常肖妮 Chang Xiaoni (北京 Beijing); 照片由香港藝術節提供 Photo provided by Hong Kong Arts Festival
This year, the Hong Kong Arts Festival invited Chang Xiaoni to stage her production Elephant in the Room (Elephant) in the Hong Kong Jockey Club Contemporary Dance Series. Elephant was premiered in Beijing with the support from the National Young Dancers Development Plan in 2017. This time, Chang co-created with local performers a whole new version of Elephantfor Hong Kong. We managed to interview Chang during a rehearsal break where we got to know her views about choreography, and the development of dance and dance education in China respectively.
Finding performers who can truly express themselves
In the Hong Kong version of Elephant, apart from Li Bin from Gansu, the other five local artists and performers were chosen by Chang in the workshop that she attended in August last year. Elephant was aimed to bring out the true feelings of every performer and did not aim to rely only on the content from the previous Beijing version. The choreographer wanted to search for new stories from the Hong Kong performers.
《沒有大象》演出 Performance of Elephant in the Room; 創作及演出 Choreographers and performers(由左 from left): 唐浩山 Michael Tong Ho-shan, 張嘉怡 Cheung Ka-yi, 李斌 Li Bin (甘肅 Gansu), 梁儉豐 Leung Kim-fung, 陳瑋聰 Chan Wai-chung, 余巧兒 Yu Hau-yi; 攝影 Photo: Terry Tsang
Although the structure and content of the new Hong Kong version of Elephant changed as different people were involved, the use of the original symbols and elements in the premier version was still clear. Interestingly, the performers in both versions were not only professional dancers but also included art practitioners of different backgrounds and experience such as actors and mime artists most of whom were fairly new to dance.
Chang stressed that the selection of dancers was not entirely dependent on their professional training but also depended on her feelings about the dancers’ openness to different creative journeys. Given that the production presented real-life materials, she felt that even though professional dancers were stronger in relation to their body conditioning, they still lacked something if they were not able to open their minds to other possibilities. From another perspective, although actors might not perform as well as trained dancers, they could be compelling performers as they performed with sincerity and integrity. In other words, the performers in her production not only had to be open with their bodies, but also with their minds.
“A dancer carries a certain style when he/she drinks water or speaks.” Chang thought that professional dancers displayed certain habits. They often could not relinquish what they had been taught and what had shaped them. In this way, performances could become vague and empty. In Elephant, what mattered the most was truthfulness. “Some people can put down what they have learned and pick up new challenges. You can sense their difference.” Therefore, she looked for performers who were not only expressive with their bodies but also able to convey themselves truthfully on the stage.
Chang admitted that she was afraid to see an automaton that was only versed in body movements on stage. What she wanted to see was life. “Why should I have to interpret and check out a ‘dictionary’ of learnt movements on stage? I don’t like this.” Chang said.
《沒有大象》排練 Rehearsal of Elephant in the Room; 編舞 Choreographer：常肖妮 Chang Xiaoni (北京 Beijing); Choreographer and performer 創作及演出：李斌 Li Bin (甘肅 Gansu); 照片由香港藝術節提供 Photo provided by Hong Kong Arts Festival
To dance or not, interest is the most important
Although this was the first time that Chang staged her production in Hong Kong, she is not unfamiliar with the city. Back in 1995, Chang came to Hong Kong as a dancer to perform in San-Mao, which was co-created by City Contemporary Dance Company and Shanghai FEOSO Youth Wudaotuan. She is now teaching in the School of Art and Communication in Beijing Normal University. In the past ten years and more, she has worked mainly in choreography. She has not been back onto stage as a dancer.
