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[Eng] i-Dance: Tradition, Technology, Memory, and Presence

A Touch of Contemporary Thai-Dance, Choreographer: Pichet Klunchun. Photo: Chris Lam

This past fall, Victor Ma Choi-wo and Mandy Yim Ming-yin of Y-Space produced i-Dance Festival 2016 jam-packed with workshops, low-tech showcases, high-tech choreographic productions, site-specific work, improvisation, and discussion. First organized by independent Hong Kong artists in 2004, Ma and Yim continue with the name i-Dance as a reference to independence, improvisation, innovation, international, interaction, and interlinking. Over 100 dance artists, media artists, musicians, and technical/administrative staff participated at the Kwai Tsing Theatre. Attendance at the events varied, perhaps due to the frequency of events and the timing of many events on weeknights. Although the whole festival lasted close to one month, I could attend only two weeks while visiting Hong Kong. During this time, I participated as a dance-vocal artist in the Research Week program, a performer in Improvisation Land 66, as well as an audience member for many of the shows, showcases, and conference presentations. I saw old friends, met several new ones, and left inspired by the questions posed by the festival.

This year, Ma and Yim set two thematic frameworks for the festival - tradition and technology. As an American, I want to note that when American universities and arts venues program Asian arts forms, they often seek out something deemed traditional to meet audience expectations. On the world stage, ballet and contemporary/modern dance are often presented as acultural, where other genres round out the diversity of a programming calendar. I found so admirable Ma and Yim’s choice to place contemporary Lao dance alongside contemporary ballet, both within the frame of tradition. Even during the audience meet-the- artists sessions, Ma asked Justyne Li (ballet dancer) and Olé Khamchanla (hip hop and Laotian dancer living in France) about the tradition and innovation in their choreography. Ma and Yim also booked Chankethya Chey who integrates contemporary dance and Cambodian classical dance as the first Cambodian artist to visit the festival. These are important curatorial choices because they show an equal value placed on multiple Asian genres and a challenge to the fetishization of Asian traditional dance forms by the Western tourist and audience gaze.

The i-Dance 2016 artists’ explorations with tradition and technology, seemingly opposite themes, revealed multiple connections: disappearance, preservation, and innovation. Margie Medlin, a media artist who lives in Berlin, spoke of the ephemerality of technology that goes out- of-date so quickly; similarly, artist Chankethya Chey grew up dancing Cambodian classical dance that has a history of erasure. Within both topics of tradition and technology, came the question of how innovation can occur concurrently with preservation. Hong Kong curator and director Danny Yung spoke of his work with traditional Asian dance and theater artists, challenging them to break out of conventions while preserving the cultural memory that exists through their bodily knowledge. Daniel Kok, from Singapore, innovated on pole dancing, a form that does not often make it to the concert dance stage, while prompting the audience to experiment with viewing his dancing as sexually desirous, intellectual, and aesthetic. Pairs of media artists and choreographers collaborated to find new relationships between the live body and mediated body. Pichet Klunchun, internationally-acclaimed Thai dance artist worked with a group of young Hong Kong dancers without teaching them classical Thai dance at all. Instead, he created a piece Tam Kai/Hunting the Chicken that used music visualization, drawing, spatial patterns, and only a select short phrase of movement vocabulary to allude to the traditional form.

Klunchun and Kok referred to performance as a lie; still others spoke about it in terms of presence. As American, Lindsay Derry asked in her balletic solo choreography with fluorescent lights, “What makes me feel the most alive?” An extension of the themes of tradition and technology, many artists demonstrated how they view the dancing body as an archive and possibility for historical presence, despite ephemerality. Wen Hui, guest artist from Beijing where she has her company, Living Dance Studio, spoke of the importance of the body as an archive for cultural memory and personal experiences. While using interviews with former dancers from The Red Detachment of Women and live performance by one of the original dancers from 1970, she very directly engaged with the body as an archive in her documentary performance work Red. Since 1999, Wen Hui has incorporated interviews into her choreographic process.

