who shared his own experience of Muslim identity in Tales from the Salt City seven years ago at Syracuse Stage in Syracuse, NY. Emad Rahim is now a Kotouc Endowed Chair and Associate Professor at Bellevue University. Here, he reflects on the impact of being a part of Undesirable Elements. 

And for more on Beyond Sacred and our 2015-16 presentations of the piece, supported by the Doris Duke Islamic Foundation, please visit here.

Emad Rahim in “Tales from the Salt City,” 2008 at Syracuse Stage.

How did you come to engage with PC+C?

I was invited to share my story with PC+C by Kyle Bass, dramaturg at Syracuse Stage. PC+C was developing its Undesirable Elements piece Tales from The Salt City, telling the unique stories of seven Syracuse residents–first-hand narratives–who were in some way living outside the dominant culture. My story of surviving the Cambodian Killing Fields and overcoming great odds as a refugee living in Brooklyn and Syracuse fit well with the vision of Ping, Kyle, and Sara Zatz for the Syracuse Stage production. My experience and my personal journey reflect what could be perceived as “undesirable elements.”


What was a meaningful moment or take-away from your experience with PC+C?

One night after a performance of Tales from the Salt City, we were invited to meet with a group of audience members. Two older ladies approached me with tears in their eyes. Before saying a word to me, they both wanted to give me a hug. They shared with me that they were both survivors of the Holocaust. They told me that, while I was a lot younger than they were and I was not Jewish, my experience in the Killing Fields and my journey in America resembled their own stories. This type of encounter continued to follow all of us who were a part of that Undesirable Elements production. It proved to me the power of storytelling through interview-based theater. Our personal stories brought strangers together and made a community feel a lot closer.


How did your time with PC+C influence what you’re doing today?

My experience with Ping Chong + Company and with that project has changed my life forever. The theater exercises and vocal lessons, along with the many hours I spent on stage performing, made me a stronger teacher and public speaker. When I started the project with PC+C I quickly realized I knew very little about my past and upbringing.  Now, I am an Endowed Professor and an award-winning author, traveling the country sharing my stories at conferences, universities, high schools, and public events.  My story was turned into a short documentary titled “Against the Odds,” which has been featured in the Huffington Post, IntelligentHQ and Worldclass Magazine.

In addition to my work at Bellevue University, I’m also a Jack Welch Fellow teaching with the Jack Welch Management Institute and write for Forbes Magazine and the Syracuse New Times. I am writing my first biography “From The Killing Fields to the Boardroom: the SALT Effect,” which I hope to finish in the fall of 2015.

Emad Rahim

AMELIA PARENTEAU Community Spotlight

As we head into the fall season here at PC+C, we’re thinking about the impressive community of past interns who’ve worked with us in our office and in rehearsal rooms. So many of our interns have brought great insight and experience to us, and so many have gone on to make important and impactful work in American theatre. One such former intern is Amelia Parenteau, who has also written about our work, including a recent feature on The Civilians’ Extended Play. We’re happy to stay connected with Amelia as she makes her way in New York’s theatre community. 

How did you come to engage with Ping Chong + Company?

I first learned about PC+C when I was interning at Theatre Communications Group and read Undesirable Elements, a collection of scripts and stories from PC+C’s Undesirable Elements series. I was so moved by it that I wrote a piece for the TCG Circle Blog. Lucky for me, Ping was doing a workshop at my college in January of my senior year, and I immediately signed up. Over the course of the workshop I learned more about PC+C’s production history and Ping’s unique style of theatrical creation, which motivated me to intern for the company in the spring of my senior year.


What was a meaningful moment or take-away from your experience with PC+C?

My entire internship with PC+C was chock full of memorable moments. Every time I climbed the red flights of stairs to the office in the La MaMa building, I felt like I was climbing to the summit of downtown theater. Memories that stand out are visiting a middle school in Flushing, Queens to observe an educational residency with Jesca Prudencio, assisting with a production of Secret Survivors at the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center in the Bronx, and attending a production of Brooklyn ’63 at the Brooklyn Historical Society, followed by a truly passionate talkback about gentrification that energized and inspired me.


How did your time with PC+C influence what you’re doing today?

I knew comparatively little about documentary theater before I met Ping, and watching him construct his pieces was a complete education in how to put together a piece of documentary theater. I learned interviewing skills from him, as well as the value of silence and stillness. I have developed a keen interest in the field of documentary theater, and have started writing about documentary and investigative theater for a variety of theater journals and blogs online, as well as working with documentary theater groups like The Civilians. I am currently working on collaboratively researching and writing my first documentary show, with Life Jacket Theatre Company. I also would like to give a shout out to Sara Zatz, PC+C Associate Director, who has been a great friend and tremendous professional mentor as I start my theater career here in New York.

