攝Photo Credit: Xavier Ng
One uses words the other uses steps - an art critic and a choreographer reflect and talk with each other. Art Critic Lo Wai-l Luk and choreographer Helen Lai, two titans of Hong Kong’s dance scene whose careers have grown alongside each other have been friends for more than three decades. In 2016, their outstanding achievements were acknowledged by Hong Kong Dance Awards with Lo Wai Luk awarded Outstanding Achievement in Service to Dance for his’s book In Search of Hong Kong Dance, and Helen Lai again receiving an Outstanding Choreography award, this time for Soledad (CCDC). Dance journal/hk was fortunate to have had Lo and Lai agree to meet for a conversation. From Nine Songs to the Soledad, they deconstructed the themes of Lai’s creations throughout the years. Reviewing their exchanges on arts and friendship, their conversation was reminiscent of their talk in 1990 in New York’s Mei Lai Wah Coffee House.
Dr. Lo Wai-luk at the Hong Kong Dance Awards
攝 Photo: Mark Lam
盧偉力（盧）Lo Wai-luk (Lo)
黎海寧（黎）Helen Lai (Lai)
Lo: I brought the book with me to get some ideas, but now it seems unnecessary.
Lai: It is your writing anyways. (Laugh)
Lo: An Author’s Referents on Aesthetics -- Helen Lai was also published in dance journal/hk. A reader might assume that the article took me a long time to complete. In fact, it was a written from memory during a trip to Thailand with my wife, in the hotel room.
Lai: That was the first article not based on a single work. Was Nine Songs the first of my works you critiqued? Was it also published in dance journal/hk?
Lo: No, it was published in Crossover Magazine (Editor's Note: Art Critique Magazine published from 1990 to1993, sponsored by Willy Tsao and edited at first by Wang Kai-nan and later by Zhang Hui.)
Lai: Aha! Hong Kong Dance Alliance was not established back then.
攝Photo Credit: Xavier Ng
Lo: That was an interesting article. The earlier pieces were dance critiques about you. The first one was Nine Songs. Before that, I saw Tan Dun’s version only, which was very oriental.
Lai: Really? Tan described it as very oriental.
盧：好像是90年的版本，在紐約看的， 我回來再看你的版本，有譚盾現場指揮擊打一些自製的樂器，然後再看林懷民的版本。到2000年，我再看你重演的版本。你的首演我只看過一次，也是第一次寫舞蹈評論，那時比較年輕，影像記憶比較強，當晚我看完後，一氣呵成九千字，再減至六千字。 最初知道你想做《九歌》是在一次紐約的傾談。當時應該是六四之後……
Lo: As I remember, it was the 1990 version and I saw it in New York. I saw yours when I came back. In that version, Tan directed the percussion ensemble himself and the ensemble performed with some self-made instruments. After that, I saw Lim Hwai-min’s version. I saw the re-run of your version in 2000. I only saw your premiere once and it was the first dance work I critiqued. I was young and had better visual memory. I wrote 9000 words right after the show and later trimmed it to 6000. I first learned that you wanted to try [to choreograph] Nine Song during our chat in New York. If my memory serves me right, it was after the June 4th incident.
Lai: On the night of June 3rd, I started my year-long break. When visiting Hong Kong, Tan Dun mentioned to me that he wanted to redo Nine Songs. So, while I was traveling, I took the chance to talk with him in New York.
盧：在你剛剛到紐約時，我們在曼克頓市中心相聚過，林懷民也在場，潘少輝也在那邊讀書。 我們無拘無束、無所不談，林懷民會否繼續做雲門都還未確定，而當時你要去中美編舞。我跟你在紐約長談了好幾次，其中在美麗華茶餐廳的那次特別難忘，你說你要幫香港芭蕾舞團編一隻舞，想要特別的題材。我建議你可以編一隻參考Pirandello（皮藍德婁）「戲中戲」結構的舞。然後我們還走去十二街Strand半價書店買了一本他的戲劇書。那次長談的時間可能比我們之後二十年所傾談的時間還多（笑），一談便五、六小時。由中午吃完涼瓜牛肉飯，然後蓮蓉包，還有咖啡，一直談，談盡香港，之後談藝術，再談人生 。只可惜當時的我們沒有經濟能力，要不然當時我們可能有更遠的探索。（笑）
Lo: When you arrived in New York, we met in mid- Manhattan. Lin Hwai-min was with us, and Pun Siu- fai was studying there too. We were free and interested in everything. Lin Hwai-min had not decided on continuing with Cloud Gate Dance Theater or not. You said you were going to Central America to choreograph a piece. I met and chatted with you in New York several times, yet the time in Mei Lai Wah Coffee House was particularly memorable. You said you wanted to choreograph a dance for the Hong Kong Ballet, with a special theme. I suggested you refer to Pirandello’s structure of “Play within the play”. After that, we even visited the discount book store, Strand, on 12th Street to buy a book on Drama about him. It was a lengthy talk; it might be longer than the sum of the time we’ve talked in the twenty years after that. We talked for five to six hours. For that lunch we had bitter melon and beef with rice, then lotus paste bun, and then coffee. We talked all along, about Hong Kong, art, and life. It was a pity we did not have strong financial ability back then. If we had, we might have explored further.
