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[ENG] A-I-R: An Essential Ingredient for Artists to Keep Moving - the Japan/Hong Kong A-I-R program

Final work-in-progress showing in Sapporo. Photo: yixtape; provided by JCDN

The history of A-I-R (Artist-in-Residence) programs stretches back to around the 1900s, beginning in the United States and the United Kingdom, with arts patrons offering studios to artists as a way of showing off their social status. Since then, facilitated by social movements and the growing ease in communications and travel, the idea of A-I-R has spread worldwide, and has been developed into many different models. According to, starting in 2010, there has been growing interest in issues of A-I-R content. In the past, the hosts had the role of providing venues for the artists’ residences, while the artists were expected to provide content. Shifting expectations now see hosts considering content, thus providing more ‘research-driven’ residencies, with topics of interest to both hosts and artists. This in turn helps create knowledge and understanding, in the arts, as well as in the society.

This contemporary A-I-R model was adopted by the JCDN International Dance in Residence Exchange Project Vol.6: 2016 Japan-Hong Kong International Exchange held from September 2016 to January 2017, organized by Japan Contemporary Dance Network (JCDN), with the Hong Kong phase co-organized by the City Contemporary Dance Company Dance Centre (CCDCDC) and supported by the Agency for Cultural Affairs of the Government of Japan in fiscal year 2016.

Final forum in Japan “Artists in Residence: The Attraction by Creative Residency”. Photo: yixtape

CCDCDC, an important dance hub in Hong Kong, has been exploring implementation of the A-I-R concept in recent years and has been actively collaborating with artists from different countries and local organizations, such as the West Kowloon Cultural District, to organize different A-I-R programs for dance artists.

Kevin Wong, the Director of CCDCDC, said that A-I-R programs in the dance field are rare in Hong Kong, since programs are more production-oriented, but he stressed “It’s important for artists to come together, not aiming at productions, but to learn from each other”.

The Japan/Hong Kong A-I-R program was initiated by Ritsuko Mizuno, the Program Director of JCDN, and Daniel Yeung, the veteran Hong Kong choreographer, when they met again after 15 years to discuss ideas. Daniel also served as the Artistic Coordinator for the A-I-R program.

With five previous experiences in holding A-I-R exchange programs with other countries (including Finland, Korea, and Zimbabwe), Mizuno was interested in working with Hong Kong artists, since she found that “There are a lot of similarities between Japan and Hong Kong, both of us are very westernized and our arts very much influenced by the contemporary dance. Therefore, I found it increasingly important to go back to our local traditional arts, for us to step into the new future”.

Mizuno and Yeung therefore came up with the A-I-R program theme of “The Journey to Meet Asian Bodies: Traditional and Contemporary”. They invited traditional Japanese and Chinese movement artists to work with the contemporary dance artists, allowing these Asian bodies to meet and to experiment with new expressions.

From Hong Kong to Japan, from Japan to Hong Kong: Meeting of Asian Bodies

The program is a two-way residency, with the A-I-R taking place in Japan first from 16 September to 10 October 2016 for three weeks; then the second part held in Hong Kong from 20 December 2016 to 3 January 2017 for two weeks.

The Japan Encounter

Four artists gathered on 16th September in Naha, Okinawa for their first week of residency in Japan. They included Hugo Cho (contemporary dance performer and choreographer) and Choi Chi-wei (Chinese opera actor) from Hong Kong, and Yuka Ogata (contemporary dance choreographer, Kagura (performer of sacred dance at shrines), and Remon Nakanishi (performer, visual artist, and researcher of the local performing arts) from Japan.

Lecture on Okinawan classical dance. Photo provided by JCDN.

Mizuno has chosen Okinawa as a starting point of the project, since it has a “Totally different culture with other parts of Japan. There still remains a strong local culture.” The artists had the residency in Naha for the first week and moved to Bise for the second week. “Naha is more like a city, but Bise is a small village, which is believed to have a lot of spirits in nature. And the artists received a lot of influence from there.” Mizuno added.