The inclusion of excerpts of Helen Lai’s earlier works into an i-Dance evening performance called Helen Lai in the post-90s reconstructed her works with some of the original dancers, reinvigorating their memories and experiences. The pieces themselves often referenced the body as container for gendered expectations. Mandy Yim Ming-yin performed an excerpt from HerStory - carrying piles of paper, crumpling paper as if wiping her face, placing the crumpled paper in her mouth and letting it fall out. To the gut-wrenching Chavela Vargas song Llorona, she shapes paper into flowers and grabs at her heart. Like a magician’s trick, she pulls out a large trail of paper and wraps it around her like a coat. To me, this paper symbolizes the way women have been written out of histories. With original and new dancers, the evening invoked the capacity for bodies to remember. A duet from The Island Whispers began the show with the Cantonese for “Do you remember?” as dancers Mayson Tong and Jennifer Mok develop a series of call and response movement phrases. From the 1991 Nine Songs, Yim performed with a projected version of her earlier self as she tiptoed across the stage pulling at her skirt. She scrunches her body, whipping her long hair and flopping over, revealing her bare back as she squats down and searches with her fingers. Sometimes the video matched her timing precisely; sometimes the timing differed, as if she were actively remembering. While I watched this evening of Lai’s excerpted work, I felt the audience as very attentive and emotionally- affected. I wonder how many were thinking about earlier versions they saw.

Helen Lai in the post-90s- excerpt from HerStory, Choreographer: Helen Lai, Dancer: Mandy Yim Ming-yin. Photo: Chris Lam

Practicing improvisation also begs the question, “what past experiences and internal feelings are called upon when we dance?” i-Dance uniquely emphasizes improvisation throughout the festival. In Choy Ka-fai’s Dance Clinic Mobile, an extremely provocative process-as-performance, he employs brain-wave software to help Mayson Tong attempt to improvise something he had never danced before. In addition, i-Dance paired improvised performance with choreographed performances. After several mixed-bill solo shows, the artists joined for their first time of improvising together, displaying various gradations of expertise. Occasionally, it read as individuals showing off, disconnected from one another. During the Dance Under the Sky closing event out in the village of Kam Tin, a group of dance and sound improvisers moved gently through farm crops. The end of the improvisation was a bit of a free-for- all as everyone danced around a large bonfire. In moments like these, I found myself watching one or two performers, not the whole group, and relishing the setting sun and sounds of nature.

During Research Week, about twenty of us, many international artists, explored improvisation as a means for introspection, mindfulness, and empathy, then tackled what it means to take improvisation into performance contexts. We asked how to take the body’s internal sensations outward, how to play with time, and how to develop the present moment. From our workshops over five days, we developed a sense of each other's rhythms and energies, using improvisation as a form of generosity and listening. Many of us said that we could just be ourselves without feeling judgment. Strong improvisers have developed a sense of mental acuity and physical reflection on the present moment that deepens the work and their connection to other dancers. These skills take practice. So often we are taught that improvisation is to give up on earlier habits, to wipe the slate clean on earlier versions of ourselves, but as Ku Mingshen’s teaching reminded us, consciousness is relational, both to others and to our own movement backgrounds. In just one week, we had grown very close, able to read each other and able to find ‘now’ together in an improvised performance, Improvisation Land 66. It is a shame that more local artists could not participate in the all-day workshops of Research Week while they needed to be working to make a living; the time together for dance practice, not just performance, reminded me to continue to support what makes me unique and to find balance in my own life.


Ellen Gerdes

is a dancer, singer, and PhD candidate in dance at UCLA. She earned her Master’s in dance education at Temple University. Her writing has been published in Asian Theatre Journal, Dance Chronicle, Journal of Dance Education, Journal of Emerging Dance Scholarship, and New Directions in Asian American Dance.

i-Dance Festival (HK) 2016

Presented by: Y-Space

Date: 17 November 2016 - 4 December 2016

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