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The Lyric Theatre Complex, the main dance house of the West Kowloon Cultural Authority (WKCDA), with its three theatres of 1450, 600, and 300 seats respectively, is not scheduled to be completed for at least another four years. In the meantime, the dance team, headed by Anna CY Chan, has been working overtime to make sure that when the house curtains go up at the long-awaited venue, the choreography of local artists is prominently presented on its stages. Chan’s mission includes helping ensure that dances by Hong Kong artists can compete with their international peers for audiences locally and around the world. One of many ways that WKCDA is assisting Hong Kong artists to enhance their practice is with its New Works Forum projects that “Act as a platform for cross-disciplinary artists eager to expand their practices into new areas and explore innovative ways of creating, presenting, and discussing topics around contemporary performance”.

In the New Works Forum: Choreographer and Composer Lab, held from 14 to 19 November 2016, WKCDA invited the New York-based composer Ian Ng to team with Kung Chi Shing, the WKCDA’s Artistic Associate in Music, to facilitate a week-long workshop. During the Lab, four local composers with different musical backgrounds were teamed with four young choreographers from the Hong Kong Ballet. “Working in pairs, participating artists exchanged ideas, experimented with different forms of music and dance, and collaboratively created new artistic concepts."

(Clockwise from Left) Madeleine Onne (Artistic Director of HKB), Anna CY Chan (Head of Dance, Performing Arts, WKCDA), Ricky Song-wei Hu (Coryphée, HKB), Alain Chiu (Keyboardist), Fung Lam (Composer), Natalie Ogonek (Corps de Ballet, HKB), Tsui Chin Hung (Guitarist), Yui Sugawara (Corps de Ballet, HKB), Kung Chi Shing (Workshop Leader, Composer, performer & music activist), Ian Ng (Workshop Leader, New York City-based-composer), Mike Orange (Guitarist / Keyboardist), Yuh Egami (Répétiteur / Corps de Ballet, HKB); Photo: Cheung Chi Wai


Although dance and music seem inextricably paired, with musical forms derived from dance and dance always engaged in dialogue with music, getting the two right together is often a fraught enterprise. In some dances, the choreography seems to illustrate the music, in others the music is more accompaniment than partner to the dance. Rather than support development of the choreography, at times music can overshadow it, and at other times undermine the work of the most outstanding choreographer. When dance and music work together, however, to quote Aristotle, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” and something magical is created.

Often, choreographers start with a piece of music they like, one that fits their intentions or inspires them and they choreograph a dance to it – alternately, they find suitable music during or after the choreographic process and amend the dance or the music to fit each other. If they are fortunate, however, they collaborate with composers. The process of choreographer and composer working together may be led by one or the other of the creators or may be a collaboration in which each is equal partner in contributing ideas and guiding the direction the work takes.

Among the more well-known choreographer and composer teams was Marius Petipa and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Their first collaboration, with the director of the Russian Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky in 1890, resulted in one of the ballet canon’s most beloved works, The Sleeping Beauty. “And it was a genuine and engaged collaboration: Vsevolozhsky and Tchaikovsky’s graceful and beautifully mannered correspondence reveals the respect and warmth they felt for each other, and the three men met frequently to exchange ideas… Tchaikovsky also often appeared at Petipa’s home and played what he had written on the piano while Petipa shifted his papier-mâché figurines around a large round table.”[1] For their next collaboration, The Nutcracker, Petipa chose the Alexandre Dumas père adaptation of the E. T. A. Hoffman story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. However, rather than the sustained, harmonious working relationship that they had enjoyed during their first work together, according to American dance critic and historian, Jack Anderson, for The Nutcracker, Petipa gave Tchaikovsky extremely detailed instructions for the composition of each number, down to the tempo and number of bars. Petipa also fell ill at the beginning of this collaboration, and Lev Ivanov, the Second Ballet Master, took over. The third and final Petipa/Tchaikovsky ballet, Swan Lake, was originally choreographed by Julius Reisinger in a production that was considered a failure and Tchaikovsky died soon after Vsevolozhsky approached him to discuss a revival with Petipa’s choreography.