In Naha and Bise, the artists started their research on performing arts history and culture, and issues in Okinawa, by taking lectures on Okinawan classical dance and Okinawan karate. Artists’ workshops were also held in Bise for the locals to experience the traditional and contemporary Asian performing arts.

For their third week, they moved from the southernmost part of Japan to the northernmost part, Sapporo, where they prepared for their final work-in-progress showing by consolidating what they had experienced throughout the three weeks. Cho was the Director, and they all were choreographers and performers. They had taken the Beijing Opera classic San Chakou《三岔口》as a basic text for exploring the theme of communication/mis-communication in a contemporary context.

The A-I-R program is also comprehensive in including a final forum after the showing entitled Artists in Residence: The Attraction by Creative Residency to explore what were the outcomes of the A-I-R for the artists, local people, and places, and to talk about its future. The panelists included Hisashi Shibata (A-I-R programmer, mainly for visual artists in Sapporo since 1999), Hisashi Shimoyama (producer, working on Asian networking and international productions in Okinawa) and Daniel Yeung (Hong Kong Coordinator of this A-I-R program, choreographer and curator), together with the four artists.

Lecture on Okinawan karate. Photo provided by JCDN.

The Hong Kong Chapter

Following the first phase of the program in Japan, two Japanese artists came to Hong Kong on 20 December 2016 to work with two Hong Kong artists. With a different combination of artists, which meant the possibility of a change in dynamics, and a new space in another culture, further interesting experimentation was created during the two-week residency.

The artists involved included Tomoco Kawaguchi (theatre director) and Hikaru Uzawa (Noh artist) from Japan, and Chloe Wong (choreographer and dancer) and Paris Wong (Cantonese opera artist) from Hong Kong. This time Kawaguchi was the Director of the final work-in-progress showing.

Hikaru Uzawa (Noh artist) from Japan. Photo: Mak Cheong Wai

Chloe Wong (choreographer and dancer) from Hong Kong. Photo: Mak Cheong Wai

With the short period of time given, Kawaguchi chose to focus only on the ‘walking’ of the three different artistic forms – Noh theatre, Cantonese opera, and contemporary dance, which have very different techniques and cultures. The days were devoted to having the artists show and learn the forms from each other. They also shared theories about their own art. “To understand each other, Tomoco let us do the explorations first, then the discoveries just came naturally”, Chloe Wong was very impressed by the process and pace Kawaguchi set out for them. The learning process was also very natural and self-motivated, “Each day I asked them to walk for an hour, they did two hours”, Kawaguchi commented with amusement. The spirit of learning others’ culture through their arts was very clear.

Kawaguchi would then provide each artist with simple themes to work on, followed by lots of discussion. As a theatre director, Kawaguchi is very sensitive to texts, and therefore when she watched the artists’ working, moving their bodies, she would come up with words and texts, and some of those texts became part of the content in the final showing.

The Hong Kong explorative journey came to the end with the work-in-process showing on 4 January 2017. The title of the work is #2 – Luen Niu Goh《# 2 - 戀鳥歌》, the second in a series of works by Kawaguchi. Luen, Niu, and Goh are three Chinese characters ‘love’, ‘bird’ and ‘song’ that have no meaning at all in Japanese, but when they are interpreted separately, they can evoke a lot of poetic ideas for the audience about love, freedom, and communication.

The performance opened with Kawaguchi's monologue on why she created the piece. Walking by the artists then set up the first part of the showing. They started with their own style of walking that later developed into an exchange of styles, where audience members could see the different body attitudes transitioning. Another crossover occurred with Uzawa, the Noh artist and Paris Wong, the Cantonese Opera artist. They based the work on the Noh classic text Kinuta《砧》by Zeami Motokiyo depicting a women’s agony in losing her husband, inspired by the poem Wenye Zhen《聞夜砧》by the famous Chinese poet Bai Juyi白居易. Uzawa performed the Noh version of the work and Paris Wong accompanied it with his Cantonese Opera music making. The dissonance and consonance of the two forms were interesting to observe.

