From Crisis Management in the Pandemic, to Planning New Dance Season Programmes: A Conversation with the Artistic Directors of Hong Kong’s three flagship dance companies
Original text: William Chan
Translator: Tiffany Wong
Rehearsal of Shan Shui: An Ode to Nature / Photo: Dicky (Photo provided by Hong Kong Dance Company)
During the past year, the continuing pandemic inevitably led to almost all dance productions being cancelled or postponed. Dance companies of all sizes were busy with crisis management. They tried to maintain a relationship with the dance audience through other means than performance, but this made artistic breakthroughs difficult. In planning the coming season, different companies have prepared in various ways to cope with this "new normal" and are determined to make more timely plans and focus on artistic exploration.
As the new local dance seasons begin, we invited the artistic directors of the three flagship dance companies: Hong Kong Ballet (HKB), Hong Kong Dance Company (HKDC) and City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC) to share their experiences from the past year and talk about the prospects for their new dance seasons.
Different challenges under the pandemic
Looking back at the biggest challenges faced by the company last year, HKB's Artistic Director Septime Webre immediately mentioned the issue of "space". As the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, the main rehearsal space used by HKB, was closed from early last year when the pandemic first broke out, the company was left with no space for classes and rehearsals. To tackle this problem, the company renovated two rooms in its Happy Valley office and converted them into two small rehearsal studios which company members could take turns in using for dance classes and rehearsals. They also rented six or seven different private dance studios to further meet the company's training needs. In order to make it easier for the dancers to practice and maintain their physical fitness at home, the company cut a large piece of dance flooring into small sections and distributed to the homes of over 40 dancers in February and March last year.
Although CCDC will soon move from Wong Tai Sin to a new location at the Tai Po Arts Centre this year, its dance centre is still operating as usual, at least for now, so space may not be a big problem for CCDC. The dance centre has always been a popular rehearsal venue for independent dancers and small-scale productions, but during the pandemic, the venue could not be lent out for rehearsals. The dance community thereby lost a place to gather and exchange ideas.
Hong Kong Dance Company’s Artistic Director Yang Yuntao says that the company is used to planning ahead, but the biggest challenge for the past year was that many productions could not be staged, so their plans were disrupted. It also made the company realize that the traditional planning and production process should not be taken for granted; when the usual mode of operation fails, it becomes necessary to introduce new ideas to cope with the different changes.
Rethinking “what is dance”
Even though everyone found it hard to accept and adapt to the closure of venues and the cancellation or postponement of performances, Yang said that this period had led to more communication and greater solidarity within the company. He noted that in the past, people were often so immersed in their work that they had little time to communicate with each other. When production was suspended, that gave them the opportunity to communicate and reflect upon themselves. “Training is for rehearsal, rehearsal is for performance, and performance is for connecting with the audience. It's all about operational needs, but is it ideal for the individual?” Yang mentioned that at first the company members had to stay at home and even when they returned to work, they had to rehearse in separate rooms. Although they complained that they were not used to this, gradually they came to understand that dance is not solely about working or performing, it is also about training.
Webre too agrees that the dancers have to adjust their goals when they cannot be on stage in front of the audience. For him, the goal of dance practice is not just to prepare for a public performance next week, but to train the body physically in the studio every day. The aim is therefore to return to the purest form of dancing and reflect on why we dance. In particular, since most members of HKB are from other parts of the world and were not able to go home during the pandemic, they had time to reflect upon why they had left their homes and moved to Hong Kong, what sacrifices did that entail? This reminded them of their original passion for dance. Nonetheless, the pandemic and the atmosphere in Hong Kong society as a whole had an inevitable impact on the dancers' physical and mental state. Although the dancers were still performing well in the studio, Webre noted that they were emotionally tense and clearly affected by the atmosphere surrounding them. For instance, these were among the reasons for principal dancer Li Jiabo’s decision to leave the company and return to his native Shanghai.
Talking about dancers leaving, CCDC’s artistic director, Yuri Ng, mentioned that some five members of the company had left for various personal reasons. He agreed that during the pandemic, there was more time and space to think and talk, examining why we dance and why we perform on stage and that it is natural for different people to have different views on dance. He supported the idea that each person had to follow their own path, so he made no deliberate attempt to convince members to stay. He emphasized that the company’s door is always open, and the most important thing is that each member of the team should feel that what they are doing is meaningful.
From right: Septime Webre (Artistic Director), Luis R. Torres (Ballet Master), turn(it)out festival: Ballet Classics for Children: Cinderella (Photo provided by Hong Kong Ballet)
Programming strategies for the new dance season
As a "newcomer" to CCDC, Ng chose not to include any of his own choreography in his first season, but to let the mid-career choreographers create work instead. Through extending this "honeymoon" period, he could get to know everyone in the CCDC family, build a working relationship with them based on mutual trust and see what new things could be added. As for the planning of the season programme, there were three options: A, B, and C. A: under ideal circumstances, to launch three major productions and tour overseas; B: to be flexible, show work online, and improve the filming of dance videos; C: to cooperate with different people, with the goal of nurturing artists (artists building), and seek to explore new ways of collaborating with different members of the company.
The Hong Kong Dance Company will soon start its 40th anniversary season. Yang, who has been artistic director since 2013, said that their programmes had been planned well in advance, and no major changes had been made in response to the pandemic, even if adjustments might have to be made, especially for productions involving overseas artists. Given the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, it was pointless to focus on it too much. His main role was to put forward his vision, but it was important to rely on the cooperation of colleagues in the administration department to prepare more backup plans and arrange work plans more flexibly.
Webre also admitted that he had encountered many difficulties in pla