70年代末、80年代初，我們一班年輕人開始擁抱現代和當代藝術，所有東西我們都看，現代舞、戲劇、音樂 、中樂等 。 我覺得這種思想態度，是當代藝術的思想態度：了解傳統之後，體會時代的命題 。
Leaping from the 1970s to the 1980s, we youngsters started embracing contemporary and modern arts. We watched everything; modern dance, drama, music, Chinese music, etc. To me, that was the attitude of contemporary arts thinking. Understand the tradition, and experience the propositions of the era.
Looking back, 30 years later, I think you were exhausted at the time. That was not an exhaustion from artistic creation. It was an artist’s sensitivity towards the times. Because of the tension and resistance of the time, you were tired.
Lai: I agree. My tiredness came from taking the post of Artistic Director for CCDC from 1985. At the beginning, on rehearsing, I had quite a few ideas in mind. However, five years later I began to realize that Artistic Director was not a suitable role for me. I could not concentrate on it and felt its drag when rehearsing. I did not feel liberated when working as an Artistic Director. However, the restraints did not come from external forces. It came from inside.
Lo: Agree. Sensitive artists like you have a characteristic: you guys can sense the storm before it comes. That was why we felt lonely. Coincidentally, you, Lin Hwai-min, and Fredric Mao faced the same situation - before the June 4th incident occurred.
Lai: It was June 4th the night I left Hong Kong. My mom and I and a few cultural figures traveled to Eastern Europe together. After that, I stayed in Spain to study Spanish, and then traveled to Mexico, New York… The June 4th Incident was being mulled over when I left Hong Kong.
Lo: The June 4th incident meant a lot to our generation. Before, taking good care of our own business was enough. After the June 4th incident, we realized that we needed to contemplate the situation our people were facing. During that year, you decided to do your version of Nine Songs.
From my point of view, Nine Songs signified the beginning of your important narrative through the form of Modern Dance. This was very different from what you did in the 1980s. Nine Songs signaled the maturity of your thinking accumulated for more than a year. “Why are you doing Nine Songs?” At that time, I asked and you replied, “Now I have rested enough. I am making a requiem for the people.”
《九歌》(1991) 編舞：黎海寧。Nine Songs (1991) Choreographer: Helen Lai.
相片由城市當代舞蹈團提供。Photo provided by CCDC.
Lai: Did I say so? In fact, it was not my original idea to do Nine Songs; it was Tan Dun’s suggestion. He composed the music, yet [he thought] the first run was too urban. He wanted me to make another version. I did not work on the text of Nine Songs, but the music shook me. I was interested in the music he wrote, but it was not about reproducing the Nine Songs in history. I had my own interpretation of it. To illustrate, one section was called Guoshang (〈國殤〉, Remembrance of the National Martyrs). After listening to Tan Dun’s music, along with my feelings at that time, I decided to choreograph Nine Songs again.
Lo: It was profound. Nine Songs was the first work that showed me ‘dance could speak’. Before that, to me, dance was merely one of the art forms. The best works could drive me to write several thousand words, and Nine Songs was one of them. It is also the first dance work I critiqued. In the production, several performers lie on the floor and in one part they drew their shapes on the floor using chalk. A ground full of marks for the dead. After 30 years of rumination, I suddenly realizsd that the remembrance you made was not ‘to forget’, but to investigate, ‘We need to find out the truth’.
看過《九歌》之後，我沒有特別為了寫舞評而去看演出，卻幸運地遇上你的《春之祭》和《隱形城市》。對我而言，你的意義還要繼續開掘 ，有些作品須要經過幾十年的沉澱，以歷史的跨度分析， 為藝術家澄明、昇華。
After seeing Nine Songs, I did not see other works solely for the sake of writing critiques, but was lucky to have seen your Rite of Spring and Invisible Cities. To me, your meaning should continue to be explored. Some works must endure several decades of precipitation, be analyzed with historical span, in order to clarify and enhance its artist.
