Leaving & Living, Choreographer: Noel Pong, Dancers (Left to right): Bruce Wong, Malvina Tam, Natalie Mak, Tseky Tse, Lee Ka-ki; Photo: Dominic Wong
The production She Says, He Talks by CCDC brought the curtain down on the company’s 2016 season. Intentionally or otherwise, the title provocatively directs focus to the distinctness of two synonyms for communication – ‘says’ and ‘talks’, which is very different than had it been titled ‘They Speak’, for example. This alternative would have encompassed both choreographers and freed the audience from any preconceptions of gender bias. We can assume, therefore, it was intended to be as such. The double-bill of Leaving & Living by Noel Pong and Mother, I am Sorry by Anh Ngoc Nguyen drew from very different inspirations, but as with all choreographers, the primary aim was to realize a vision, to take the audience on a journey and to communicate through art. The significance of the title and its subtext, referred possibly to how differently women and men communicate and in this context, how male and female choreographers choose to present their ideas. The best-selling book by John Cray, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, leapt to mind. Adhering to Gray’s psychological and philosophical take on gender and relationships, one would expect the female choreographer, Noel Pong, to speak with innuendo, layered meanings, and prose while the male choreographer, Anh to be more simple, direct, and use less subtext … but things do not always turn out as expected.
Opening the night with pounding and pulsating energy, Leaving & Living drew inspiration from relationships in life, of coming together and of parting, of community, and of loneliness. The set design by Charfi Hung created a central community square-like space downstage bordered by sloping geometrical walls that defined various living spaces with a doorway between them. The walls provided a canvas for the projection of Wing Lo’s video and adding to the ambience and texture of the production was the superb sound design by Ha Yan-pui. When lit from the rear, the walls became a transparent sheath that allowed audiences to gaze, as if voyeuristically, beyond its closed doors. Pong stayed true to her choice of conventional contemporary dance vocabulary and the introductory dynamics set the tone for the entire work. Leaving & Living showcased the very well-rehearsed company that were in sync for most of the time in this physically demanding work through an extremely intricate, pulsating series of duets, trios, and ensemble sequences. When the Overture ended, it allowed the audience to breathe – but all too briefly.
The next sequence "Behind Closed Doors” showed a sofa upon which Pong created a playful series of duets and trios of innocent child-like pulling, pushing, climbing, hiding, and jumping movements. Unfortunately, the dancers did not look completely comfortable in this section with the exchanges appearing somewhat contrived and lacking the spontaneity that was crucial to make them believable. There were several times during Leaving & Living when a dancer paused at the door, as if on the threshold between public and private spaces, between the present, past, or future that were potentially powerful and held much promise. They communicated moments of reflection, when memories come flooding in or when choices are to be made, however, they were never fully developed. Pong could also have explored a greater dynamic range to further convey the gamut of emotions of our lives rather than rely heavily on the performers facial expressions. Using limited tools, she was not able to transcend the resulting superficiality of the performance or perhaps that was her intention.
The pain, pathos, and exhilaration of Leaving & Living may have touched and engaged audiences more profoundly with movement invention of subtler nuance and deeper exploration and with just a few moments of quietness to reflect upon the peace for which human beings desperately search.
Mother, I am Sorry was inspired by text from a film by the group Conservation International entitled Nature is Speaking that Anh adapted and used in the dance. With the company’s principal dancer Qiao Yang as Mother Earth and Kelvin Mak as Man, the relationship between a mother and her child is used as a metaphor for the Earth and her inhabitants. The dance is a visualization of the destruction of the Earth, the chaos and rupture of humanity brought about by humankind’s greed, ambition, and selfishness. Superbly cast, the set and lighting designs could have easily overwhelmed the dancers had their dancing not had the conviction to powerfully narrate humanity waging war against itself and the earth. The elements of water, wind, the forest, and land, were translated in the design of simple costumes by Edmund Wong, with Mother Earth in a peach-colored dress. This skirt’s open front might signify that all human beings are born of woman. These ideas underlie the design with daring, unconventional, but not always the most aesthetically pleasing results. However, with the message that the text and dance conveyed – that mother nature is more powerful that all human beings – it was appropriate.
The music by Ezio Bosso with its soulful melodies, recurrent themes, and variations, was perfectly suited to the choreographic ideas, set either in unison or juxtaposed against the rich cacophonous landscape of sounds, at times sweeping and at others sparse. The effectively used set consisting of four large rectangular cubes perforated with metal cylindrical rods referred to as the “pin wall” were designed by the choreographer. The moveable cubes created a landscape akin to the Earth’s shifting tectonic plates evoking changing impressions reminiscent of ancient stone carvings. They also became stairs to climb on and support beams to hang from, needles and swords to pierce with, conveying the duality of nature – of good and evil, and the constant shifting between the two. These varying functionalities appropriately kept the audience spellbound, as they unfolded or were re-interpreted throughout the work. That restraint and careful manipulation gave the work an other-worldly, futuristic visual sensibility that was in stark contrast to its symbolism. Within the framework of this powerful dance were several standout moments including a fight sequence where Natalie Mak used a steel rod as her weapon with confidence that belied her diminutive stature, the menacing bald-pated Bruce Wong held a light from above manipulating all below him, and the heart-wrenching battle plea by Mother Earth with her children.
Each sequence segued from one to next in a seamless manner, showing Anh’s thoughtful ownership of his craft, balancing the elements of composition delicately. While the ensemble was instrumental in the narrative and delivered a high-octane performance, Mother, I am Sorry belonged to its two lead dancers. The iconic Qiao Yang brought luminosity, maturity, and depth with superb technique to her role while Kevin Mak was the perfect foil. He was strong, virtuosic, and convincing throughout and particularly outstanding in his partnering work. His final solo, danced in the nude, displayed a sensitivity and breathtaking quality that belied his relatively young age. Ingeniously, it never once seemed that his movements were crafted in a way that enabled him to avoid full-frontal nudity, but that and the outstanding lighting design of Low Shee Hoe, delivered a solo that was desperate, raw, honest, and poignant. However, after all the deducing of subtext and semiotics, of nuance and abstraction, the somewhat conventional final scene, with a voiceover of the text by Qiao Yang, who stands atop one of the cubes, against a powerful multimedia projected backdrop seeming to hail down onto the stage and into the audience, had a writhing Mak drowning in what looked like oil. Perhaps the choreographer wanted to ensure that less sophisticated audiences got the message but it was too didactic and scarily like an evangelist on a pulpit, preaching fire and brimstone. It is possible that Anh might consider that this could have been the perfect moment for silence, and the stunning visuals as well as the use of height would communicate the message more powerfully.
It would be interesting if the works on this double bill had the opportunity for a second showing.
Mother, I am Sorry, Choreographer: Anh Ngoc Nguyen, Dancer: Qiao Yang; Photo: Dominic Wong
Perwas Dean of Dance, National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage, Malaysia for two decades. He is an award-winning choreographer, author, curator of international festivals, producer and artistic director of ASK Dance Company, based in Malaysia. He now works at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts.
Performance: She Says, He Talks
Date: 9 December 2016
Venue: Kwai Tsing Theatre