Hong Kong Ballet dancer Li Jia-bo; Photo: Tim Wong
Is dance relevant? It would seem in momentous times, if ever there was a time to be relevant, it would be then. I recently made a ten-day trip to Hong Kong, my first, and had opportunities to watch rehearsals, see performances, meet dancers, choreographers, and dance company artistic and executive directors. By chance, my trip occurred during 20th anniversary celebrations of the handover of Hong Kong to China. Questions of Hong Kong’s destiny and identity were everywhere. Experts in why things are bad took center stage, mild protests were heard as a murmur, and basically the dance scene carried on, each body propelled by the values that undergird their institutions, manifestly expressed in the kind of work they produce.
I have worked in Asia for many years. China is a special case, being so large with so robust a theatrical tradition spanning millennia. Its martial and stage arts have reached the zenith of civilizational accomplishment. The performances of Cantonese Opera classics I attended were testament to prevailing skills and talents of practitioners of the art. The performances plucked the heartstrings of capacity audiences. Chinese opera is relevant. How does contemporary concert dance fit into that stage tradition? Does it matter beyond employing people and acting as cultural ambassador?
I had a chance to meet artistic and executive directors of Hong Kong Dance Company (HKDC), Yang Yuntao and David Tsui. Their successful company blends contemporary dance with Chinese historical elements, be that a traditional ghost story, a brief appearance by children doing Cantonese Opera in the middle of a modern work, a movie-turned-dance piece, or, quite extraordinarily, a collaboration with Beijing Dance Academy, China’s foremost dance training institution. The collaboration resulted in a piece based on the life work of Professor Sun Ying, a research scholar in ancient dances of China, who choreographed a host of dynastic dances, not without controversy, but certainly with an attempt to create and sustain a modern discourse.
The collaborative new work, Dream of the Past, Ancient Chinese Court Dances, brought the discourse to life with new dances inspired by the Han, Warring States, Wei, Song, Tang, and Qing dynasties. New conversations bring up salient issues when considering cultural identity from within and without a culture and an era. The HKDC production honored Sun in a way Beijing students never could. Even recognizing the problematic use of classical ballet aesthetics in ancient dance ‘reconstructions’, there is much to praise, and much that is contemporary in this unusual and worthy dance work. That it is a crowd pleaser speaks for itself and so popular it will be revived in 2018. How much of this excellence reflects Hong Kong’s unique capacities in dance?
Yang Yuntao noted that the categorization of dance is problematic almost anywhere. He is not trying to abolish and re-create idiosyncratic forms. A director of the HKDC Board lamented that when the company performed Mulan in New York, critics spent more time comparing it to Disney than exploring the very Chinese theme of filial piety, about which the work revolves. “It is easier,” explained Yuntao, “to notice that Chinese, Hong Kong, Indian, and French films are different, than to explain exactly why. As the choreographer, my first job is creating, not explaining.” Yuntao, not a native of Hong Kong who now calls it home, is responsible for defining one of the best-established companies representing the city. This itself, is characteristic of Hong Kong.
While some might think blending contemporary dance and ancient dance research contradictory in fact, the result is a stunning dance piece that honors the dance past of China with the hungry sensibility of modern Hong Kong to display its maturity and mastery of what ‘now’ means. No doubt the effort highlighted for new observers, the illustrious history of Chinese dance. Even this heritage awareness with its symbolic appropriations is a sign of the times. Of course, the nuances of ancient style cannot be adopted within the rehearsal period of a modern company; that was never the attempt.
In Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art, American art historian and Orientalist Ernest Fenollosa advances the idea that understanding art, and consequently culture, needs to be done by recognizing what he called “creative epochs” and not modes of production, or trade, or politics, or materials, or national boundaries, but, “Where is the ebb and flow of the creativity in important artistic times, and how can we understand other times in a similar way?” This is an important artistic time for Hong Kong.
Chu-style Waist Dancing; Hong Kong Dance Company; Photo: Henry Wong
Besides HKDC, established in 1981 with the aim of promoting Chinese dance, what of ballet, modern dance, contemporary dance? After speaking with many people, two voices stood out, both for their confidence and the depth of consideration they had given to Hong Kong and the role of dance. Anna Chan, Head of Dance at West Kowloon Cultural District Authority (WKCDA), talks clearly about “repositioning Hong Kong’s dance culture”, and she says it with the voice of a dancer. Willy Tsao, choreographer and artistic director of City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC), and Beijing Dance/ LDTX, doesn’t care much for categories, relying on a pure idea of creativity.
Chan and Tsao, very differently, grasp the creative epoch we live in, and where dance can grow a movement, construct a place, mark out a space, build a name by interacting with major currents of creativity today, participating in them, and defining cultural identity as a part of that, even where a risk of losing standard cultural labels is central, and participating in international collaborations becomes a norm.
