Photo Credit: Tony Chan
Date: 11 July 2016
TB: Tom Brown @dance journal
CL: Cathy Lau @dance journal
JL: Justyne Li @Neo Dance HK
TB Tell me a bit about the mandala, and how you came about doing it.
JL First of all, the concept is to start from the center and decide how many partitions you want to make within the circle. For example, I chose to make five with this one (pointing to one of her drawings). So I start from the center and divide the whole circle with five parts and then just add on any elements, one element at a time. So for example, I make a cross, and then I make the same cross in other parts so with each element I add, I try to make the whole picture balanced and even with each partition. So the whole idea is to generate something from the center and make the whole picture balanced and adding on little bit by little bit going out. For example, (showing us on the drawing) a cross and the next the thing I wanted to make was this little circle, so (again pointing out places on the drawing) little circle, little circle. And the other important thing for me is not to plan the whole structure beforehand. So it’s just like playing a game or playing with a toy it’s a way to pass time in an enjoyable way. And let things just flow out. Let the information from the subconscious or from the universe just flow into the mind and come out through the pencil. Without any planning, the picture will plan little, by little, and it will be a nice surprise in the end.
TB The process that you describe, allowing it to come out almost on its own – from the subconscious or from some kind of ether – there was a trend in early 20th century art, Dadaism it’s called, that had something called automatic writing. And people would – it’s completely different but – one person would write something and then fold the paper over and the next person would write something, and fold it over until they had a whole phrase or a story sometimes. And one of the ideas behind that, and behind Dadaism was to allow things to come out from the subconscious, not from habit or from taste, or anything like that, but just from itself. It’s also the whole thing behind Cunningham’s work and the idea of chance. He would roll the dice, toss the dice and decide which one of the body parts would move, which direction it would move in, whether it would be partnered, which part of the stage it would happen in. He wanted to remove his own choices, he wanted to let the movement speak for itself. It’s like color field, in a way it’s a very modern idea, contemporary idea.
JL That’s interesting. That’s why with this mandala, when I just let things come in and without my own style, I found that everyone can be very different. I haven’t practiced for a long time – I haven’t practiced so much yet, so I don’t really have a fixed style for each one. It’s really nice that everyone is different. That is the reason I really want to make one. Particularly for this dance work, because I want to know how the energy from the whole process, and how the energy from the dance work or from my dancers, transfer to a drawing.
CL You mentioned one way of drawing this is making it balanced and equivalent. Is it the rule for drawing this, or is your own idea.
JL (Answer in Cantonese) This is not truth. As far as I know, the concept of drawing a mandala is “whatever happened inside a circle”. There will be two ways of drawing it – one is start from the center, then each part will be balanced and equal; another way is to fill up the space after framing a circle.
JL This one actually is the first one I drew without absolutely even partitions.
CL (Summarizing JL’s Cantonese response) Justyne mentioned there are two ways of drawing. The first way is what she is using, adapting – it starts from the center. The other way is frame a circle first and fill up the information of the inside.
JL Actually when I started this one, (pointing to one drawing) I started this one as well (pointing to another drawing), because I didn’t know whether to make it four or five for this.
CL Including herself is five; excluding herself is four. So why did you make it four instead of five?
JL (Answer in Cantonese) One day when I arrived the theater in early morning, and I drew this when I was at the restaurant unconsciously.
CL (Summarizing JL’s Cantonese response) She made it when she was in the theatre for rehearsal, and she had some free time when (Lam) Po was doing his tech rehearsal. And she started in the Café, and she made a start for no reason.
CL So was it that anything touched you, maybe you saw the dancers playing in the theater?
JL One of the reasons that made me divide it in four, is one image I use in my piece – (she shows us a photo of an image) – because I always use some image to explain to my dancers what is what - I have a little group on Facebook with my dancers. (Showing us a copy of M.C. Escher’s lithograph, Ascending and Descending) This is one of the pictures (shared with her dancers). One of the elements I use in my piece (is) that sometimes when they walk, their route (is) in a square. (Pointing to the Escher) And this is like a maze or like an illusion of a person having great difficulties trying to get out of one situation. It’s like the stairs are forever going up or forever going down and however you walk, you keep repeating the same difficult situation. So this is one element that flashed through my mind when I was drawing this and I thought, oh maybe I want to include this as well in the drawing, but in the end I didn’t. So I divided it into four, this is one of the reasons.
CL When did you start the center? You said you started the center and then you continued with other elements and you put other elements in during the rehearsal. How about the center, was it at the same time, in the café? You started the center and then planned it for a while and then came back?
JL This center was started even earlier, like two weeks before the show.
