School of Theatre, Film & Television

What do martial arts, filmmaking, and the University of Arizona all have in common? The answer is Nolan Veneklasen, 2019 BFA Film & Television alumnus.

Born and raised in the Sonoran Desert of Tucson, Veneklasen is no “one-trick pony.”

“I am a filmmaker, music video director, and production sound mixer,” Veneklasen said. “My background is rooted in photography, music production, Chinese lion dance, and bringing artists together for multifaceted filmmaking collaboration.”

One of these things is not like the other. 

Yes, Veneklasen has a background in Chinese lion dance. In fact, he has been a part of the Tucson Chinese Lion Dance Troupe since he was five years old. 

“Chinese lion dance has been a major force and influence in my family and my life,” Veneklasen said. “It has been a portal to connecting my Chinese heritage as well as a mental and physical discipline.”

>> Five Plain View Fellows Will Capture Folklife “hidden in plain view”

Nolan Veneklasen
Photo by Thomas Veneklasen

“Over my 15+ years on the Tucson Chinese Lion Dance Troupe, I’ve noticed how more and more Chinese Americans and in particular, Chinese adoptees, connected to their cultural identity though the Lion Dance.”

Veneklasen’s sister is also a trained lion dancer and a Chinese adoptee.

Veneklasen explained that Chinese lion dance incorporates Kung Fu, acrobatics, Chinese history, and dance to create a story. 

“Unlike the Dragon Dance which features eight dancers with poles, the lion dance is a two-person costume that requires teamwork, trust and discipline,” Veneklasen explained. “I think the discipline and coordination that martial arts teaches is really embodied in the Chinese lion dance. You need to be able to trust your partner to lands the acrobatic stunts, but also be mentally strong to remember the routines!”

Veneklasen is among five nationally recognized artists and documentarians who are recipients of the Southwest Folklife Alliance’s Plain View Fellowship. 

“These documentarians and artist-researchers were selected from a competitive pool of applicants to carry out a project that elevates and illuminate a slice of folklife, culture, or heritage in the region that may otherwise be misunderstood, overlooked, or forgotten,” the Southwest Folklife Alliance said in the fellowship announcement. “The program takes its name from folklorist Mary Hufford’s notion that the study of folklife reveals beauty ‘hidden in plain view.’”

“When I had the opportunity to apply for the Plain View Fellowship Grant, I knew I had to document the troupe’s story,” Veneklasen said. 

Veneklasen hopes that his documentary can serve as a window into Chinese culture. 

“This year brought a surge of anti-Asian hate crimes in the USA,” Veneklasen explained. “Documenting the Tucson Chinese Lion Dance Troupe’s effect on Chinese culture and embracing your roots is something I think we can all learn from.”

The Tucson Chinese Cultural Center has had to close its doors for the past year due to the pandemic. Now more than ever, Veneklasen hopes to do his part in spreading the word of the center and celebrating the Chinese culture. 

“The cultural center always provided me a safe space to share culture, language, history, and a place to practice lion dance,” Veneklasen said. “Helping to preserving the lion dance in Tucson has become one of my goals. I hope this documentary inspires new students to get involved with the Chinese lion dance team and showcases why embracing your culture should always be celebrated.”

The Southwest Folklife Alliance Plain View Fellowship will allow Veneklasen the resources to carry out his research and production over the next several months. Veneklasen and the other recipients will also participate in monthly learning and support sessions to further their enrichment. 

“The Southwest Folklife Alliance is really such an amazing organization that is helping to preserve, share, and enrich cultural communities in the southwest,” Veneklasen said. “I am so excited to be collaborating with them.”

Veneklasen is no stranger to filmmaking. You may recognize some of his recent works with fellow alumni, “Retrograde Lemonade” with dancers JaVonte’ Marquez and Tia Newby and Fred Fox School of Music’s Edgar Ricaud’s mariachi video. 

“It’s been a great learning experience to promote, adapt, and truly collaborate with each artists different creation styles,” Veneklasen said. “It is just another reason why I’m proud to say I’m a part of Tucson’s art community!”

Veneklasen said any aspiring filmmaker should be ready for and open to a lot of collaboration. 

“Looking back at my four years at the University of Arizona I think one of the most influential things that I learned was how to take critical feedback and how to work with others,” Veneklasen said. “In a lot of cases a good director pulls together the ideas of the crew to make a concise and collective project. I hope to always continue to learn from others and be open to changing my perspective.”

As an artist, it is important to be well-rounded in all facets of your art. Veneklasen’s first student film gave him that chance to dip his toes into all sides of filmmaking. This opportunity sticks out as crucial to success in the post grad world.

“On my first student film I was slated to be the boom operator, with a more experienced senior as the sound department head. Within a week, I was promoted to the lead audio person on the film, without any real experience on set. Not only was I scared, but I was excited to take on such an important role for my first student film,” Veneklasen shared. “After that, I realized how important taking that leap of faith and stepping up to the plate was for me. That first student film was difficult, but it pushed me to learn things that I may have been too timid to ask.”