Lily Eng, best known for her conceptual work with Missing Associates, a performance art partnership, became one of the first Asian-Canadian performance artists over 30 years ago. Her original choreographed performances combine elegance and discipline with rawness and intensity. The Canadian Spotlight on Lily Eng will include a screening of her films, a presentation of rare photos, and a live performance.
Lily Eng grew up in Blind River, a small town in northern Ontario where her family, like the only other Asian family in town, operated a Chinese restaurant. At the age of 10, she moved to Toronto with her siblings and her mother; she attended Jarvis Collegiate Institute, studied gymnastics, and worked as a teen model. While auditioning for a hair commercial, Lily was discovered by New Yorker Elizabeth Swerdlow (Global Village Theatre), who successfully fought for an Asian—Lily—to be cast in the commercial. Elizabeth subsequently became Lily’s mentor in dance theatre.
At Elizabeth’s suggestion, Lily studied privately with teachers in classical ballet (Boris Volkoff, Gabrielle Blair, Lois Smith), modern dance/Martha Graham technique (David Earle, Peter Randazzo), and German expressionist dance (Master Frau Til Thiele). However, even during her early days as a performer, Lily realized that she wanted to find her own path. Through her apprenticeship at Hong Luck Kung Fu Association, she began to include her Eastern and Western influences in her artistic explorations.
In the early 1970s, Lily befriended Amerigo Marras, founder of the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication (CEAC). Marras admired Lily and encouraged her to deepen her practice of embracing emotions and the body as a research tool for a new counter-rational way of knowing
With writer and filmmaker Peter Dudar, Lily formed Missing Associates in 1972, which was a counter to neo-Dada groups; the partnership artistically queried human behaviour, the body, and its relationship to the environment through a structural approach to improvisation and experimentation. Missing Associates’ early work was “both a violent experience for the audience and a violence to the forms of dance (which were two moments of the same strategy),” wrote Philip Monk in his book Language and Representation
Over the 10 years of their conceptual dance collaborations, Missing Associates performed in various Toronto venues, including the AGO, A Space Gallery, 15 Dance Laboratorium, and CEAC, as well as across Canada. Missing Associates was part of the first Canadian performance art tour in 1976 that travelled to Sweden, England, Scotland, and Italy. In 1977, Lily and other members of CEAC were invited by Joseph Beuys to be part of his “Violence and Behaviour” workshop at the Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research in Kassel, Germany.
In the early ’80s, Lily turned her expressive and creative energies towards solo performances, presenting her full-length dance work Life in the Trenches in London, England, in 1985, as well as But Women Did Come: 150 Years of Chinese Women to North America, an exhibit that travelled throughout Canada and the US. Throughout the 1980s, she presented various works at Toronto’s Pavlychenko Studio, renowned for its pioneering efforts in convening and incubating collaborations between artists of dance and other diverse disciplines.
Among her various community engagements, Lily has been greatly involved with Cahoots Theatre Projects, has sat on the board of the CanAsian Arts Group, has curated the Asian Eyes Film Festival, and has performed during numerous Asian Heritage Month events.
As part of A Space’s 25th anniversary project, Lily was commissioned to create On Performance, a retrospective of her performance work that garnered accolades in The Globe and Mail, which included her in its annual Top 10 performances review in 1996.
As a follow-up, she created [ENG]land, a full-length multidisciplinary dance performance that further showcased her unique choreographic vocabulary, blending martial arts, improvisation, humour, and cultures.
Lily is a proud Chinese-Canadian and a certified kung fu teacher at Hong Luck Kung Fu Association, one of the longest running kung fu clubs in Canada.
- Coman Poon
WALKING | 1:00 | 16MM | 1974
WITHHELD | 25:00 (excerpt) | open reel video | 1975
HITTING IT SIDEWAYS | 10:00 | open reel video | 1975
CRASH POINTS | 10:00 (excerpt) | 16mm | 1976/1977
DOCUMENTA VI JOSEPH BEUYS FREE INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY IMPROVISATIONS | 16:00 (excerpt) 3/4″ Umatic video | 1977
PENETRATED (FEMALE & MALE) | 6:00 (excerpt) | 16mm | 1977/1978
SPREADING THE SPACE THINLY | 28:00 (excerpt) | 3/4″ Umatic video | 1978
DANCE OF TERROR | 8:00 | 3/4″ Umatic video | 1978
DP | 8:14 (excerpt) | 16mm |1982
DRIVE | 5:00 | video | 1985