CL (Summarizing JL’s Cantonese response) It was two weeks before the show, she started the center and then you put it away.
JL Yes and did other things.
TB I heard you mention you had a little Facebook group with your dancers. Talk a little bit more about that. What did you include in that Facebook page?
JL Mainly, I uploaded the rehearsal videos on the Facebook group because I know my choreography tends to have a lot of details, and I had a feeling that, and some of the dancers had the feeling that they needed more time to study on their own or we (would) need more time in the rehearsal to get all the details. And I always use video to capture some useful things or to replay and explain what they did nice or not so nice. And for myself, when I work as a dancer, I also use the video to teach myself what to do. So I think, as a dancer to watch in the video what one was doing in the rehearsal is more useful than if I tell them what they should do. For example, Rex (Rex Cheng, one of the dancers in Li’s Human Internship for which the mandala was made), used a lot of time to study at home. He always watched the video to see what he could do better. It is like he discovered for himself what he could improve. I think this way is more efficient than me telling them all the time what ‘you’ should do here, here, here, here.
TB So you uploaded the video, did you also say anything about the video, was there a voiceover about what you were seeing, or just the video itself?
JL Just the video, mostly.
TB What else did you post on the Facebook page? You showed us the Escher drawing, aside from that what other things did the Facebook page include.
JL Well, mostly the videos, because I uploaded every time – after every rehearsal. And this stair and armour from Prague (showing another picture of armour) are some images or elements I put (on Facebook) to help them to understand the reason behind a certain part. So these two pictures are particularly for Yip’s (Chan Wing-yip, a dancer in Human Internship) part. This staircase is for his understanding of the blindness part, when Fang (Wu Cheng-fang, a dancer in Human Internship) was behind him and covering his eyes.
So that besides doing the movement and executing the idea, right here (pointing to the Escher lithograph) he has an actual understanding of why he is doing certain things and why this idea is put upon him. And this armour is also for his part. After his solo, there is one part when he (continuously) falls onto the floor. So this armour is the weight or the heaviness of the physical body, from maybe his past, maybe the emotion that like poison seeped into his body and his blood.
And this, the shadow (showing us Ron Pyatt’s drawing showing a dark monster-like figure approaching a man basking in the sun from behind used to illustrate Carl Gustav Jung’s pronouncement, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious”) is to explain the relationship between Rex and Alice (Alice Ma the fourth dancer in Human Internship).
I put this in the Facebook group, and they could spend time to check for themselves and understand more about everything.
TB Who drew these?
JL I don’t know. I Googled ‘Jung’ and ‘Shadow’ and a lot of pictures popped up.
TB And the Jung quote – (referring to another drawing Li has scrolled on her phone showing a tree with long roots and a snake coiled around it - a representation of the Kabbala Tree of Life?) illustrating another saying of Jung’s, “No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven. . .”)
JL This part was for Rex and Alice (the Pyatt drawing) and this part with Eve and the serpent (showing a drawing of the biblical Eve?) is for Fang. This twisted image (the tree with a snake coiled around it?) is for Fang and Yip - the mirror part. Just something to help them to get into the meaning behind.
Images provided by Justyne Li
TB I think it is very interesting that you used these diverse references to help your dancers. It’s something that Martha Graham often did and Doris Humphrey as well. Not just, say here’s a movement - do it, but bring things in to help them get at the movement. And not just pictures, but things like Jung. Graham of course used Freud a lot – her father was a psychiatrist. Humphrey had her dancers read Nietzsche to get at some of her ideas as well.
I’ve mentioned Graham and Humphrey, two women choreographers and in early modern dance there were actually more women choreographers than men.
TB Oh sure. Humphrey, Graham in the United States, Hanya Holm as well, Anna Sokolow, Pearl Lang. In Europe you had Mary Wigman and Marie Rambert. Nowadays it seems like there are more men choreographers – or it’s the men who are getting the attention a lot. There was Pina Bausch is of course. How is it to be a woman and a choreographer and especially because you’ve done it for some time now? When did you first start making dances, in University, right?
JL That’s interesting because about 15 years ago, I never wanted or never dreamed to be a choreographer.
TB Where were you 15 years ago?
JL In the Hong Kong Ballet.
TB And that was the first gig in Hong Kong Ballet or second gig? You first got hired by Hong Kong Ballet, or in Europe first?
JL Hong Kong Ballet.
TB So, soon after you graduated.
