The spirit of activism and liberation Peggy Choy expresses through her dance existed long before she started teaching at the University of Wisconsin — long before she was even born.

It existed in her great aunt, who escaped an abusive relationship on the back of a donkey. It existed in her grandfather, who fought the Japanese occupation of Korea as a member of an underground freedom movement. And it existed in her mother, who understood the issues facing indigenous Kanaka Maoli Hawaiians when she supported the Hawaiian independence movement.

As an associate dance professor, Choy has worked to expand how dance is taught at UW, on both an ethnic and cultural level, specializing in Korean and Japanese dance forms as well as Asian martial and vital energy arts.

“Through my dance I’m hoping to build bridges of interconnection through respect for this diversity,” Choy said.

As a result of her work in dance, Choy is one of six recipients of the UW Division of the Art’s Creative Arts Awards. Together, the six different awards offer a total of $84,000 in funding towards faculty, students and staff to pursue a broad range of creative arts work. Five of the awards are given annually, and one of them bi-annually.

The committee assigned with giving out the awards evaluated funding proposals on a variety of criteria, including creativity, innovation and planning. The most important criteria, however, were how the individual’s work affected the community and how it contributed to the art form, Mark Hetzler, a UW trombone professor who chaired the awards committee, said.

UW digital arts professor Stephen Hilyard won one of the awards for his proposal for a new video art and film project called “Rousseau’s Daughter,” which examines the French enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy and approach to child rearing.

Strangely enough, Hilyard said, Rousseau formed his theories  without any experience of raising children. In fact, the famed thinker fathered many illegitimate children whom he sent to an orphanage in France, where they almost certainly died.

“Rousseau’s Daughter” will focus not on one of Rousseau’s children, but on Penelope, the daughter of Sir Brooke Boothby, one of Rousseau’s friends. Boothby tried to raise Penelope according to Rousseau’s philosophy, but she died before the age of six.  

“I was interested in how somebody could write this book that was seen as being an authority, by pure thought alone, with no connection to empirical data or experience,” Hilyard said. “He felt he could think himself into being an expert, and I think that’s interesting because, to some degree, we do that all the time.”

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For this project, Hilyard will blend two similar yet distinct forms of creative expression: Film and art video. In the art world, art video is thought of as an installation similar to a painting. The screen’s size, shape and location have tremendous significance, Hilyard said. Yet unlike art video, film allows for narrative characters and a longer duration.  

Hilyard said he has found combining the two media to be rewarding because it increases the number of locations he is able to share his work. His previous project, “Katyusha,” whose subject was a Soviet-era ghost town the high arctic, started off as an art video project and ended up being a 30-minute experimental movie.

“You can persuade museums that this is a work of art and film festivals that it’s an experimental movie,” Hilyard said. “It expands the range of places you can share the work.”

While Hilyard’s project will focus on a man whose ideas are certainly embodied by Western philosophical tradition, many of the other awards went to individuals who expanded their work beyond Western culture.

For Choy, frustration with the dominance of Western culture in the dance world, as well as the gap between political and artistic expression at American academic institutions, led her to discover her political consciousness as an Asian American. During the 1980s she helped start the Pacific Asian Women’s Alliance, which pushed the university to create an Asian American Studies program.

“It was through the evolution of my political consciousness as an Asian American that my dance came together with my politics,” Choy said.

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Choy’s first dance production took on a strong historical and political tone, focusing on the Korean “picture brides” of the early 19th century, who came from Korea to Hawaii to marry men they had only seen in pictures.

Anna Siampani, a doctoral student from Greece and a recipient of the award, will use the award to help fund her research into influential Greek composer Manolis Kalomiri, considered by many to be the father of Greek national music. In his compositions, he drew from Greek mythology and folk tales, and was especially known for the way he gave his music an authentically Greek sound, Siampani said.

“He was trying to promote authentic Greek music outside of the borders of Greece,” Siampani said. “For me, it means a lot, especially with all the things that have happened in Greece. The economic crisis, and the depression. I think it’s very important to stay true to who I am.”

Human ecology professor Carolyn Kallenborn, who won one of the awards, believes art can be useful when it comes to bridging cultural divides between people. She thinks she won an award for her Day of the Dead inspired art installation, which borrowed from the Mexican Dia de Los Muertos festival, a celebration which honors and remembers deceased loved ones.

Day of the Dead is meaningful to her because the central themes behind the festival transcend cultural boundaries.

“What I really like about [Dia de Los Muertos] is that everybody has lost somebody and everybody is going to die,” Kallenborn said. “When you start talking about death, all of a sudden it becomes really universal.”

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For her art installation in Madison, people are making altar boxes for Day of the Dead, which are filled with photographs and other mementos of lost loved ones. In particular, she remembered one man tearing up because it meant so much for him to pass his culture onto his son. Dia de Los Muertos was meaningful to him back in Mexico, but in the U.S., he was having trouble passing on the celebration’s cultural significance to his seven-year-old. Because of the Kallenborn art installation, the father and son made an altar box honoring the boy’s grandmother.

Despite being thankful for the funding, many artists wish there was more funding available for their work.

“Generally, art funding in America is some of the worst in the developed world,” Hilyard said. “Smaller foundations and academic institutions fill that gap.”

The full list of awards and recipients can be found on the UW Madison Division of the Arts website.