The House of Dancing Water, launched five years ago in Macau, claimed to be the world's newest water show. Till now, there haven’t been any similar water performances in Hong Kong. However, Cyrus Hui's new choreography, CroSSing, for DanceArt’s Dialogue of Space Series, at Po Leung Kuk Pak Tam Chung Holiday Camp, Swimming Pool in September changed all that. Hui was interviewed in August and talked about the preparation and rehearsal process for the work.
Bureaucracy's Inability or Inaction
The idea of creating a performance in a swimming pool was inspired by a swimming pool empty of people. Hui thought such a huge empty space could be suitable for performance. Add the fact that the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), to the Cultural Department of which Hui had submitted a proposal, manage public swimming pools. Unfortunately, he did not receive a reply to his proposal. At first glance, the administration of his inquiry seems straightforward. But, in fact, two separate departments manage performance venues and land sport venues. Creating a performance in a swimming pool requires cross-departmental collaboration within LCSD, which to some degree, is very difficult in a bureaucratic system. Hui had almost given up his idea, when DanceArt’s Dialogue of Space Series supported the proposal. Through the possibility of presenting a performance in a swimming pool, Hui’s idea to discover new performance spaces and give meaning to abandoned spaces came to fruition.
According to the LCSD official website, there are a total of forty-three public swimming pools under its management. Among these, seventeen non-heated swimming pools are closed annually from November to March for maintenance. Heated swimming pools only close two months for annual maintenance. Which means non-heated swimming pools are practically abandoned during most of the maintenance period. Given that the production time for performances is roughly three to four months, hypothetically these non-heated swimming pools could be turned into performance spaces. They could provide the time and space for a choreographer and dancers to create work on-site fully during the vacancy period. Some existing fixtures such as seats in viewing stands could provide an innovative watching experience. If this hypothesis could be realized, it might be good news for the performing arts community.
To further expand this discussion of the possibility to transform land sport venues to performance venues, under LCSD management there are two iconic sport venues: the Hong Kong Coliseum and Queen Elizabeth Stadium. Despite having been built as Urban Council sport facilities that fulfill International standard indoor stadium criterion, and having hosted many International sporting events and competitions, both venues are better known for other uses, such as concerts by pop stars and the Top Ten Chinese Gold Songs Award Concerts. Whenever there is a concert, the stadium installs a stage. When there is a volleyball or Badminton competition, the stadium puts down a wooden floor or rubber mats accordingly. If such flexible arrangements can be applied to swimming pool facilities, they could double as performance venues as well.
In some other countries, many houses have swimming pools that are used for gatherings of all kinds. There are specialized companies that provide custom made flooring such as glass or vinyl tile to facilitate different uses of swimming pools. If this specialized technology could be introduced to Hong Kong, then the vacancy period for the seventeen non-heated swimming pools could be used for performance. This use can benefit the general community and the performing arts as well as maximize public resources.
即使沒有於水面上鋪上地板，外國亦有舞團早於多年前以泳池作舞蹈演出。2004年，美國的Headlong Dance Theater 於一個酒店泳池編創了作品《Hotel Pool》。由該團上載片段可見，舞者時在水裡舞動，時在池邊雙人舞，穿梭於水裡水外。舞者於池邊相擁，然後毫無顧慮地平躺跌入水中。除非罔顧舞者安全，此系列動作難於普通劇場實現。惟有藉著水的緩衝，方可安全地展現。同時，水花四濺本來便相當有視覺效果。翩娜包殊的《月滿》、雲門舞集的《水月》和香港舞蹈團近年的《風雲》等，亦有將水池融入舞台設計。然而，要在一般劇院呈現水花四濺之畫面，牽涉不少舞台技術，費用之龐大非小型舞團經費容易負擔。
In 2004, the American Headlong Dance Theater presented Hotel Pool in a hotel swimming pool even without any special flooring equipment. The online video excerpt shows a group of dancers dancing in a pool and a couple dancing by the poolside. The couple hugs and then the two dancers fall into the water without hesitation. This kind of effortless fall can only be achieved when there is something like water to break the dancers’ fall. Pina Bausch, Lin Hwa-min, and Yang Yuntao have used the spectacular effects of water splash screens in Full Moon, Moon Water, and Storm Clouds, respectively. In fact, these productions also integrate swimming pools into their stage set designs – albeit very shallow ones. A water splash screen involves extensive stage technology and can easily impose a huge financial burden on a small dance company.