Yuh Egami (Left), Mike Orange; Photo: Cheung Chi Wai

In modern times the process of choreographer and composer working together harmoniously in the creation of a seminal work is epitomized by the collaboration between George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky for their 1957 work, Agon. The two met often during the formative period of the work, and continued to do so until the première. “A few details were altered during the final rehearsal period, but Stravinsky also attended many of these sessions and had an equal voice in any changes. Members of the original cast have recounted his active participation, and Martha Swope documented one of these rehearsals in photographs. Stravinsky, at age 75, is even seen demonstrating steps to the cast.”[2] Agon is a prime example of something that is greater than the sum of its parts – as Alex Ross notes, “You hear Stravinsky’s score better when you watch Balanchine’s choreography”.[3]

Two creative artists working closely together with a shared conception of a work and its structure, narratives, and other details, however, is not the only model that choreographers and composers use. In Collaborative Process Between Music and Dance (1982), Merce Cunningham reflected that “music and dance could be separate entities independent and interdependent, sharing a common time.” It was a notion that dated back to Root of an Unfocus a work on Cunningham’s first solo concert in New York City at the Humphrey-Weidman Studio Theatre in 1944. For the piece, he and John Cage planned the duration of each of the work’s three sections so that music and choreography for each would begin and end at the same time. In other words, music and dance would have a “common time,” both in the sense that their duration would be the same and that they would happen at the same time. But beyond this common time, music and dance would be created separately, independently, and without reference to each other.

Tsui Chin Hung (Playing guitar), Yui Sugawara; Photo: Cheung Chi Wai


In Hong Kong, opportunities for choreographers to work with composers are rare. To address this, WKCDA invited four up-and-coming choreographers – all are dancers with the Hong Kong Ballet – Yuh Egami, Ricky Song-wei Hu, Natalie Ogonek, and Yui Sugawara to work with four young composers, Alain Chiu, Fung Lam, Mike Orange, and Tsui Chin Hung. While the choreographers hail from different parts of the world, their backgrounds are similar, each trained at professional ballet schools. The composers are all from Hong Kong and three of the four have conservatory or University music school backgrounds, but each has a distinct style. They were teamed up – a choreographer and a composer in each of four teams – and worked together during the intensive workshop. At the end of the workshop, each team presented the movement and musical ideas that emerged from their collaboration during an informal showing in rehearsal rooms of Ko Shan Theatre New Wing.

While the Lab was still in progress, in a wide-ranging discussion with Ian Ng and Kung Chi Shing as well as with two of the choreographers, Yuh Egami and Ricky Song Wei Hu and their musical partners, composers Mike Orange and Alain Chiu, dance journal/hk asked them to talk about their ideas on music and dance and their experiences during the Lab. Ng started off by talking about his experience in working with different types of choreographers, “First, different choreographers respond to different kinds of music. I find that ballet dancers, because of their training… tend to search for structures that can make them move, search for direction. Music that leads to somewhere, moves them. I think that is something that they are very concerned about. I worked with Marcelo Gomes [Principal Dancer with American Ballet Theater], probably because of his training background he is very structural, he came to me before we talked about the style of the music and said, ‘I want two petit allegro, one five-minute adagio, and then a recap, then a coda, then an apotheosis’ – that was even before we talked about the music! Some choreographers are very concerned with the structure, with timing, with the frame of the piece. And then they usually give me references ‘I want Stravinsky-ish plus...’ For contemporary or modern dance choreographers, they are very comfortable with music that they cannot count... But they are looking for certain colors, cues, signals, and sound sources. I think these are very important. This explains why certain choreographers cannot respond to certain, even very powerful, music, because they find it empty. They often find, even very subtle cues that respond to their ideas. I think that’s why modern or contemporary choreographers are much more open to really collaborating with a composer. Often their ideas are very esoteric versus ballet dancers [who] are very into movement, beautiful lines, and formations. But for modern choreographers, they’re into ideas.”

