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 planning the coming season, but he remained optimistic about the future. In the first half of the year, he had planned some shows for HKB that could be easily moved to the internet, so that he could respond quickly in case the venues were closed again; in the second half of the year, he was proposing large-scale productions, hoping to attract larger audiences back to the theatre. As for more experimental programmes, they would be scheduled in the later part of the season.
The new normal of dance in the future
In terms of online communication and video distribution, which are becoming more and more popular under the new normal, Webre said that he had got used to enjoying dance on a small screen, and was especially happy to see artists from all over the world being creative and exploring the different possibilities of online media to maintain a relationship with the audience. However, he believed that dance still had to be experienced live in the theatre, and that the direct communication between dancers and audiences could not be replaced by video.
During this time, Ng explored with CCDC the interaction between video and dance, as if the original dance piece was to be presented on stage and a video director was brought in from outside to shoot it. These experiences have taught him that there is a big difference between video directing and on stage choreography in terms of how the work is presented and how the concept of space is viewed. He hoped that a bridge can be built in the future to create opportunities for these two types of artists, choreographers and video directors, to share aesthetics, learn, communicate and practice, so that they can eventually appreciate each other and draw from each other. Otherwise all dance productions will always end up with two different versions: the choreographer's and the video director's, and it will be difficult to bring new perspectives to dance video.
Yang said frankly that he didn’t like watching performances online, but he is open to different forms of dance expression. There is no denying that online performances can break through geographical and spatial limitations and spread faster and more widely. A performance in the theatre may only reach a few thousand spectators at most, but the internet offers the opportunity to reach millions of people worldwide. So even though he is still learning and reflecting on online performances, he emphasizes that we must be open to new things today. For example, the choreographer, who is from mainland China, was unable to come to Hong Kong for the rehearsals of the company's recent live production of The Moon Opera due to the pandemic. Instead, she had to rely on Zoom to provide remote coaching. She was not in the theatre on the opening night and had to witness the completion of the work in another way.
When it comes to overseas guest artists, Webre mentioned that last year, when the pandemic first started, not many people were willing to undergo quarantine to take up work abroad. However, with quarantine periods of 14 – 21 days becoming the new norm for global travel, more and more freelance artists are willing to undergo this in order to work abroad. Some artists who came to Hong Kong last October to work on productions went through quarantine; new dancers hired from overseas have also done so. This year, for the first time, HKB will use Zoom to audition new dancers online.
A new season of eye-catching productions
Finally, we invited the three artistic directors to select and recommend “not to be missed” productions by their companies in the upcoming season.
For Webre, at HKB there is Balanchine's classic Jewels, which he considers to be the first full-length abstract ballet, a masterpiece of modern ballet premiered in its full-length form in 1967. Each of the work’s three acts has its own characteristics and allow the audience to experience different styles of ballet. He also said that this production is a challenge for HKB in terms of scale, and he hopes that this will push the team to go further.
Ng said he was also looking forward to the performance of Jewels and that he felt Helen Lai's classic Nine Songs would be very suitable for HKDC to perform. Turning to CCDC, he recommended the upcoming performance of Days are Numbered in April. This work brings together three choreographers from different generations: Justyne Li, Jennifer Mok and Bruce Wong. CCDC provides a safe and happy environment where these three artists have the freedom to develop new works with the dancers.
Yang also felt that there were many works to look out for in the coming season, but would like to talk about his own creation for the season opening – Shan Shui: An Ode To Nature. He believed that HKDC has had many different artistic directors in the past who have led the company in different directions; now he wants to bring in more of his own artistic vision. After all, Chinese dance is a very broad concept which offers many aspects to explore. In this case his idea is to use Chinese landscape (“shanshui”) paintings as a theme to reflect upon traditional culture: what is the East? And what is China? He will provide a bold experimental response through this new dance creation.
William Chan is a veteran arts critic and media producer. He has been engaged mainly in performing arts research and media education in recent years.
楊雲濤（香港舞蹈團藝術總監）（左）、伍宇烈（城市當代舞蹈團藝術總監）（中）、衛承天（香港芭蕾舞團藝術總監）（右） Yang Yuntao (Artistic Director of the Hong Kong Dance Company) (left), Yuri Ng (Artistic Director of the City Contemporary Dance Comapny) (middle), Septime Webre (Artistic Director of the Hong Kong Ballet) (right)／攝 Photo: dance journal/hk Editorial Team 《舞蹈手札》編輯部