JL Yes. I never had a wish that I would be a choreographer some day 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. And it was actually an accident that I started choreography because I failed to join any company in Europe and came back to Hong Kong and had an extra year of study at the APA in modern dance stream and after that I still wanted to be in a company. I tried to audition for CCDC, but still failed. So, I just needed to continue as a freelance dance artist. And not so many people invited me to dance in their pieces, so if I didn’t make my own choreography, I wouldn’t have anything to dance.
TB You graduated from the Ballet stream, you went to the Hong Kong Ballet, you worked there for three years. Then you decided to go to Europe and get a job there. You didn’t get a job. . .
JL Well I got a job one time and stayed there for one year. But I didn’t want to stay there and turned down the contract extension. And I tried to find another job and couldn’t find any.
TB And so you took that opportunity and came back to the Academy and did a Professional Diploma in modern dance – and that was when I taught you. You took the choreographic project class. But even then you weren’t interested in becoming a choreographer, you were just exploring it. And after that you went and auditioned again at various places in Hong Kong and abroad. And ultimately you did get a couple jobs in Europe. . .
JL Well, that was many years after becoming a freelance choreographer. I was 29 when I went to Germany again. So, I was 25 when I graduated from the Professional Diploma. So four years.
TB So you kicked around in Hong Kong for four years doing stuff, making your own work. But you continued doing it. You said, you first got into it by accident and choreographed because you wanted to have something to dance but you continued. . .
JL Yes, maybe one reason was that I met my husband (Wong Tan-ki) at that time and he was in the same situation as me. So, we just talked and said, maybe we can do something together. And in the end it turned out that both of us were quite creative. 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.
JL Actually, I also see this in my dancers. That there is an important difference between those who tried to make a piece and those who never made a piece in the way they dance.
(Continues in Cantonese) I can see an obvious and fatal variance in the attitude between those who never choreograph and those who did, which make a difference in how they dance.
CL (Summarizing JL’s Cantonese response) She can see the purpose (of their movement) from those who have choreographic experience – the gesture, the position. But for those who don’t have any (choreographic) experience, she doesn’t see their purpose.
JL 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. 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 becomes much more believable, and easier for me to be able to do it.
CL Is it only Rex and Alice who have experience in choreography?
JL (Answer in Cantonese) Yes, Yip also did. Yet his experience is different since he possesses another dance background.
CL (Summarizing JL’s Cantonese response) She mentions that Rex and Alice have experience of choreography. Also Yip, but Yip comes from a totally different background.
TB Yes, Yip makes up steps. And Fang should have some choreographic background in terms of her education which is similar to yours. She did her undergraduate at (State University of New York at) Purchase.
JL Yes. We also talked about it. She said she tried it, but she didn’t really enjoy the stress of being a choreographer.
TB Whatever you did, I must say it’s the best I’ve ever seen her dance, in your piece.
JL Yes, she really enjoyed it.
TB So you have a process, and it’s part of the process you showed me on Facebook of introducing ideas from different media, and not just saying “do this movement like this”. We started this conversation about being a woman choreographer. How is it to be a woman and a choreographer. A lot of times you’re in charge of what’s going on and in this last piece, you were in charge of two men and two women (dancers) the lighting designer, the stage manager, and so forth to pull this piece together. How is that leadership role? How do you feel with that?
JL Well, this time I felt much more comfortable with this leadership position. But, in the past I struggled with it. Because, with my personality, I am not that kind of person that enjoys giving orders and having everyone listen to me. In some past experience I found that . . .
(Continues in Cantonese) You need to have a kind of majesty to handle the dancers. If you react to softly or “friendly”, they are not going to listen to you. As I aware this issue, this time I spent some effort to strike a balance between being my own personality and pretending to be dominant.
CL (Summarizing JL’s Cantonese response) In her past experience, she thought that people had to be aggressive or have strong energy to get people’s attention as a leader. But this time, she started to make some adjustments and balance – not playing the big boss, but as well not the small-voiced lady.
So what do you think about it – the balance? Is it because of the partners you worked with, so that you didn’t have to put in all the effort, making yourself bigger?
TB Let me interject here – sometimes people talk about leadership in terms of leading from in front, or leading from behind, or leading from amidst people. What you were talking about before, the aggressive, is could be leading from in front. But you said you’ve come up with a different one that works better for you now, which is not to be quite and lady-like, but also not to be loud and aggressive, is that right?
JL Let me explain again. 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.
This time I was more comfortable. Maybe one reason was that we really had time in this project to work out things, so the communication was much better. And maybe also the dancers themselves had nice attitudes.