When asked why she did not go on stage and dance again, Chang laughed and replied that she was lazy. “I used to be skilled. My teacher in university was very good at exploring my body potentials and had a high opinion of me. I don’t know why I have become lazy after leaving university” Chang said. Obviously lazy is a ploy masking her varied accomplishments. After all, Chang likes trying new things and has many interests. When she graduated from the Faculty of Choreography in Beijing Dance Academy, she also completed a Master’s degree in Film Studies in the School of Art and Communication of Beijing Normal University. She produced dance videos and participated in the MIRfestival(Greece). Recently, she hosted an exhibition of mobile phone photography. She also hopes to try her hand in Interior Design.
“I’m not happy with just working on body movements. I’m not really interested in this” Chang said. She thought that there were many arts elements that could be put together in dance creativity amongst which the body was not necessarily the most important.
Chang told us that creative work was tiring but one had to explore ways to maintain his/her interest. If one got inspired in the creative process then instinct can come into play. On the other hand, if one created something not from passion but for practical circumstances without living life fully, the outcome might not be good. What produced exciting art was an instinct-like creativity. “It is all about doing something that you are passionate about. Why do something that you don’t like?” Chang asked.
Inspire the next generation, open up more possibilities
Apart from trying out different media in her creative work, Chang’s main work is as a university dance teacher in choreography and dance creativity at the Beijing Normal University. Although some of the students have experience in professional dancing, most of them have graduated from high school without a solid foundation in dance. They are not necessarily interested in choreography. What most of them want to do is to become dance teachers in high schools and primary schools.
For Chang, teaching choreography was not about lecturing students in the classroom on how to choreograph, but was about opening up their minds to try and feel excited about dance-making. “I told them before class that they can skip classes if they don't like choreography. They can do what they want. I’ll give them the 60 marks in the end. It’s been the deal between us” Chang said. She told us that if students were not interested in choreography, it was no point in them coming to class and to upset the class. But to those who were interested, she would guide them to open up their minds and imaginations, to know more about a dance piece and to encourage them to see more about the arts.
“As a dance teacher, I think it is important for students to have experience in love first. Without any love experience, what’s the point of them creating a dance piece in rehearsal rooms? It is important to play, to love and to make oneself happy,” Chang said. It was “interest” that mattered whether in creative work or studies. In the learning process she talked to students about movies and exhibitions. Although these topics were not directly relevant to dance they helped broaden the students’ horizons and enabled them to find something interesting from the topics, and to apply this to their own creations of dances.
《沒有大象》排練 Rehearsal of Elephant in the Room; 編舞 Choreographer：常肖妮 Chang Xiaoni (北京 Beijing); 創作及演出Choreographers and performers (由上from top): 唐浩山 Michael Tong Ho-shan, 余巧兒 Yu Hau-yi, 陳瑋聰 Chan Wai-chung, 張嘉怡Cheung Ka-yi, 梁儉豐 Leung Kim-fung, 李斌 Li Bin (甘肅 Gansu); 照片由香港藝術節提供 Photo provided by Hong Kong Arts Festival
Chang maintained that the students nowadays were too passive. She was at times quite disappointed with this behavior and not keen to communicate with them. Chang felt that the current younger generation were not active in learning. Generally, they enjoyed a good life. The younger generations come from prosperous families. The material living standard of their lives is high. Those who came from prosperous backgrounds were sent to arts institutes by their parents but they were not necessarily passionate about the arts. They also lacked the sensibility that the previous generations had. She thought that students who were born in post-2000s did not have vivid imaginations. They relied on surfing the Internet. Everything became very fast and was quickly consumed, and dependent on “quick fixes”. There was a lack of substance and sensibility that were evident in literature. “The warmth that comes when your parents hand you a bowl of rice or a man-tou (Chinese bread) when you are small has disappeared”, Chang said.
Chang lamented that there was a huge gap between her and the younger generation in choreography. She could only give them inspiration when teaching. Their parents were liberal and let their children do what they want. She felt that the liberal upbringing had instilled a sense of complacency and ease in the young people. Chang could then not expect too much from themin choreography. Fortunately, she still retains interest and passion in dance. It is rare to find someone like her who still thinks about how to make a difference in dance, be it in choreography or education, and how to develop more possibilities.