The outstanding achievements of 14 remarkable dance artists and organizations were recognized at the Hong Kong Dance Alliance 18th Hong Kong Dance Awards during a scintillating Gala Performance and Presentation Ceremony that was produced under the artistic direction of Mandy Petty to a sold-out house at Kwai Tsing Theatre in late April of this year. Among the many awards, perhaps those for outstanding performances by dancers are most cherished by the artists who are central to the art form. This year, the awards for Outstanding Performance by a Female Dancer and Outstanding Performance by a Male Dancer went to Tang Ya and Li Han, respectively for performances in the Hong Kong Dance Company production of L'Amour Immortel. In a rare occurrence, the polling for the Outstanding Performance by a Male Dancer resulted in a tie, and Shen Jie also received the award for his performance in the Hong Kong Ballet production of Romeo and Juliet. Zhu Yongxiao of dance journal/hk was able to sit down and talk with Tang and Li about receiving these prestigious awards.
L’Amour Immortel, Dancer: Tang Ya
攝影Photo Credit: Henry Wong
L’Amour Immortel, Dancer: (in white changshan) Li Han
The Soul of the Character
Both Tang Ya and Li Han have a Chinese dance background; Tang studied classical Chinese dance and Lin studied Chinese folk dance. The characters they portray in L'Amour Immortel are based on classical Chinese literature; the contours of their movements are elegant and refined. Nie Xiaoqian, the main character is self-assured and both loves and hates passionately. Tang recalled the character was played in the movie version by Joey Wong who gave her a soft-hearted quality, “For me, she is such a kind and good-hearted ghost”, Tang said. Li, who dances the character of Ning Caichen, added that he had repeatedly viewed the movie and observed the way Leslie Cheung depicted his role of the frail scholar. While using his observations as a reference, at the same time, Li asked himself how he could achieve a breakthrough in this iconic role.
How does a dancer create his or her characterization for a dance role? To many non-practitioners, it may seem quite difficult. Because thoughts are most often expressed and communicated through spoken language, without words, dancers must rely on the honesty of their bodies to serve as the vessels to convey their thoughts; while on stage, the naked soul is revealed under the theater lights. Tang explains that as a result of all the years she has been a dancer, she is used to communicating on stage without words. The difference between dance drama and dance is the dramatic element in the former, it requires extensive effort in sculpting the character. In rehearsals, Tang and Li were in different casts, with different partners with whom they created the nuanced movements and gestures expressive of the soul of their characters. Li said, “I would have a theme for each segment of the dance. The process [of creating my character] was similar to first forming the bone structure and gradually filling in the flesh [of the character]. It's a very difficult process.” On one occasion, he and his partner showed some material they had rehearsed to the director who commented “The movement is great, but it lacks soul.” Tang pointed out, “There is an expression we have: ‘without heart, it’s wasted.’” She continued, “I have to understand the character and let her grow inside my body then I can truly express her.” Tang specializes in depicting the soul of a character through dance, her outstanding performance gave life to this humane ghost. The citation for Tang’s award read, “Tang gave a superb display of Chinese Dance technique, illuminating the choreography with her plasticity, lyricism, and lightness. She vividly conveyed Nie Xiaoqian’s emotional journey as she evolved from the heartless ghost who sets out to seduce Ning Caichen to the fearless lover who sacrifices herself to save him.” Li concluded, “In this dance drama, there is a climactic moment that requires to be handled with great care.” The citation for his brilliant performance declared “Li’s heartfelt portrayal of Ning Caichen brings out both the comic and poignant aspects of the character, perfectly embodying his youth and innocence, his unfaltering love for Nie Xiaoqian, and his grief when she ends her existence. He dances throughout with glorious fluidity and innate elegance, combined with immaculate accuracy, strength, and control.”
A Ten Years of Dream and Dance
Tang and Li both grew up on the Mainland. Both graduated from Beijing Dance Academy and both came to Hong Kong by chance. Since then, Hong Kong has become the place where they have built their dreams and they are both now Hong Kong permanent residents. Looking back on their journey they agree it has been filled with hardship. When the Hong Kong Dance Awards announced nominations early this year, Li joked with his friends, “I hope I will not be like Leonardo DiCaprio (the American film actor with several unsuccessful Oscar nominations for best actor). Since he had also had several unsuccessful nominations before and because there were very strong nominees in this category, he was prepared for another miss. He was surprised to hear his name called out on stage for the award. He was so overjoyed the whole night and proudly told his family all about it, but was back to work as usual the next day. “Why am I so calm?” he said, “All these years, I ask myself, ‘What is it that supports my dream to dance?’ and I realize it has to be something deeper that cannot be destroyed by a single award.”
So, what is this deeper thing?
Years ago, the 12 year-old Lin felt emancipated from his highly disciplined family when he was allowed to study dance at boarding school. At first, he enjoyed the taste of freedom, but very soon, the difficulties he encountered and pains he suffered from the strenuous requirements of studying dance, shattered his illusions. “I woke up at 6am every morning, tied sandbags on my legs to do high kicks with no pause in between. It was really hard”, he said. He gained a short break at home during school holiday every year. On the last day of one holiday, he refused to go back to school, he wrapped himself in a blanket at home and did not move until noon. His mother spoke to him with words he has kept with him since that time, “If you have decided this path, persistence is the key for completion.” In the end, he chose to return and has stayed with dance to this day. Lin recalled the first two years in school, he was filled with struggles and entangled with thoughts of whether he had made the right choice and the anxieties of job opportunities after graduation and so on. Not until his third years in school did he realize he had fallen in love with dance. Perhaps the hardest training period was over or he suddenly found the meaning of dance. In sharing her similar experiences, Tang recalled, “The first two years were like digging the ground for the foundation, building a foundation is really hard and painful, sometimes, I became lazy. Eventually, I slowly fell in love with it.” Li remembered seeing a dance drama in Beijing based on Thunder and Rain, a well-known literary classic by Cao Yu. Even as a student he was amazed by the power of dance to communicate and express the emotions of the character being portrayed. “I finally understood that dance has soul.” This is the reason for his love of performance.
That moment of falling passionately in love with dance has resonated to the present. It has matured through learning experiences in Beijing, Hong Kong, and overseas. In 2016, when the award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Dancer was announced, Tang Ya walked up to the stage, received the award, and began her speech of acknowledgement choking back tears, “I’ve been in Hong Kong for eleven years, and for this award, I devoted eleven years of hardship.” Tang has carried on even with hip and other injuries from dancing, she is optimistic about it saying, “It is part of this profession.” Both, Tang and Li are dancers who have learned to coexist with pain. When asked about whether they would consider retiring, both replied, they would continue, dancing is a worthy career, and they will not think of stopping. Even if one day they leave the stage they would continue to engage in dance related work. As to when this might happen, their answers were surprisingly consistent - they will continue dancing until their bodies are no longer able to and injuries require them to stop.
Tang Ya in MSGM, Acne Studios, Venilla suite @ I.T
Li Han in LEWIS LEATHER, 5cm @ I.T
Photos provided by Hong Kong Dance Company
創意總監Creative Director: Yuman Ng@III-WORKSHOP
攝影Photo Credit: Devil Woo@III-WORKSHOP