Kung continued the discussion, and offered his thoughts on the relationship between dance and music, “For the past thirty years, I have been pondering the relationship between music and dance... Mimicking is one kind of relationship. No relationship is another, extreme, example of a relationship. [There is a broad range] between these two extremes. As Ian mentioned, because ballet has a more rigid, more systemic, grammatical relationship in its movement language, it makes sense that only certain types of music will work with this movement language. Whereas, in contemporary dance, where the relationship is more complicated, when more possibilities can happen, it’s very different. Traditionally, it’s the melody and the rhythm that affect the dance – its phrasing and even its form and structure. But when you take these two elements away, then you are talking about texture, energy, dynamics, [and] we start finding a different kind of relationship that will affect the form and structure. If we just talk about the emotional relationship, we can bypass everything! I think sometimes traditionally, the melody and the rhythm create the emotional relationship. But in contemporary dance, in a way it’s anything goes, but at the same time even more challenging. When you have all this freedom how do you define a relationship. What we are talking about now is a much deeper relationship between music and dance… What I would like to see in dance is – I want to see independence, interdependence, and dependence. I like to see all three things at the same time.”

Ricky Song-wei Hu; Photo: Cheung Chi Wai


In terms of the New Works Forum: Choreographer and Composer Lab, Kung added, “The reason I call this workshop a platform is about [giving] them [choreographers and composers] equal status that lets them talk to each other… When a company or a choreographer commissions a composer, the dance always has the lead. Very often the composer plays the supportive role, or even if the choreographer finds an existing piece of music, it’s still the choreographer’s choice. But this platform really puts them on an equal ground where they can talk to each other. The work itself may not be that interesting, but the process is interesting.” Ng continued, “I consider myself as a peer [of the participating choreographers and composers] because we’re around the same age. This is what I talk to composers and dancers about especially when they are stuck – for composers I would tell them about how I feel about the function of music in dance… First, the most basic function of music for me is to provide counts, the mood, the accompaniment. That’s the most basic thing. Most of them [composers] can achieve that. But what I would tell them is that for advanced purposes, you can think of music as a character, an invisible character in the piece, or even an extra emotional layer just to enrich the piece in a different way. I think that helped some of the composers who got really stuck in the music. For the dancers, when they didn’t know how to improvise [to the music of the composers] especially on day one and day two – the music was beautiful, but they felt they didn’t know what to do with the music – this is what I told them, ‘First, be honest to yourself, just move with the music. If you feel your body respond to the music in this certain way, this is true for you’. Second, I would ask them to pick one or two moments [from the music] that they really responded to [and] just develop from that.”

Fung Lam (Playing piano), Natalie Ogonek; Photo: Cheung Chi Wai


Although there may have been problems in the workshop, such as choreographers and composers getting stuck for ideas or not being able to respond to each other’s input on the spot, the participants were all positive about the experience. Egami talked about his work with Orange, “I am very used to dancing to existing music. We usually find connection and inspiration in music. This time, it is very luxurious. I was very overwhelmed on the first day because we had a lot to talk about and we happened to jam. He had lots of things [ideas] and lined them up on the table. But then on the second day we started to get used to each other. We spoke a lot in the process, especially after rehearsals or before rehearsals, exchanging ideas. We both came up with a theme that we wanted to present. There was no such [question of] who leads. We worked together organically from the first day.”

Mike Orange spoke about his approach in working with Egami, “I had never had a chance to work with dancers or [done] any dance related work before, basically I did not know what would happen. My approach is when I work with other musicians or artists in other art forms, the first thing I do is get to know them. That’s very important to me, no matter what you are going to do… I think that provides a foundation for things to grow. We talked a lot after we met for the first time, at the end of September.” Expanding on what Egami had said, Orange went on the further describe their working process, “It is interesting that from day one, we just had a very simple idea. The idea just happened, it was not decided by me or by you [Egami]. Things went smoothly. We jammed, played around. We both did not want things to be locked, like specific bars or steps. We wanted things to flow. The more we played around, the more we discovered. It is like planting a seed in the soil. We are not doing anything, but it grows naturally. It is always beautiful, unless you expect something. Somehow this is the process.” Egami continued to recount their experience of working together, “In our piece, there are some gestural movements that are key for the timing, but it all depends on the mood at that moment. We tried to tackle the moments when I have to wait for him, or he has to wait for me. We tried to train ourselves to feel each other. This is the relationship we tried to establish. Instead of four bars, four bars, four bars… I count, then I forget to listen to the music, we want to avoid that. Sometimes when I do certain movements and get very into it that is dangerous, I would lose connection and not work with him. It is the same for Mike, if he is too into the melody and building up the music, it breaks the relationship. We are training ourselves to be connected to each other. It is evolving.”

