Choreographer Caili Quan: Studying Heritage Through Movement

May 16, 2022

Even if choreographer Caili Quan’s work isn’t about identity, her Chamorro and Filipino heritage will find its way into her movement. Quan grew up in Guam, where she says some of her earliest love for art came from her relatives’ tendency to break into song and dance at family gatherings.

“Incorporating Guam into my work, it’s really all I really know,” she says. “You can learn a lot of stuff as an adult, but what I really know is where I grew up and where I come from. No matter what the topic is that I end up researching for a dance, [Guam] always ends up creeping in.”

After retiring from BalletX in 2020, Quan quickly found success with her full-time choreography, where she continued to center her upbringing: Her 2020 film, Love Letter, is a tribute to Guam. Later, excerpts of the 17-minute film were interwoven with Quan’s own narration and interviews with family and friends to create Mahålang. The completed project delves into her recollections and feelings about home and was featured in this year’s Dance on Camera Festival at Lincoln Center, as well as last year’s CAAMFest and Asian American International Film Festival.

Two women stand in a grassy field with long blue skirts. They're both kicking their legs and throwing their arms, caught in semi-blurred motion. The light catches the sheer fabric of their skirts
Still from Love Letter. Left to right: Ashley Simpson, Francesca Forcella and Andrea Yorita. Taken by Elliot deBruyn, courtesy BalletX.

It was the creation of Love Letter that led Christine Cox, BalletX’s artistic and executive director, to realize that Quan had “not only a knack for choreography, but a knack for telling stories.”

“I think then I knew ‘Wow, she’s got a bright future,’” Cox says. 

After leaving Guam at 16 to train at Ballet Academy East in New York City, Quan danced with Richmond Ballet, North Carolina Dance Theatre (now called Charlotte Ballet) and First State Ballet Theatre before joining BalletX. At the company audition, Cox recalls Quan as “present and available and ready to soak up movement.” In Quan’s choreography, Cox still sees those same qualities.

“She just has a real distinct way of communicating to the audience that’s natural, authentic and people fall in love with her,” Cox says. “She puts you at ease, she makes you feel like you’re coming home, that you’re best friends—and that’s what great dancing and choreography can do.”

Quan stayed at BalletX for eight seasons. Her early experiences choreographing, sometimes for the company, overlapped with her time dancing, which allowed her to see how various choreographers’ creative processes differed. Now, she is able to choose what she found “most beneficial and fulfilling” as a dancer in her own process.

Quan left BalletX during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which companies like BalletX had to shift to Zoom rehearsals and filmed performances. “It’s been really rough as humans and as artists, and I think artists feed off of the environment,” she reflects. “I want to make dances that dancers love doing, because I know there’s a difference.”

As a choreographer, she particularly enjoys collaborating with dancers at different parts of their training and careers. 

“Every single stage of your life as an artist, you’re always working on something different or want something different,” Quan says.  

Since students are often working to develop their artistry, for example, Quan likes to challenge them to move and think about dance in new ways. She has returned to Ballet Academy East to create work, and has also choreographed for college students at Juilliard, UC Santa Barbara, Columbia University and Princeton University.

“I really wished I worked with more people at a young age who would widen my lens,” Quan says. “I think when you’re really young, you have this version of what you want and you don’t realize that the world is huge and your options as a dancer are endless.”

As for the future, Quan is now one of the 2022 Vail Dance Festival’s artists in residence, where she is creating a solo for fellow artist in residence Roman Mejia and collaborating with composer Caroline Shaw on a new work. She is also creating a new work for American Repertory Ballet’s June program, and recently choreographed for Oakland Ballet Company and premiered a new piece with BalletX. The company still feels like home, she says.

“A lot of the dancers now are friends that I grew up with and kind of developed as an artist with, and so it’s always special to work with people you really know, to make something new with people you feel very close to.”

Fun Facts

  • Guilty pleasure: “Listening to pop music from the ’90s.”
  • Favorite dance-bag snack: “I love Nature’s Bakery Fig Bars. There’s usually always one or two in my bag.”
  • Favorite nondance pastime: “I love cooking, especially Chamorro/Filipino food. My mom and sister both cook really well, so I’m always asking them for recipes.”