After Nine Songs, most of the works were accounts of the relations between the individuals, the group, the time, and the environment, like Revolutionary Pekinese Opera (Millennium Mix), The Comedy of K, Testimony, The Island Whispers, and even Soledad the award-winner of last year, their themes all spanned the individual level and the group level. No End was different, it contained personal elements. This work was about your mother.
Lai: No, HerStory was the choreography about my mother after she passed away in 2006.
Lo: HerStory was a work dedicated to your mother. However, to me, No End was also about her.
Lai: To be frank, I was feeling terribly confused when making No End. It was performed before I could think it through thoroughly.
盧：我很年輕就認識了你媽媽楊莉君。她是文化編輯，亦是很有品味的一個香港資深文化人。一生都在左派的圈子，在歷史洪流中受到一次又一次的心靈打擊。她給我的感覺是不斷感受世界，想把令她失落迷失的事擱置一旁， 但卻發現無法修補 。這是我看《永無休止》時的聯想。
Lo: I knew your mother Young Li-kwuan since I was young. She was a culture editor, a stylish lady, and an experienced cultural figure of Hong Kong. Spending her entire life in the Leftist circle, she experienced repeated spiritual impacts. From my impression, she never ceased to experience the world, and put aside those who confused and upset her. She realized that there was no mend. No End triggered such interpretation in me.
Lai: Recently, because of my work, I watched No End again. I realized that it was the most boring dance I have ever produced. (Laugh) However, that was how you felt about it. There were too many thoughts in my mind but I did not manage to comb them well before it was performed. I was badly confused, and the work became bitter.
Lo: However, I considered it merit worthy. It was a more personal work. I remember in many scenes in No End the light dimmed before the action were completed. This symbolized the cessation of connection before the detachment of emotional ties.
No End (2008), Choreographer: Helen Lai, Dancers: Lam Po and Noel Pong
相片由城市當代舞蹈團提供。Photo provided by CCDC.
另一個我覺得與其他作品命題不同的是《舞！舞？舞……》，這作品對於舞蹈語言的解構和探索已經很成熟。 作品在解構過程已經做到了詩意的解構（poetically deconstruct）。例如芭蕾舞杆變成街燈的設計，由一個人苦練芭蕾舞到孤獨地在街上等候，跳出一段很美麗的單人舞，是生命的舞蹈。這是我觀賞和評論你作品的樂趣。如果我這樣寫其他人的作品就會太肉麻了。（笑）
Very Dance was a work that I considered having a very different proposition to other works. In this work, the deconstruction and exploration of the dancing language had already reached a very mature level. The work achieved a poetical deconstruction in its process of deconstruction. One example was the design in which ballet barres were converted into street lamps. From the lonesome practice to the long lonely wait on the street, the scene was a beautiful solo, a dance of life. That was how I relish your works, through watching and commenting on them.
Lai: Very Dance was my last creation in CCDC. I wanted to present this to all the dancers before I retired. Of course, I did not tell them directly
Lo: This good intention was obvious. It could be seen from its premiere.
Lai: But would you find it heavy? I thought the content was mostly hilarious and wild.
Lo: To critique a work, I write about what I see. I don’t like to base it upon knowledge of dance history. My instinct has been proven correct. After Nine Songs you tended to discuss the relationship between individuals and groups, the crowd and their time. Very Dance was your the last work when you worked in at CCDC, so it was dedicated to all the dancers. It answered your psychological and spiritual needs.
Very Dance (2009), Choreographer: Helen Lai, Dancer: Jennifer Mok
相片由城市當代舞蹈團提供。Photo provided by CCDC.
I think young artists are now inheriting topics you engaged with for years. Compared to the same generation, you presented the present Hong Kong with high sensitivity, for example, The Island Whispers clearly displayed Hong Kong’s situation... I remember, several years ago when you just retired, we had a phone conversation…
Lai: At the time, I said I wanted to write plays, but I have not started yet.
Lo: I did not prepare for the conversation today. However, the discussion we have had today seems good. To analyze Nine Songs, and No End and Very Dance, the two works that were different from others ,using a perspective of deconstruction, could be another topic for writing. Let’s talk about something else. What do you think about my critiques about you?
Lai: One thing is for sure, I will always read your articles.
Lo: That is my honor, I will try to write more. (Laugh) Articles about you are easy to write, because they are conversations between friends. The best way for us to work together is to build up some thoughts through conversation, like that time in Mei Lai Wah. Your accomplishments have already placed you at the height of achievement. If you could manifest lighting that would be more than a leap; it would be a breakthrough. But you may ask “What will be Helen Lai’s next achievement?”, I would say, it depends on what’s inside of Helen Lai. Perhaps we must put away all our established knowledge and appreciation of Helen Lai, look at her work again from the beginning to get an insight.
Lai: Great, I am looking forward. Please do it , for my sake.