1. Li performing in Galetea X. Photo Credit: Tony Chan
A year ago, Justyne Li thought she might stop dancing and find something else to do with her life. She explains, “I was in a bad condition physically and emotionally last year. Wasn’t able to dance or make choreography or do anything”. She attended workshops, had human design readings, and learned how to draw mandalas. I caught a glimpse of this last skill in an intricate sketch in her notebook during technical rehearsals for Hong Kong Dance Alliance Springboard Showcase in June.
Making radical shifts is nothing new for Li. Like a lot of young girls, she aspired to be a dancer in a ballet company. Unlike most, she had the drive, talent, and worked hard to make it happen. In 1999, when she graduated from the Ballet Stream of the School of Dance at Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (APA) she was offered a coveted contract with Hong Kong Ballet. After three years in the corps de ballet, however, she decided it wasn’t enough. Determined to look elsewhere, she went to Europe, auditioned, and got into Tanz Graz (Austria). After a year there, when offered a contract renewal, she declined. Wanting to be a more versatile dancer, she returned to Hong Kong for further study at the APA; this time in modern dance and choreography.
2. Li’s mandala for her new work Human Internship. Photo provided by Justyne Li
She calls the next episode of her life, the lost years. In 2004, when she again graduated, she auditioned for Hong Kong’s flagship modern dance company, City Contemporary Dance Company, but didn’t get a job. Instead, she became a freelancer. Like many APA graduates, she danced for choreographers in ‘pick-up companies’, so called because choreographers ‘pick-up’ the dancers just to work for one concert, rehearsing anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. The rehearsals are often erratic; many times the choreographer works separately with different dancers to accommodate their varied schedules of dancing in other pick-ups or teaching. The results are mixed. When the concert is over, the company is disbanded. It can be a very unsatisfying experience.
3. Chan Wing-yip (left) and Wu Cheng-fang (right) in Human Internship. Photo: Tony Luk
She remarks, “Not so many people invited me to dance in their pieces, so if I didn’t make my own choreography, I wouldn’t have had anything to dance . . . I never had a wish to be a choreographer when I was at the APA. I just wanted to dance. And I just wanted to be a good dancer and enjoy what I was doing as a dancer.” She explains why she continued choreographing, “Maybe one reason was that I met my husband (Wong Tan-ki) at that time and he was in the same situation as me . . . And we found out that it was just our natures to create something. This accident of losing jobs from companies and meeting him also gave me signs about what I really am. I think it helped me to develop in a way that it is impossible to do in a company.” In 2006 they choreographed Studio Storm, their first work together.
She talks about her early efforts, “When I first started making choreography, I think I was also lost for many years. I didn’t really consciously know what contemporary dance was and what ‘good’ contemporary dance was. I was lost because I heard how people around me explained the difference between ballet dancers and modern dancers. When I watched people doing modern dance, I didn’t know what was going on. I got a feeling that if your body is more soft and you make the technique a bit more irregular then it’s modern dance. I was lost.”
4. Rex Cheng (left) and Alice Ma (right) in Human Internship. Photo: Wong Tan-ki
In 2008, she was back in Europe dancing with Ballett Bremerhaven (Germany). With regular employment again, dancing in a professional company, Li noticed something she hadn’t realized before. She remarks, “There is an important difference between those who have tried to make a piece and those who have never made a piece in the way they dance . . . Instinctually, they make whatever they dance believable, and I had this feeling when I went back to Germany and was a company dancer again after so many years of freelancing choreography. . . I feel that when I dance, I carry an energy that was different than before when I was in the Hong Kong Ballet. This energy, I also see from company dancers that sometimes I feel that they just execute, but something important is missing behind the nice body, and the long legs, and maybe perfect technique. I felt quite lucky when I was in Germany. If I didn’t have those four lost years, then maybe I wouldn’t even have gotten the job in Germany and wouldn’t have enjoyed dancing so much. One thing was that when I was dancing for another person’s piece I had the mentality to understand the choreography in his position. This is an even more direct communication, this understanding, than any coaching. When I knew what it is like to make a choreography, and I danced it as if I choreographed it, then the dancing became much more believable, and easier for me to be able to do it.”
With this new insight, she returned to Hong Kong in 2010 and began again to choreograph with Wong. Their efforts paid off and in 2011 they were recipients of the Hong Kong Dance Award for Outstanding Independent Dance Production for their work Galatea and Pygmalion. In 2014, they received their second and third Hong Kong Dance Awards, this time for Outstanding Choreography for Galetea X and for Outstanding Performance by a Female Dancer for Li for her performance in the dance.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing; there were problems along the way. She comments, “Actually, in the past I didn’t really have many chances to work with a group. Because some of the works were just me and Tan-ki and we danced them. I had some problem in one experience when I was making a piece. I don’t know if the problem was the rush of time or they thought we were too young to be there. In some rehearsals, a few of the dancers were not so respectful of us, no matter what we were trying to do. For example, I tried to give a particular movement and the dancers didn’t like it, and I felt that I was not qualified to be there to give them movement or tell them what to do. Me and Tan-ki talked about it, and we found that we were being too nice. Sometimes it’s like this in Chinese society. In your attitude you need to be strong. And I was not good with this.”
Despite that, Li persisted and was given one of two slots in the Alliance’s 2015/16 Creative Space: Residency for Mid-Career Choreographers where choreographers select dancers and work with them regularly over a four-and-a-half-month period to create new work. Rehearsal space is provided by CCDC Dance Center and funding from a Hong Kong Arts Development Council grant provides a nominal stipend to dancers and choreographers. 30 or so dancers auditioned; she selected four and Lam Po, the other project choreographer, selected three. The audition had three parts: a series of set movement phrases, an improvisation section, and dancers showed a prepared solo that included vocalization. Li recalls, “First of all, I think that the improvisation section was really important. Because, in set movement, I see that everyone who has good technique can do those movements. There is not much difference. But in an improvisation exercise, besides the movement – the body shape and the technique, I also see their personality. I can also see if they have guts, if they are open to something they are not familiar with. I can also see if they have curiosity in the given task. I can also see if they are aggressive enough to be watched, and show who they are. So in this improvisation exercise, I am looking for a more mature mentality from the dancers.”
Li and dancers in the final rehearsal for the Human Internship.
From left: Chan Wing-yip, Wu Cheng-fang, Alice Ma, Rex Cheng, Justyne Li Photo: Wong Tan-ki
Of the experience Li says, “(It) gave me time in the beginning to get to know my dancers. To do different tasks including movement tasks that ask them to choreograph set movement or improvisation just to play games and see how they react. So I have enough time to get to observe them and know about their body types, their movement patterns, their thinking patterns, what they like or don’t like, and we even talked quite a lot to understand each other’s background or stories.”
The time also allowed for Li and the dancers to establish a sense of mutual trust, so that they could let the work evolve. She says, “I can see with the process that they improved and they transformed a lot. This process also transformed me . . . And with the process of this project, I came to a conclusion that this is just what I am good at. It’s like the universe chose me to be in this place doing this.” She also continues to draw mandalas - another expression of creativity of which she says, “Quite magically, almost without effort, ideas come out from my pencil whenever I sit down and start drawing.”