Amelia Parenteau headshot
Amelia Parenteau

NANA DAKIN Community Spotlight

This week, we’re launching our 4th Summer Training Institute, a week-long in-depth exploration of the community-based performance and documentary theatre practices behind our Undesirable Elements series. This year’s institute is hosted by LaGuardia Performing Arts Center’s Agents of Change Initiative. We appreciate meeting new friends and colleagues each year in our institutes–like Nana Dakin, who first engaged with us as a participant in our 2011 Summer Training Institute. She’s a theatre director and performer who’s a member of Thailand’s B-Floor Theatre. She’s currently pursuing her MFA in directing at Columbia University.

Nana Dakin headshot
Theatre maker Nana Dakin

How did you come to engage with Ping Chong + Company?

I greatly admired the work of Ping Chong + Company after I saw BLIND NESS: The Irresistible Light of Encounter at La Mama ETC in 2004. I applied to be an intern at PC+C after I finished my undergrad training, but unfortunately there was no PC+C production work happening in NYC at the time. Nevertheless, I was kindly invited to attend a rehearsal of “Secret History: Journeys Abroad, Journeys Within” at Lincoln Center. It was my first introduction to the Undesirable Elements series, and I was utterly impressed and inspired by the concept of it. I was particularly drawn to its focus on sharing the testimonies of marginalized and displaced communities. When I saw the opportunity to learn how to create this type of work at the Summer Institute in 2011, I leapt at the chance.

What was a meaningful moment or take-away from your experience with PC+C?

At one point, Ping described the directing of an Undesirable Elements performance as being about directing the movement of the sound of people’s voices. This has always stayed with me.

How does your time with PC+C influence what you’re doing today?

My time with PC+C taught me how powerful it is to be given a space to tell your story and have someone else listen to it. Because my background is in physical theatre, I have been working on translating this idea into movement-based work. In 2013, for example, I co-created a dance performance called “The Last Gasp of a Mournful Heart” devised from the personal stories of its 4 female performers (including myself), which explored our experiences of letting go and saying goodbye.

Nana Dakin Last Gasp
B-Floor Theatre’s “The Last Gasp of a Mournful Heart” (2013), directed by Nana Dakin & Vidura Amranand

A Moment with Matthew Joffe

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And next month, PC+C will open its most recent work exploring disability: PUSH: Real Athletes, Real Stories, Real Theatre. Part of our Undesirable Elements program, the production features Canadian parathletes, and it will premiere at the 2015 Pan Am / Parapan Am Games cultural festival in Toronto.

In recognition of these markers, this blog post comes from Matthew Joffe, a disability advocate and educator. Matthew was a participant and performer in PC+C’s Undesirable Elements: Inside/Out, which premiered in 2008 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He’s the Director of Outreach and Education at the Wellness Center at LaGuardia Community College. In Inside/Out, Matthew spoke about his life and perspectives living with Moebius Syndrome. Here’s a video moment with Matthew.


CARLY McCOLLOW Community Spotlight

Carly McCollow first joined the Ping Chong + Company community as a participant in our Summer Training Institute. She then joined us as a teaching artist in our Secret Histories arts-in-education program at Flushing International High School in Flushing, Queens. 

Carly McCollow FIHS 2014
Carly McCollow leading her students at Flushing International High School’s performance of “Secret Histories” in 2014.


How did you come to engage with Ping Chong + Company?

I first learned about PC+C through Jesca Prudencio, with whom I crossed paths during our undergrad education at NYU. As my work moved towards community-based theater, professors directed me to her as someone who was doing this sort of work, as she was then the Education Director at PC+C. We began meeting and sharing our experiences in the worlds of community-based and documentary theater. I attended a PC+C Summer Institute in 2013. That Institute, and the people I met there, changed my life in many ways. I was thrilled at the opportunity to teach with PC+C at Flushing International High School in 2014.

What was a meaningful moment or take-away from your experience with PC+C?

At the Summer Institute, a fellow participant approached me at a social gathering and mentioned that she noticed I was struggling with my own privilege. This put a name on something I’d been grappling with for a long time. It started me on the path of community engagement and social justice work, and I am now in the Masters of Social Work program at Hunter College to learn more tools to do this kind of work. The other participants at the Institute gave me the beginnings of my social justice community.

