Dance Review in Flux
Do critics always know best? Probably not. An experiment in reviewing dance through a conversational form by the English editors Acty Tang and Gary Gordon. Showing the process of aesthetic judgment; finding the points of debate; engendering exchange of views; initiating conversations. Talking about choreography.
Transcribed from conversations right after watching the performance. Edited for brevity.
Curiously connected and alone: Drifting; Choreographer: Joseph Lee; Photographer: Carmen So
AT: How much money can you make playing video games? Millions, apparently. The government even promoted e-sport as entrepreneurship… a vain attempt to “connect” with young people? All of this is a preamble to the first piece: Drifting.
GG: I found the beginning quite interesting. The confined staging, the slow, sustained movement, the way the lights gradually illuminated the two dancers. Tai-chi, fighting or meditating? They were drifting in and out of the space, and towards and away from each other.
AT: They were sometimes striking poses that looked like taking or pressing something. Another pose reminded me of Superman. Only when the projection came on later with the pixelated Super Mario game, did I realise what those poses were. Perhaps Mario, or Street Fighters, screencapped from the game.
GG: I see it around me all the time, young people on gadgets. I thought of the contemporary Hong Kong world.
AT: They were in their own worlds. After spending hours in the game, you’re drifting. Your body is doing this repetitive action, bouncing, darting around, like the dancers. But your mind is in a netherworld, you go into a trance.
GG: They were curiously connected and alone at the same time.
AT: I certainly didn’t feel like I was connected to them; I was observing them. The piece left me a bit cold despite the electronic dance music. When I first saw the DJ station on stage, I thought: we’re in for a party. The house lights did come on later, but it was not an invitation to join in: the music suddenly cut off.
GG: Although the dancers didn’t stop. The work played out as relentless.
AT: The dancers were working, you could see them sweat in the torrent of movement, which borrowed from street dance. But they were contemporary dancers: the release, the looseness, -- the polar opposite of street dance’s energy, impact and tension. Even the jumps and kicks weren’t about impressing the audience. It made sense when I realised it was about video games: it’s a digital activity, not physical. Also, what did you make of those inverted suit jackets which they took off during the piece?
GG: Inside out, back to front ...
AT: It hinted at some kind of identity; maybe a crude storyline: they work in an office by day and come home to play by night? Seems too straightforward though. A suit is a powerful signifier; I needed specifics here. Under the suits they wore multi-coloured T-shirts --
GG: Like one of the heroes or game characters. Then underneath all that was whiteness –
AT: White hoodies zipping all the way up, covering their faces and bodies, and they became totally depersonalised. I think the choreographer could have put the dancers in movement here and let us look at the digital world from a different angle. We didn’t get that.
GG: No. That image closed the piece … white nothingness, and facelessness. That’s probably the strongest issue we read from the work. It points to the way many people spend their lives.
A surreal and fantastical world: Mo Ngaan Tai; Choreographer: Terry Tsang; Photographer: Carmen So
Bodies on display
AT: This second piece – Mo Ngaan Tai or “no eye see” – certainly had a startling opening. Do you think Hong Kong dance audiences are shocked by nudity?
GG: I think so, still. It was a brave choice for a young choreographer; and the performers were brave: no hiding, they revealed their bodies throughout the work.
AT: The intense lighting and the white floor exposed them even more. Nudity is not unfamiliar; we have just seen The Great Tamer by Dimitris Papaioannou, and last year West Kowloon hosted a workshop on nudity by Xavier le Roy. Young choreographers are travelling and seeing European pieces which deal explicitly with what the body is. It’s on trend.
GG: Certainly a “new force” and opening up Hong Kong audiences to those possibilities.
AT: Flesh-coloured masks worn by the four dancers took away their faces and distorted the bodies. Out of the shoulders of one woman rose an inverted pair of legs without feet. The other wore a giant cone, like the beak of a cyborg bird. One male dancer had a four-faced mask, and as he turned he changed from a crying baby to, for instance, a sinister laugh. The other male dancer’s mask was a bloom of frills or petals -- half-flower, half-vagina?
