Portland Playhouse A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens Portland Oregon

The sound of dance across borders

Joe Kye’s new single "The Way Out" brings dance, Zoom, and social justice together to address the border crisis.


It all started last Spring in a Zoom meeting. Joe Kye, a Portland violinist and vocalist, listened with perked ears as high school student Diego Garita described his vision of creating a dance piece that would tell the story of the current crisis at the United States-Mexico border. 

“I knew immediately I wanted to work with him,” recalls Kye. 

Composer, violinist, and vocalist Joe Kye. Photo: Jason Sinn

The two were on the Zoom call as a part of a program run by New York City’s Young Dancemakers Company, an organization that pairs professional composers like Kye with high school students in New York to collaborate and produce original dance pieces. In the past, only composers based in New York participated, but with the pandemic Kye was able to join from across the country. 

Nearly one year later, on March 19, 2021, Kye released The Way Out, the audio single created for the collaborative project, along with a digital media package featuring Garita’s original dance piece, Los Delores de la Raza, performed on Zoom. It can be purchased as a donation to Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), Oregon’s largest Latinx organization and original farmworkers’ union.

Kye’s enthusiasm to work with Garita was due in part to their shared experiences as immigrants. Kye was born in Korea, and his songs frequently include themes of migration and belonging, so he connected when Garita spoke about being a Mexican immigrant.

“We’ve had to deal with being apart from our parents not just at a minor distance, (but at) a long distance and one that is compounded by immigration and visas and all of the paperwork necessary to travel from one location to another.”

Though not to the same extreme degree as what is happening at the U.S.-Mexico border, family separation played a big part in both Kye and Garita’s upbringing. In their collaboration, Garita developed his dance piece inspired by the border crisis, and Kye created an audio piece to highlight the story Garita was trying to tell about the border. 

Kye, known for his unusual use of looping tracks made from his violin, creates a complex, layered audio landscape using audio samples from an array of sources. From the slamming of jail cell doors at the piece’s start to audio taken from cell phone footage of last year’s protests in response to the killing of George Floyd, Kye adds to the intensity of Garita’s choreography while adding social and historical context.

Dancemaker Diego Garita: crossing borders.

While performance artists have found producing content in COVID times difficult, Garita cleverly leans into Zoom’s paneled format, so dancers appear to move in and out of each other’s individual squares despite their physical separation. The choreography is raw and emotionally compelling, telling the story of a moment of great injustice and chaos in our country’s history, the protests that followed, and a future pointed toward empowerment, unity and purpose.

The Way Out’s album art, created by visual artist Molly Mendoza, takes the components of this multifaceted piece and synthesizes it into a richly colored and layered visual element that captures one of the most arresting moments in the piece, in which dancers place their hands across their mouths, symbolizing silence and indifference.  

Molly Mendoza’s album art for “The Way Out.”

With the release of the single and media package, Kye hopes to bring attention to the continued injustices happening at the border while contributing to help the Latinx community. 

“We’re in this mess. And we’re in this mess together whether we recognize it or not— and now we have to ask, ‘What is the way out?’”

  • To watch The Way Out, along with behind-the-scenes bonuses, visit http://www.joekye.com/thewayout
  • All purchases will be donated to Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), Oregon’s largest Latinx organization and original farmworker’s union. You can listen to the audio free on any platform that streams music by looking up “Joe Kye.”
  • Watch excerpts from the project’s Zoom premiere and listen to Joe Kye and Diego Garita discuss their collaboration on Joe Kye’s series CupOJoe, streaming at 10 a.m. Saturday, March 27, on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitch.
  • Listen to a recent podcast at The Immigrant Story that recounts Joe Kye’s compelling life story immigrating from South Korea, growing up in poverty, getting an Ivy League degree, and the weighted decision to pursue a career in music.

Monica Salazar is a writer and journalist interested in amplifying stories from immigrant and marginalized communities. For the past two years she has volunteered for the Portland based nonprofit The Immigrant Story, and is working as writer and producer for its podcast, Many Roads to Here.

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