Cocktail on last day of exchange. Clockwise on the left standing: Gülsen Özer, Mayson Tong, Philipa Rothfield (Facilitator of the exchange; Dancehouse Creative Advisor), Kenneth Sze, Victoria Chiu and Angela Conquet (Artistic Director and CEO of Dancehouse); Photo: Victoria Chiu
The West Kowloon Cultural District Authority (WKCDA) partners with Dancehouse Melbourne, offering four dance artists, two each from Hong Kong and Australia, opportunities to foster artistic dialogues with each other. Hong Kong dancers Kenneth Sze (施卓然) and Mayson Tong (唐偉津(綠美)) were selected for the three-year residency exchange program. The program aims to support artistic practice, research, continued professional development, encourage works-in-progress, and, in 2019, help realize co-productions between Hong Kong and Australia. The artists will participate in six residency exchanges in the coming years, working independently and collaboratively to further their artistic practice.
Sze and Tong took off for Melbourne on 28 March 2017. They participated in various workshops, events, and tours to gain an understanding of the perspectives and experiences of their Australian counterparts, Victoria Chiu and Gülsen Özer.
Sze and Tong are astute young practitioners with thought-provoking ideas. They question, challenge, and continue to push boundaries. Some may find them troubling, for others they are intriguing.
Sze’s introduction to dance was in his teens through the video game Dance Dance Revolution (DDR). He hasn’t stopped dancing since. Along the way, he met Andy Wong (王廷琳), who introduced yoga and modern dance to him. Soon, he applied to study modern dance at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA). The course title changed to contemporary dance in Sze’s first year, which ignited questions that are still pertinent today.For Sze, HKAPA was a platform to train his body and technique, however, for him it is more important to question, and develop critical thinking and appreciation. He started working freelance after graduation with different artists from different disciplines to satisfy his curiosity. In the process of searching for answers, Sze made his first full-length piece, Dark Aroma, working closely with coffee barista / syphonist Pinky Leung Hoi-yan. The starting point of Dark Aroma was the similarities in everyday life of an independent barista and a dance artist. Sze wonders while working at a tea shop, whether the customers understand and appreciate what is being presented to them, can they tell the difference between good and mediocre? He feels the same applies to dance artists and their performances. In Dark Aroma, there is a section where Leung explains every step involved in making coffee, as at a coffee brewing competition. Eventually, the coffee is presented to the audience. It turns out that the coffee beans Leung uses were not what she tells the audience she is using… Sze’s very aim was to question the audience: What do you want? Do you happily agree or accept what you are told or presented? Do you have a critical understanding and appreciation of what is presented to you?
Sze met Bonni Chan and Sean Curran of Theatre du Pif at HKAPA. Their production of The Will to Build (2010) inspired him and he later performed in the 2015 version. Sze participated in their actors’ lab, a performance-based collaborative research program for experienced theatre professionals. Working with non-dancers was an interesting learning experience for him. With their influence and support, Sze became invested in working with text, collaborating regularly with Ivy Tsui Yik-chit who shares his fascination.
Tong is bold and direct. He left his degree course at HKAPA because he felt he was not being respected as an individual. He felt bored and oppressed in class, “It’s like military training, unless you can do certain moves, you are not considered a dancer… I didn’t think the techniques or body language that were taught would enhance self-expression. Being able to express myself is one of the fundamentals in art or dance” he declares. Also, at the time, 2010, there were other social matters that captured Tong’s attention, one of them being the commencement of construction for the High-Speed Rail that connects Hong Kong and China.
Improvisation on rooftop of Curtin House in Central Business District of Melbourne.
Photo: Victoria Chiu
When Tong left HKAPA, he also left home. He took a break from dancing and worked as an assistant in a hair salon. On his birthday, he was fired. Tong never found out why and his superior never explained. Tong sees it as a blessing in disguise but at the time, it was incredibly frustrating. During that time, Tong met a group of friends who were founders and organizers of an online radio station - FM101, which has since been dissolved. The group of founders and members felt it was a much-needed platform for alternative voices and discussion about arts, music, and everyday life. However, the annual license fee is high, therefore, it is hard for new-comers to break into the market, let alone something like FM101 – an initiative led by young people. For Tong, FM101 was close to his heart because it was a common ground where everyone had equal status, which he described as perfect.