If there is a need to search for a new Hong Kong. Chan believes re-positioning culture is the way. Doing it with a combination of real estate and programing is how WKCDA plans to accomplish it. It is a magnificent cultural plan for Hong Kong, which finds some comparisons in the West in the South Bank Centre in London. With real estate part of the formula where space is at such a premium, many interests outside the purely artistic, arise.
Everywhere in Hong Kong, I heard admiration for small groups that perform in odd venues precisely because they have creative freedom every artist craves. Chan envisions dance’s repositioning by designing its engagement with disciplines and activities not customary for Hong Kong, and having creative purpose be at the core of this design. Theaters to offer venues to innovative artists, festivals of new works, and international collaborations, such as with the Wayne McGregor Studio, can come to impact Hong Kong. Chan is a well-placed advocate for creative artistic expression in dance. Growing entrepreneurship, cultural exchange as diplomacy, and new kinds of sponsorship pave the way for independent values to be expressed in dance. This means building local audiences as well as positioning Hong Kong dance artists in the international dance scene, in which China is increasingly a major player.
By developing WKCDA’s assets for dance, including multiple venues of different sizes, features, and audience capacities together with facilities for dance, as well as a separate venue dedicated to traditional Chinese Opera, the emphasis is already on recognizing a wide variety of performing art forms that reflect “Hong Kong’s identity spectrum.” Chan’s professional and educational background uniquely qualifies her to represent real dancers, hard-working artists. They are not a statistic to her, they are her peers in an industry she knows well. By establishing a place for creativity and research; by prioritizing alliances and building Hong Kong’s dance profile, she hopes to provide a nurturing climate that will produce self-expressive art from Hong Kong dance artists. Current projects in Australia, England, Finland, and the Mainland bear out her vision. “It’s the nature of creativity,” she explains.
I began asking Willy Tsao about ballet. (Something about China’s wholesale adoption of ballet intrigues me – from folk dance to ancient dance to modern dance, grand jetes are everywhere. But everyone I asked dismissed it as inconsequential, merely training.) “Neutral.” As Willy put it. “If you only have 90 minutes for dance training, ballet is as efficient as it gets. Good system of training and strength. Ballet is not the medium of expression.” As for East-meets-West; old-meets-new? “Dance tourism is not art,” he observes. “What is Hong Kong identity? At CCDC, choreography is about life, all I ask is that the choreographers are honest. Freedom of expression in Hong Kong is something we feel fit to represent Hong Kong. It is a true state of mind. An artist can have any personality, any background.”
Post-Perception/Transcendence; City Contemporary Dance Company;
Choreographer: Sang Jijia; Dramaturgy/Text: Tang Shu-wing; Photo: Chenug Chi Wai
Tsao is the only choreographer with a dance company in Hong Kong and another in Mainland China. He is founder and curator of Beijing Dance Festival (BDF) featuring cutting edge work from Chinese and international choreographers. He explains, “The Chinese phenomena in contemporary dance is not a style. It is a way to be open. China is a place where cultural expression is expanding. What I want to offer people is this: If you want to see young China and its thoughts, come see contemporary dance.”
Chinese theater goers are sophisticated in their knowledge of Chinese Opera and its skills, as well as the generally high level of professionalism in popular entertainment. Nevertheless, when Tsao brings new works to China’s 28 provinces, large audiences watch with keen appreciation, but sometimes they don’t applaud. They don’t know when. They don’t know why. They are not sure if it is one big piece or several small ones. The reason they don’t clap is because of how carefully they observe; how sincerely they do not understand it. Afterwards, they are full of questions and want to speak with the dancers, choreographers, and each other. Real cultural dialogue takes place. “Each province is larger than a European country – where we are accustomed to getting thunderous ovations all the time – but this is more artistically satisfying,” Tsao explains. “Being their first encounter with contemporary dance, we are pioneers. We feel lucky to be projecting culture in this way. Openly. The reason the BDF is a success is because there is real erudition here. China is a big enough market for new ideas in dance.”
China names its top Five Ballet Companies, (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Liaoning, and Hong Kong) boldly listing Hong Kong Ballet (HKB) among them. Dance has always been part of the apparatus of power in China, since ancient times. Chinese leadership has always understood the power of dance, and has regularly used it as a tool of State. It says something about Hong Kong’s identity that ballet is not a tool of the State, and rather a tool of Hong Kong society, expressing its evolving sensibilities about itself.
This would mean avoiding the trap of the ‘global bland’ in Ballet that has engulfed many companies - enlisting the same choreographers to show how international and competent they are. Septime Webre, former director of Washington Ballet, is the new artistic directorship of the HKB and the only foreigner directing a Chinese ballet company. Internationalism has always been part of Hong Kong’s identity, and ballet has always provided a platform for cultural identity, so Webre is poised to be of service to Hong Kong’s cultural identity, and can make a mark in the dance world for Hong Kong, if he finds the way. “Internationalism has always been and will remain the bedrock of Hong Kong’s success, I strongly believe,” says Paul Tam, Executive Director of HKB.
There is cause to be optimistic. Hong Kong is fantastic and a city like no other; its self-awareness being one if its best traits.