Mel Wong, dancer-choreographer and painter whose Santa Cruz-based dance troupe performed its avant-garde works around the country, died July 17 of an apparent heart attack after collapsing at a swimming pool in Santa Cruz. He was 64.
Born and raised in Oakland, Wong began to dance in high school when he was involved in gymnastics and decided to add dance steps to his floor exercises. Soon he was studying with Raoul Pause, who directed the Oakland Civic Ballet. He continued his training with San Francisco Ballet and Pacific Ballet and with Ann Halprin while studying at San Francisco State U.
In 1976 he took a course at Merce Cunningham’s studio in New York and, to Wong’s surprise, was asked to join Cunningham’s company a few weeks later. He performed with the Merce Cunningham Dance Co. 1968-72 in the original casts of such works as “Canfield” and “Second Hand.”
He established the Mel Wong Dance Foundation in 1975, offering an eclectic mix of dance-theater pieces, biographical sketches and pure movement performed by a company of six UC Santa Cruz graduates. For the past 14 years he taught at UC Santa Cruz, where he was a tenured professor.
Wong had a master’s degree in visual arts from UCLA and was a painter and sculptor whose work was shown in galleries in California and New York.
He was the recipient of six National Endowments for the Arts and other foundation grants.
Most recently he toured performing his solo work “Growing up Asian-American in the ’50s,” about prejudice he faced. In the work, however, he added a dose of humor by incorporating his talent with yo-yos (at one point he was a regional yo-yo champ).
He is survived by his wife of 20 years, Connie Kreemer; three daughters; his mother; a brother; and others.
Donations can be made to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, 40 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York, NY 10023-7498.