In addition, Tong and a group of friends started a theatre group - 含忍劇場, even though not its official English name, it can be translated as ‘Theatre Endure’. The group works collectively performing in public spaces using bodies, movement, behavior, visuals, and music for expression. His chosen name, Greenmay, came from a performance outside the former Legislative Council Building in 2009 where he painted himself green in opposition to the construction of the High-Speed Rail. Again, the ethos of the theater group echoes Tong’s firm belief in equality.
Kenneth Sze, Photo: Philip Kuen
Mayson Tong (Greenmay). Photo: Chris Lam; Photo provided by Y-Space
The research focus of the exchange program greatly attracts Sze and Tong since time, space, and resources are scarce in Hong Kong. Sze also wants to use this opportunity to view and review his personal identity through the perspectives of his Australian counterparts, especially how they relate and negotiate their identities in the local and global context.
The artists spent time getting to know each other during their meeting in Melbourne. They went to Özer’s performance at PAVE - Performing and Visual Arts in Emerald – Festival. Chiu and Özer also invited Sze and Tong to pancake parties and queer parties. There were small impromptu happenings including Chiu’s husband jamming the Blues with his friends.
Dancehouse Melbourne provided three facilitators for the program each leading a three-hour workshop. The artists also took turns to lead workshops and share their practices. Sze and Tong were taken on tours organized by Dancehouse and the Australian artists. “These tours were not much different from touristy ones but what we discussed was more relevant.” Sze commented.
The tours became a trigger for a thought-provoking experiment when Tong suggested going back to the spots they visited, repeat what they did and said along the way, and see how much they could remember and re-enact. Sze and Tong really appreciate Chiu and Özer’s openness, patience, and can-do attitude during their time in Melbourne. A few days after Tong’s suggestion they repeated the tour. They found the city full of repetitions, for example, the buskers were the same, they were in the same spot and played the same music. They found repeating the tour difficult since their memories failed them, but they also realized it was easier as a team as they triggered each other’s memories. They then elaborated on the experiment: What was the intention of the repetition? Why were they repeating it? What was the point of the repeated actions and speech? What remained and what was forgotten? It was perhaps a starting point for further research.
One of Tong’s continuing interests is in ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, especially the communities that work as domestic helpers. He would like to learn dance from them, to build relationships with them, and find out more about their lives in Hong Kong as their voices are rarely heard. He also wonders and thinks about the dance industry in Hong Kong – what would his or other local artists’ education be if HKAPA did not exist. Would they train? If so, where? And if not, what would they do? These are matters that Tong considers worth pondering.
Mayson Tong (left) and Kenneth Sze (second from left) at Dancehouse Melbourne. Photo: Victoria Chiu
Sze has always been interested in identity. He acknowledges that identities are imposed or shaped by society, but for him, these are irrelevant until one personally embraces them. He also views identity as something that is fluid, ever changing. While in Melbourne, Sze talked with strangers to find out how they view their identities. Most of those he talked with began with an unquestionable sense of who they are but gradually started to hesitate and waver. Sze also realized when people tell you who they are, where they are from, they are projecting how they want others to perceive them. Ultimately, what matters is the relevance and importance one places on how others perceive you and how you relate to your personal identity. Sze continues to investigate identity and its relevance in everyday life.
“Motion is fundamental to humans, knowledge is learned through doing,” Sze comments. He thinks movement provides the best tools for him to express himself, one of these movement tools is Capoeira. It combines elements of music, dance, and acrobatics. It originated with African slaves in 16th Century Brazil. Movements in Capoeira require upper body and weight bearing strengths that continue to broaden Sze’s movement vocabularies. It also develops his spontaneity as a performer. What captures Sze’s attention most is the nature of Capoeira – a martial art yet also a dialogue between capoeiristas. They converse using movement in a circle that they call the "roda".
For Tong, everyday life experiences become his education, for example, taking part in demonstrations. He realizes the body holds knowledge. It is a manifestation of his state of mind and thoughts. To him, the body has many possibilities. He is also reading about feminism and has started to apply what he’s learned in everyday life: when he modeled for life drawing, he would try different poses, for example crossing his legs with hands on knees, which might be considered feminine. He felt the need to question what is deemed feminine and why? Who decides what behavior is judged feminine? What he’s gathered so far is that there are some very definite male and female roles, but why? He feels it is important for him to investigate and question them in dance, society, and politics. Tong doesn’t have one favorite tool to express himself but movement and text have been most appealing so far, however, text can be rather sensitive.
Sze and Tong are bold and unconventional artists who don’t hesitate to speak their minds. In combination with their admirable energy and resilience, these qualities make them artists to watch.