How does your experience with PC+C influence what you’re doing today?

The Secret Histories residency I did with PCC at Flushing International High School crystallized my desire to spend my life doing this work. The collaboration there with the teachers, school administrators, and students–and their determination to do their jobs, using love as a tool–showed me a new way to do this work. The students I met there touched me profoundly, and were the reason I enrolled in an MSW program to be able to be more fully equipped to do this work going forward. Documentary theater and storytelling can be therapeutic, and I want to be able to take responsibility for that aspect of it.

Carly McCollow headshot
Carly McCollow


DANIELA RIVERA Community Spotlight

Last week, Ping Chong + Company said “farewell but not goodbye” to our artistic intern Daniela Rivera as she graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Since January 2015, Daniela has been involved in many facets of PC+C’s work, including observing our creative process for Undesirable Elements and conducting research for a new interdisciplinary project in development. …Thank you, Daniela!

Daniela Rivera w cupcakes
Celebrating Daniela with cupcakes on the last day of her internship at the PC+C office.

How did you come to engage with Ping Chong + Company?

I learned about PC+C from various courses on applied theatre and political theatre at Tisch. PC+C struck me as a company that was exploring the crossover of theatre for entertainment and theatre for social change. I took the opportunity my last semester to apply to intern for PC+C, hoping to gain some insight into how they devise their pieces; how they interview participants and then use their words to tell stories through a theatrical lens; and how meticulous and respectful artists have to be, especially when sharing other people’s words and stories.

What was a meaningful moment or take-away from your experience with PC+C?

One of my most meaningful experiences I had was being given the opportunity to be in the room while Ping Chong and Sara Zatz interviewed some of the participants for “Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity,” part of the Undesirable Elements series. It was intriguing to watch and listen to how and what they would ask of the participants. They knew how and when to push a little further; what information would relate to the other stories; where the nuggets of gold were; and finally, how to carve out an accessible, meaningful, and universal story from personal interviews.

How does your experience with PC+C influence what you’re doing today?

Ever since I started learning about political theatre and theatre for social change, I was immediately drawn into the practice and had more questions than answers about how an artist begins to produce work in that medium. Who has the right and authority to tell other people’s stories, and how do you share someone’s words honestly and with respect while still having artistic and creative liberties? While interning at PC+C, I’ve had an opportunity to contemplate these questions–and, to me, that freedom seems to come from form over content. To me, what makes the work done at PC+C so powerful is that they have developed a form or container for all of their oral history projects that can hold the weight and strength of the stories that are shared with them. I’m still grappling with these questions with my own work, but the work that is done by PC+C has given me insight into a way to begin.

Daniela Rivera headshot
Daniela Rivera


HANDAN OZBILGIN Community Spotlight

Handan Ozbilgin is a theatre maker and the Assistant Director of LaGuardia Performing Arts Center in Long Island City, Queens, New York. She’s been involved with Ping Chong + Company’s outreach efforts and LPAC workshops as the company has created our latest in the Undesirable Elements series, “Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity.” “Beyond Sacred” is running now until May 9th at LPAC. More info and tickets HERE.

handan photo 1
Handan Ozbilgin at work in her role as Assistant Director of LaGuardia Performing Arts Center.

How did you first come to engage with PC+C?

I engaged with the company when they were at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center for the development/workshop process of “Inside/Out… Voices from the Disability Community” in 2008. I was helping them with different aspects of the development workshop, from outreach to making sure that the theater space was accessible and secure for disabled community members.

What has been a meaningful moment or take-away from your experience with PC+C?

With “Inside/Out,” [part of PC+C’s Undesirable Elements series], I remember thinking how simple the staging was and yet how powerful was the impact. I remember going through different emotions as the participants were telling their stories. Some lines have stayed with me after all these years. For instance, a participant in a wheelchair saying how she didn’t like the word “disabled.” The first part of the word “dis” has a negative equation and dismissed her from the rest of the society.

How does your experience with PC+C influence what you’re doing today?

It occurred to me then that when you work with real people and with their real life stories, you can create something so honest and powerful that it really makes an impact.

At this time the company is back at LPAC with “Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity.” PC+C has chosen again a very challenging subject to explore. Their risk-taking influences me in my artistic life.

AMIR KHAFAGY Community Spotlight

Amir Khafagy is a member of the ensemble of Ping Chong + Company’s “Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity,” the company’s latest work in its Undesirable Elements series, opening tonight at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center in Queens. Amir describes himself as an Arab Rican, born and raised in Jackson Heights.

