Joseph Lee is a freelance dance artist born and raised in Hong Kong whose journey has had a different twist than most of ours. He holds a degree in Accounting from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and also an MA in Contemporary Dance from The Place, London Contemporary Dance School, UK. He came back to Hong Kong in early 2014 and worked as an intern at Unlock Dancing Plaza for a year. He now works freelance and is involved in different local and international projects, teaching as well as choreographing.
1. Joseph Lee Wai-neng
Photo Credit: Daphanie Wong and Ken Leung
It’s a question probably many would ask, why would someone who has a degree in accounting want to study contemporary dance. His answer is simple, “I want to take dance seriously and I want others to take me seriously.”
Lee started dance as a hobby. He was at HKCEE level and took part in an inter-house competition in his school followed by an interschool dance competition in modern dance for the first time. It was his first performance experience on stage with a proscenium arch. “It just felt absolutely amazing!” He continued dancing in the school’s dance team during the last two years of his secondary school education. In his final year of secondary school, he choreographed a piece and entered the interschool competition as a choreographer. Lee was awarded one of the outstanding choreographers’ award that year. One of the judges, Pewan Chow, Artistic Director of Passoverdance who knew Lee’s teacher, Cary Lee, at school suggested Joseph attend classes at Passoverdance. At the time, Passoverdance only had professional dance classes. Lee did not think much of it, only knew he wanted to dance and went along. And that was the beginning of Lee’s contemporary dance training. He trained for three years and it was Chow who suggested Lee go abroad to London to further his training. “I am grateful for her and Cary Lee, always.” Chow has been a significant influence on Lee’s further training and beyond.
The summer before Lee started his accounting degree was pivotal. Chow’s production of Homecoming influenced Lee immensely. It was a piece that was simple, pertinent yet piercing. “The dancers’ individualities were vivid on stage and it was not just about the technique, not about how many pirouettes you could do on stage...Then and there I thought, I want to create works that have the same impact!”
Another pivotal incident for Lee was the professional classes at Passoverdance, “there’s always a positive vibe in that studio, there’s no competitive energy amongst the group, but within themselves and everyone is bettering themselves at their pace and Chow will push us to our best abilities wherever our levels.” Lee says. “I feel Chow is my mentor, someone I can always go to.”
That year in London for Lee was an eye opener, a year that was critical to his career. Lee considered himself a very naïve dancer before London. In London, apart from the many likeminded friends he made, he also met one of his greatest friends, Tuan Ly. They have very different artistic visions and at times there were very heated discussions on the performances they watched and ideas they both had, but to Lee those back and forth was exactly what he had been looking for, a partner in crime for artistic conversation, inspiration, exchange, and fun. “The friendship and constant exchange with Tuan opened up countless possibilities for me artistically. We are hoping to work together in the near future, we are continuously looking for opportunities for us both.” Lee was very determined to go to London as soon as he graduated from his accounting course because he knew dance was a relatively young industry. Also, he wanted to focus solely on dance for a year, to work on his technique and his body. It was a luxury for him.
Lee came back to Hong Kong as he was offered a job opportunity with Passoverdance, which came at the perfect time as his visa in the UK was about to expire, so was the contract on his accommodation. Little did he know, the audition for Unlock Dancing Plaza’s internship was the day he arrived in Hong Kong. He arrived at 5pm and the audition was at 7pm. “It felt unreal, I could only call it fate.”
Dance to Lee is using the body to express, inspire, and connect. Chow never failed to inspire and motivate Lee. “I wanted to do the same, to share, connect with other people, dance artists or not, to inspire and be inspired.” One of the main reasons Lee chose to study accounting was to have a plan B, just in case. “I strongly believe the three years at university were not just about the knowledge, the people you meet are from all walks of life and in the university environment it was a common ground for all. The programme about dance on RTHK in September 2015 「自由起舞」 that I was part of, was an idea from one of my friends at the university. He is now a film director. I also wanted my parents to stop worrying about me before I told them I wanted to take dance seriously.”
Lee is grateful for a lot of the experienced dance artists and practitioners who have been very generous with their time and experience. These dance artists, practitioners, and managers are like lighthouses, pointing you to the right directions when you need it. “And of course you’ve got to put in the hard work and it depends on who you meet along the way.”
Lee is grateful for his families’ support. “I think their only worry was whether or not I could survive. I guess they observed my dedication throughout and I think a perk being the youngest in the family is that I could pursue my happiness.” Lee found his parents’ support invaluable because they have no clue about contemporary dance and yet support him fully.
Some would consider Hong Kong a cultural desert, Lee seems to agree. “I think it is due to this attitude of procrastination, a lack of sensitivity, imagination, critical thinking, and appreciation of life in general. But, I know our generation is working on it, it is changing evidently. The more struggles there are in life, the more humans realize the need of expression resulting in the birth of new art works. I look forward to these vast possibilities.”
Lee thinks it is important to be nice and open as he believes what goes around comes around! A recent inspiration for Lee is what Taiwanese dance artist, Chou Shu-yi notion that dance and life are intertwined. One informs the other. As most artworks reflect the social situation of the time. Or else, both become two separate entities that have no connection to anything or anyone.
Lee is looking forward to working with Emmanuelle Vo-Dinh along with other local artists on a West Kowloon Cultural District research and development project in Hong Kong and France in the following months. In addition, he is excited to work with Unlock Dancing Plaza again and his 30-minute solo piece at CCDC’s black box in September, 2016.
2. Joseph Lee Wai-neng
Photo Credit: Daphanie Wong and Ken Leung
Postscript I took a professional class with Lee on 16 February, 2016 at Passoverdance. It was as Lee said, a studio full of positive energy and curiosity. It felt great to be dancing amongst local dance artists and be challenged physically and mentally in a welcoming studio for two hours. Lee metamorphoses as soon as the music starts. His concentration, focus, and precision are palpable. It was captivating to see the multifaceted Lee in action. Keep your eyes peeled!