Length of time of the whole project is something that I am really grateful for how it was organized. We had four and a half months to work through things. That 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. After two weeks, I had a feeling that for the four of them, I would provide different approaches. For Example, Yip, I wouldn’t ask him to copy exactly what I do because we are totally different body types. But he has his own background of movement coordination, which is very exciting for me to watch and to capture. But I can’t just take those hip-hop things to put into my piece. From this understanding of his own qualities, I can figure out what possibility he still has, but isn’t showing yet, what I should not waste time to try on him, or how to pull out something that I want but he doesn’t know how to do. So the length of this project gave me the time to explore all this, to understand my dancers and gave me an idea of how to communicate with each of them and bring out their strengths.
Leo Cheung, the lighting designer said that the relationship of the choreographer and the lighting designer is like a love relationship. I think it applies to the choreographer and dancers too. I don’t think there is one particular way for everything, but with that understanding and knowledge of movement, I can provide slightly different approach for everyone and pull out something deeper from each of them. I never took materials from the first weeks of rehearsal because it was just like the soil on top, and the germs are always deep under.
CL Is this kind of relationship, connection between you and the dancers - or you and the other team members, is it the best way or is it the most comfortable way you can think of? Of if you can think of any improvement you’d like to try?
JL I think the approach I had this time is very good, and I will try to keep this way of working in the future. I hope I can organize my future projects with something like four months of rehearsal – or even more. I think I am quite lucky this time. Because the four dancers I picked were really nice persons and were really supportive, really nice attitude, open to new ideas, and didn’t mind to try what they were not familiar with.
TB Do you think that was luck, or what? You had 30 people to choose from, and you chose those four. What drew you to those four in the two hours you had to choose them? And, did you know any of them ahead of time?
JL Not really.
TB So, what about them attracted you, as a choreographer?
JL 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. And, in the beginning, my idea was that I wanted my dancers to dance and talk at the same time. So, I gave a task of dancing and talking and in that task, I am looking for dancers who can coordinate these two actions at the same time. I remember, for me, Alice was the best and Yip was really good. Rex is pleasant to watch as well as Fang. Some others were nice as well, but some I can immediately see that they were maybe shy or not willing to do something more than just dance.
TB I was very glad to see you did not use vocalization in your piece. I hate it.
TB Yes, absolutely hate it because I think it’s a cop out.
JL What is that?
TB Cop out – what it says to me is “dance is not enough, let’s talk as well”. And you know at the Academy we have an Acting Department, and they spend four years learning how to talk on stage. And we have a Playwriting Department and they spend four years learning how to write things to say on stage. It’s presumptuous sometimes. Although, look at Poon (Poon Chun-ho, a dancer in two of the other works on the Springboard Showcase program), who did do that, which is a performance thing and he’s been able to transition into a movement career as well. However, we don’t have vocalization classes is the Dance School, whereas they do have movement classes in the Drama School.
I prefer to see people tackle movement ideas thoroughly.
JL Yes, I understand. I have the same feeling about using video projection. It’s like, when you cannot explain what you want to say with the dance and the movement itself, then you watch the screen for more information. But, I don’t reject it. If, one day, I want to put those two media together, then there must be a reason.
TB Yes, I don’t reject either. If there is a reason. And not just reiterating each other. It’s like when you make a dance, and you move to every piece of music the way the music moves. And that’s my one . . . unfortunately, when I see hip-hop, it’s like music visualization, it echoes the music exactly. Only rarely do you see it do something else. And I must say there was something recently on Facebook, a guy doing a wonderful hip-hop thing. I don’t know who posted it, maybe you (gesturing to Akama Kim) posted it.
Yes, I don’t reject it (spoken text/vocalization in dance) outright, but most of the time, it’s explanation, and mostly the dance is left to wither. It (dance) is like decoration or something, it’s not even essential.
JL Because dance is hard.
TB It’s so hard
JL It’s so difficult. Well, it’s not that hard. I think anyone can dance. But, I always see a lot of people dance with limited vocabulary. In different performances, and in different new work, always the same type of vocabulary or body language was used. I think there is a difference between dance technique and really expressing the body with the real heart. It takes time for the dancer to be able to transform pure technique into genuine expression. And it also takes time for the choreographer to find out ideas and ways to transform this.
TB Your observation is interesting, that most dancers you see on stage are doing the same thing. What I see on stage quite often is, the dancers have gone to the conservatory for however long – they’ve trained for ten years, fifteen years. They really can do anything. They can lift their leg high, do multiple turns, and jump. And they want to show that off. And often, when I go to see something, I’m bored to death, because it’s just this constant exploration of what you can do. It (choreography) is like “what can we do next?”, and “What trick can we do?” “How can we turn differently or jump bigger or contact each other more elaborately?” And that’s seems to be the end, it’s not a means to get to the end, but it’s the end itself. That display.