How did you come to engage with Ping Chong + Company?

I first learned about Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity when I was a student at LaGuardia Community College. At first I was hesitant to participate in the show because of my hectic school and work schedule.  A friend of mine who worked at school convinced me to sign up for the initial interview with Ping Chong + Company.  I soon realized that it was important for me to be part of this show, because I feel that as a Muslim, I am obligated to be a part of something that can help destroy the barriers that many Muslims face every day. Many of the barriers are not overt; they are barriers that many non-Muslims already have in their heads. The prejudice and misinformation that people harbor can really make it a challenge for Muslims trying to make this country a home.

Amir in rehearsal Adam Nadel
Amir in rehearsal for “Beyond Sacred,” with, from left, ensemble members Tiffany Yasmin Abdelghani and Maha Syed. (Photo by Adam C. Nadel)

What has been a meaningful moment or take-away from your experience with PC+C?

Working with such a talented and diverse cast in Beyond Sacred has helped me gain an even wider understanding of how rich and complex humanity as a whole is. In this country we try to fit everything into one category or another. We lump all Muslims into one group and call it “the Muslim community.” The reality is that there is no such thing as an all-encompassing  “Muslim community,” like there is not an all-encompassing Christian community. Muslims make up an incredibly abundant mix of people and cultures. I have learned so much about the world from my cast-mates that is so different from my experience.

How has your time with PC+C influenced how you feel about your path today, and/or your plans for your future?

Working with Ping Chong + Company has given me the theater bug. I have truly fallen in love with the whole process of creating something powerful from scratch. Ping Chong’s unique style of documentary theater has inspired me to incorporate theater into the organizing work I do in low-income communities. I would one day like to somehow incorporate theater in the fight for social justice. Theater can be a tool that can engage communities of color on all sorts of issues that affect their lives.

Amir headshot Adam Nadel
Amir Khafagy. (Photo by Adam C. Nadel)

VAIMOANA NIUMEITOLU: Connecting & empowering diverse communities

I have been a part of the Ping Chong + Company community for 15 years. I am a Senior Teaching Artist and I am also a performer in “Secret Histories/Undesirable Elements” with Ping Chong + Company. Currently I am teaching PC+C’s “Secret Histories” curriculum at the Museum Magnet School in collaboration with Lincoln Center Education. I am working with 8th graders from diverse backgrounds and communities. Together, we’re creating a performance in which the students will share their stories of culture, immigration, family, and home, in an event June 10th at the Clark Studio Theater at Lincoln Center.  For all of them, this will be their first time sharing stories in performance with each other and with their school, families and communities. I am moved by who these young people are—their trust in me, in each other, and in themselves, taking risks outside of their comfort zones to share their stories. I have been with them for over 4 weeks now and already I have seen them grow in their confidence and sharing their truths. I witness their vulnerability and power in sharing what they have already gone through at a young age. Their stories vary, and they are seeing the connections of resiliency between each other:  families being exiled from their homelands; being homeless; family members being incarcerated; drug abuse; domestic violence; and learning whole new languages and cultures. I am inspired by who they have become. I see their strengths and courage every week. Also, we get to have so much fun together because each of them has their own humor and style, hence their own dance moves and jokes. Being a teaching artist for PC+C is not a job for me. It is me, living my purpose—and my purpose is using arts education to connect and empower diverse communities.

Moana MMS LE Manhattan 2015
Moana’s students and their classroom teacher in the “Secret Histories” project at Museum Magnet School, 2015.

Teaching, performing and working with Ping Chong + Company has inspired and empowered me to live my life-long dream as an artist and educator. I get to be someone who is committed to community, social justice, and making a difference in the world. This is a life that I love. PC+C has inspired me to be the founder and creator of Mahina Movement, a performance group of women that have performed on over 500 stages across the US and Ireland in the past 15 years. In our music and poetry, we tell our own stories and histories, which is exactly what I teach my students to do. Also, in the past 3 years, I have created and directed public murals to show and share stories of the community. I have worked on murals in LA, Utah, Australia and New Zealand. Currently I am working on a mural that will be on a 3-story building in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. This community mural will feature stories of grandmothers, mothers and their granddaughters from Palestine, China, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. This mural will honor and celebrate their stories.  This mural is sponsored by Ping Chong + Company, through a grant from the Asian Women Giving Circle.

I am very grateful to my Ping Chong + Company family. I would not be the artist and educator I am today without all the experiences, learning, and love that is given to me by the company. Thank you, PC+C!

Moana2015 Headshot
Moana Niumeitolu