Cold and Hot Rehearsal
In the end, the team of CroSSing received a disappointing response from LCSD, so they turned their focus to private swimming pools such as those at Schools, Club Houses, and Hotels. Eventually, they received only one positive response from Po Leung Kuk Pak Tam Chung Holiday Camp. Hui said, “The manager is great and open to new ideas, he told me ‘We’ve never tried something like this, Let’s try.’ I found his openness matched mine.” Although, occasionally the venue management and the Artistic team had some disagreements Hui said, “At least they were willing to listen and negotiate.”
Hui shared his experiences on the difficulties of rehearsing the water scene in his piece. Since CroSSing is conceived as a site-specific dance performance, it needs the location in order to rehearse Unfortunately, the rental fee is expensive and there is a minimum four-hour rental period so the team could only afford limited rehearsal. Therefore, they had to find an alternative and rehearse partial movement sequences in the studio. But once the dancers tried the movement in the water, they discovered the pressure from the water altered their movements and the way they moved. The only way to experiment was to go from the studio to a public swimming pool. One can imagine the dancers’ stretching out or sudden movements catching the lifeguard's attention and having the experiment stopped by the sound of his whistle. Whenever the team could rehearse in the venue, it was four hours of non-stop dancing under the hot sun. Hui recalled, “We all got a sunburn from rehearsal.”
Hui noted in recent years, his artistic attempts have been inclined toward narrative based choreography. At first, this seemed in opposition to the common approach of modern dance, which is non-narrative. In fact, his intention was an attempt to change the general perception that modern dance is hard to understand. For this work, Hui spent a lot of time on dialogue with the six dancers in order to draw material from the subjects directly, and this material was used as a sketch for the choreographic structure. Each dancer has a character, in some parts there are paragraphs of text dialogue, other parts use the language of the body to manifest the story. Hui explained, “The theme of "’borderline memory’ is ‘trapped’: each character is trapped in a certain memory; how they confront or escape from memory constitutes the different choices a performer takes in the dance. . . Memory is subjective and this subjectivity obscures part of the truth. In some of the scenes, two seemingly contradictory memories from two dancers collide, at this cross-junction they create another reality". Different parts of the swimming pool became different ‘trapped’ places for these characters. The icy cold swimming pool, the humid suffocating locker rooms, these are intense sets for the dance.
Professional Dancer's dilemma
After this interview, my impression of a work like CroSSing, which was created after nearly six-months of preparation, is different than that of the common site-specific dance performances produced locally by either LCSD or medium-sized dance companies. These others usually operate in a kind of ‘cut and paste’ format, whereby producers invite independent dance artists to create a few minutes of dance and then place them in the sites. Simply put, while audiences walk through the larger locale of the site they pass the fragmentary dance pieces that are happening in the same place - this is the complete performance experience. Irrespective of venue constraints or flexibility, the lack of a sense of totality of the site in this kind of programming cannot possibly provide a platform for in-depth work.
An invitation to do this kind of site-specific work poses a dilemma for dancers. Based on my observations, when independent dancers accept the invitation they are often in another production or in rehearsals during the same period. They can only spend one to two months to complete the dance or even give semi-improvised performances. The essence of site-specific dance, to use body movement to connect audiences to the environment and explore its possibilities, is neglected under these conditions. In retrospect, Hui commented that some of his past site-specific performances were failures. This self-deprecating assessment might apply to many other site-specific dance performances. The performance becomes a product of an assemble-line mentality. The dancer might even perform the same work at various sites. The audience may gradually form an impression that Dance Theater is more comprehensive than site-specific dance. Therefore, the former is worth spending money to buy a ticket for and the latter should only be free performance. The lack of box office income makes site-specific dance rely heavily on the meager funding support. This vicious cycle of producing and programming site-specific dance leads to deteriorating quality in artistic work and combined, these problem can cause creative gridlock.
At the end of the interview, Hui commented, "There are still a lot of places that could be used for performance in Hong Kong". Indeed, the question of whether performance space is adequate relates not only to the lack of land. It depends on open communication at the bureaucratic level and also the sincerity of each creation.