In your piece, however, there was quite a bit of repetition, there was quite a bit of focus. It was quite narrow in many ways. You started with some ideas. You explored those ideas throughout the piece, separately, with the individual, and then with the group as well. So it was quite focused. It was quite narrow. But it was also quite interesting. It did achieve the goal of transforming pure technique into genuine expression. And there weren’t any ‘steps’ in your piece. I don’t recall there being any steps; any vocabulary that I could actually say, I could expect to see that in a technique class. On the one hand, I know what you say, I rarely see that transformation of technique into genuine expression, because, for most choreographers I see, they’re just presenting, or reiterating, that pure technique. The stuff that they’ve learned in all those classes during the 10, 15 years that they’ve trained.
JL You make me think about an issue or question, I keep thinking about in the past ten years. I was wondering, when a piece looks good, is it because of nice choreography or is it because of the good dancers. In the beginning, I thought it’s mainly the nice choreography and it should be quite the same no matter who comes and dances it. And then, recently, in these few years, I found that it’s the other way. I found that no matter what the movement is, if the people who perform it do it with purpose and understanding, it transforms the movement magically to something different. That’s why, I think, the length of rehearsal time in this project is so important, because there is enough time for me to understand them, there is enough time for them to understand the concept, there is enough time for them feel comfortable to get into deep things and make them willing and comfortable to try something they couldn’t do.
At the beginning, Rex thought that he could never execute those movements, and he was quite worried about it. Because he thought my choreography was quite detailed. And then he just kept practicing. He was very hard-working. If I didn’t ask him to work in any particular part, he was just on the side practicing all the time. And with time and repetition I saw improvement little by little. Also, we have time in rehearsal, or in lunch, or in our group to discuss about thoughts behind (the work). Then, one day I asked him to watch Shutter Island, because his part is about – I call it “The Imprint of Brain Damage”.
(Continues her response in Cantonese) His difficulty is to act as a psycho, and he was so willing to take up this role. So I recommended him to watch this film, and I found that his moves changed when he started to watch the film.
CL (Summarizing JL’s Cantonese response) He danced kind of stably, but Justyne wanted him to dance like someone with mental illness. And so she recommended him to watch the movie. He didn’t’ watch it for a while until one day Justyne found that he danced differently. And she knew he’d watched the movie because he danced differently.
JL So, I think, a nice piece comes from the understanding of the one who is dancing it.
TB There is a famous poem (William Butler Yeats’s, Among School Children) that asks the question “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” And classical ballet is often about the dancer. Reviews of Swan Lake are often about the dancers and how they interpret the role. But for modern dance in particular there has been a focus on choreography because works are new. I recently saw one of your dancers in another piece, and it was unremarkable, and yet in your piece, this dancer was absolutely remarkable. So there are two pieces of choreography with the same dance but one piece had meaning, and the other piece, it was nothing. So, therefore, I can only say that it’s the choreography that matters.
But it’s more than that. Your big point is that you have to get to know the dancers if you’re going to make something meaningful. It’s very difficult to pick-up four people and even in six weeks come up with something meaningful. When you worked with companies before, how long did you have.
JL It’s hard to explain. It’s was not a stable schedule. We started early, and then had a few weeks off, because the company went off to do something else. But that production was a quadruple bill, four pieces shared the same dancers.
TB And this process that you’ve developed of using Facebook to communicate, and also having that length of time. Did you use that at that time?
TB And that’s something that I guess you probably developed working with Tan-ki, because I guess you talked with each other continuously about your ideas. You said you were both creative before, how do you mean creative?
JL Do you mean, using the Facebook group?
TB Using the Facebook group, but also saying “look at this picture”, or “did you read this book?”, or “did you see that movie?” And actually using them as tools. But I assume that in your relationship with Tan-ki – your creative relationship, your professional relationship – with Tan-ki, I assume that exchange goes on all the time.
JL Yes. Well, if it’s just me and him, there is no platform needed. No stable method to communicate ideas. We can do that anytime. Well maybe in the past, I was more shy. What I mean by shy is that I didn’t think I had any right to make my dancers work or think about my piece outside their rehearsal time. But maybe this time I tried to be less shy to see how people reacted. Even if maybe I’m wrong. I think I had more friendly people this time, maybe just that.
TB You’ve said you’re going to try that with the Hong Kong Ballet commission. You’ve already connected with your dancer there even though you’re going to have a three-week rehearsal period, you’re starting to work with him already in terms of exchanging ideas and this kind of information exchange?
JL I will try it like this. We haven’t really started yet, because they are still on vacation, and