There were some similarities in Ricky Hu’s story, especially in terms of intention. But he and his partner had a rockier start, “We wanted to create the piece together, instead of I follow the music or he follows my steps. When it came to first day of work, Alain prepared some music, I also prepared my choreography. We put them together, but it did not work out. Our idea was very simple - energy and time. Energy works very differently on musicians and dancers. Musicians build up the energy quickly, but we [dancers] need time. Our bodies, the feeling, we need time to be prepared until our bodies can give energy out. That’s why I couldn’t feel the energy when listening to the music. He feels the energy is very full, but I can’t dance to it. On the first day, I just sat there for two hours. I didn’t know how to move. During the process, he walked around me in a circle. I sat in the center, I felt his energy was so powerful. I didn’t want to move, because when I moved, I lost the energy. I was confused. On the second day, it was still the same. I didn’t know how to go on. The situation was even worse… If I can’t feel the music, I do not know how to create. When I create a movement, there must be a meaning behind [it]. I was so confused. I sat for two hours again on the second day. It was strange, I almost gave up. We did not talk to each other. He was enjoying his music. He told me ‘Lie down, turn off the lights, close your eyes, feel the music, it is there!’ But I felt nothing. So, I lay down on the floor, just to enjoy the music. But then I started to hear different qualities of sound, my ears became very sensitive. Alain changed the music live, so I could feel the changes in the music. The idea suddenly came to me. The idea of the whole piece is - standing up very slowly from the ground, until I can dance the energy out. To me, it matches the music. We thought it would be a very conceptual piece. Until the third day, we tried different ways. We slowly found the rhythm and relationship between us. When our relationship became clear, we found our story.”

Hu’s composing partner, Alain Chiu, added his observations on these first two days of their working together, “To begin with, we tried to communicate at an intellectual level. We talked. On the first day we came here, nothing worked. So, the communication on the intellectual level failed. We were very frustrated. On the second day, we did not talk to each other. It was not because we did not like each other, but we both have very strong characters, we are artists who want to preserve what we believe in. After the second day, it was a pivot. We set up in a circle, both of us lying down on the floor listening to the music. Then we suddenly realized the piece is no longer about intellect, it is about the connection we had. For instance, I was trying to change tiny little things in the music, I was walking around, controlling the cassette player in real time. But once I started looking at you [Hu], I felt the connection is more humanized. I began to sense why he got frustrated and could not feel the energy, because when I was on stage I didn’t feel it too. Our perception of time became more solid. So, after the second day, we took things apart and slowly our goal turned into communication.”

Choreographers and composers with workshop leaders Ian Ng (left, stooping) and Kung Chi Shing (center, kneeling). Photo: Cheung Chi Wai


After talking with the choreographers and composers we attended a studio showing of some of the outcomes from their work together. As expected, the material was very raw. But, the energy and sense of connection between dancers and musicians were palpable. The sound and movement invention, the way dance and music carried on a dialogue, and the sense of adventure in the works signaled the willingness of the young artists to venture beyond their comfort zones to create something unexpected together. As an investment in the future of Hong Kong choreography, the New Works Forum: Choreographer and Composer Lab also reaped benefits, for the choreographers, composers, the Hong Kong Ballet, and audiences. As its final program of the season, on 26 May 2017, the Company presented Carmen and More with masterworks by renowned choreographers Jirí Kylián and Jorma Elo. Also on the program was the world première of Egami and Hu’s Carmen. Natasha Rogai, in her review for the South China Morning Post declared, “The high point of Hong Kong Ballet’s latest program, Carmen and More, was Carmen, a new work from the company’s own young choreographers, Yuh Egami and Ricky Hu… The use of music (Rodion Schedrin’s 1967 reworking of Bizet plus some excellent original music by Hong Kong musician Mike Orange) is extremely effective”.

[1] Homans, Jennifer. 2010. Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet. New York: Random House. (Quoting Tim Scholl’s 1994 From Petipa to Balanchine: Classical Revival and the Modernization of Ballet. London: Routledge.

[2] Alm, Irene. 1989. “Stravinsky, Balanchine, and Agon: An Analysis Based on the Collaborative Process” in The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring 1989). Oakland: University of California Press.

[3] Ross, Alex. 2007. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.


Tom Brown

is a former dancer and the retired Associate Dean of Dance, Head of Modern Dance, and Dean of Graduate Education at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. He is the editor of dance journal/hk.

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