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[ENG] Hong Kong Identity Spectrum


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.


Ev