(from left) Hikaru Uzawa, Chloe Wong, Tomoco Kawaguchi, Paris Wong.

The Struggle and the Discovery

“It’s feeling so uncomfortable for me, so uncomfortable, so uncomfortable”.

Uzawa frowned as she explained her experience during the meet-the-artists session after the showing. She has practiced Noh since she was three, inheriting it as part of her family tradition. Although she has also had an exchange experience in Nanjing learning Kunqu (崑曲), another type of Chinese traditional performing arts, she found this experience “Too free for me”.

Chi-wei, the Cantonese Opera master, also experienced a similar struggle while he was in Japan. Yet they both soon realized the potential of learning and started to learn from the other. Chi-wei said “This experimentation is very good. It provides us the chance to learn, not only about the physical styles of different forms, but also on how the cultural background influences them”.

Through the process, Paris Wong also found out new things about his own art form. Since he performed in the role Faa Daan (花旦) (young lady), his walking is done with a lot of elegant hip twisting and arm movement. He explained “To move the Noh way without moving other parts of the body is very difficult for me. Once I move one part of my body, the others move automatically”. Also, in the session where he accompanied Uzawa’s Noh performance using Chinese music, he realized that Noh does not have the format of ‘striking a pose’ (亮相), which is an important element in Cantonese Opera.

As a contemporary dance artist, Chloe Wong started to understand that lots of detailed training goes into creating the characteristics and such depth of form in traditional arts practice. She was also interested in the differences between the practices of Noh and contemporary dance, she commented “In Noh, you need to arch the back when you walk, while in contemporary dance the spine needs to be lengthened”. She also shared another story, “Each of us had a teaching session. I taught them some floor work. For the two of them, it was their first time to go onto the floor. For them, the way of connecting their bodies to the soles of their feet, of using the floor, is so different”, and that was very inspiring for her.

Chi-wei summarized the exchange process very well, “We are like sponges with different colors. When we interact, we release some of our colors while absorbing others; this process makes us colorful. Yet do we need to make a creation with this colorful sponge immediately? Maybe not, maybe it will undergo further fermentation. No one will know what will result.”

Paris Wong (Cantonese opera artist) from Hong Kong. Photo: Mak Cheong Wai

Meet-the-artists session after the showing in Hong Kong.

A-I-R Program: A Renewed Definition of Cultural Exchange

Mizuno explained that the exchange A-I-R program is not an easy project, it not only involves a lot of time and resources, but also “It’s difficult to encounter new people, in both the traditional and contemporary areas.” Yet with all the experimentations in previous years, she was still discovering new potential in her performance language by integrating traditional and contemporary languages. This together with the close connections in themes among Asian traditional arts convinced Mizuno to continue with the project. She anticipated this project as the start of a three-year collaboration with different organizations in Hong Kong that she has been in conversation with throughout this trip. She envisions a finished performance at the end of the three years.

Kevin Wong of CCDCDC was also very supportive of the whole idea of bringing the A-I-R program to Hong Kong. He would like to increase awareness in the dance field of the potential for new models of A-I-R programs.

He pointed out that for A-I-R, “It’s not just about learning from each other, but an opportunity for artists to rediscover and understand their own cultures through explaining their cultures to others”.

He also added that this project presents not only the cultural exchange ideas we used to have based on geographic dislocation - “Although Chloe Wong and Paris Wong are both from Hong Kong, they are already learning from each other. Therefore, it’s not just cultural exchange between Japanese and Hong Kong cultures, but can even be exchange between artistic practices of artists from different disciplines within Hong Kong .” Thus creating another layer of cultural exchange.

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