GG: Or the folds of flesh on the Elephant Man. The work conjured up a surreal and fantastical world with these macabre, hybrid creatures. It reminded me of Hieronymous Bosch and The Garden of Earthly Delights, with nudity in abundance plus cruel distortions and orgiastic pleasures -- chaotic and macabre. The work alluded to this kind of world, but I feel the body design was too organised – even though the dancers performed well.
AT: Sometimes they made good use of those distorted images. Most obviously where they paired up, perching against each other, crawling like alien animals. You had legs sticking out this way and that, and you couldn’t make heads or tails of the body. But, honestly, they were not that strange or frightening; but it did honour the theme.
GG: The work put bodies on display, but the dancing seldom engaged the corporeal: the fleshy body that resists organised movements and well-mannered behaviour. It was mainly “full frontal”, as if dancing for the mirror in the studio. Where were the sinuous, pliable and asymmetrical bodies? Having said that, those bizarre partnered constructions and their erotic couplings were captivating.
AT: I liked the effete gestures of etiquette, like the demure folding of the legs but with ungroomed pubic hair; hand gestures perhaps from European courtly etiquette. But I do agree that it was frontal, too much symmetrical and on-balance design, and they never seemed lost even though they supposedly had no eyes to see. Maybe the distortions were too legible.
The mundane and the poetic: Infiltrated; Choreographer: Tsang Wing Fai; Photographer: Carmen So
Circles of Water
AT: In the previous piece we were talking about the corporeal. On this topic, what did you think of this piece, Infiltrated?
GG: Exciting! The work stayed with the movement; I liked the investment in the task.
AT: The task was – there was this wide glass pool of water, and a single spotlight that focused on a woman looking into in the pool.
GG: It reminded me of cleansing, purifying, washing away, looking and reflecting. It took me to quite a few spaces, the kind of symbiosis of woman and water, the liquidity, the femininity. And the cast was all female.
AT: The beginning was such a distilled image of a circle of water. Whereas at the end, with all those colourful cloths for mopping --
GG: Yes, household cloths.
AT: Like $5 ones from Sham Shui Po! The dancers were just mopping, there was nothing precious about it, and quite domestic.
GG: It went from a poetic, almost sacred beginning, to ordinary, mundane activities. It took me back to the title, the Infiltrated, which suggested a more poetic stance, or the Chinese title with the hands coming together in a devotional act.
AT: The woman in the water was dressed in black, and the other dancers took turns to enter, each dressed in white. Everything happened in a circle around the pool. Very clearly an image of the yin and the yang. The one in black was yin, the reflective, the still, more internal; the ones in white were yang, assertive, energetic, outward. They disturbed the water, running through it, splashing it around.
GG: The woman in the centre was like an initiate in a ceremony. The actions of the others affected her and she became frenetic and frenzied.
AT: One dancer shimmied her body when she entered, like she was whistling and about to take a shower. Another’s feet were each planted in a plastic basin, making a scraping noise on the floor. Eventually the initiate was splashing around, the other four mopping it all up and pouring the water back in.
GG: It took me from meditation to the mundane – quite a contrast! I felt more work needed to be done on the flow between these two experiences.
AT: There was something about borders. The initiate began by gently feeling the still surface of the water with her face, her hand, her hair. Then when it broke into ripples and splashes, she plunged into the water. Towards the end she was circling inside the pool, tracing the glass container – another border that she was … exploring? Brushing up against?
GG: Suggesting containment, being enclosed. As though the vessel couldn’t contain her and the water. The closing image had a sense of wanting to break out.
AT: She was on one knee, turned to the audience, limbs extended, shaking. That moment absorbed me – after a long spell of mundane activities. The piece was almost like a Happening, and if I used that eye for the ordinary to watch, I would quite enjoy it. But with the music – a gong or chime-like meditative beginning, and then the electronic --I didn’t need that music. If you wanted to show me ordinary actions, let me watch the ordinary actions.
GG: I think overall in the works there could be more interesting choices in what we hear, how we hear it, who makes the sound, where the sound comes from. All the pieces had a similar choice in what we heard.
AT: The default that they fell back to.
GG: In Drifting, the score was created on stage, and the electronic music suited that world the most.
AT: What about dance language? Infiltrated used mundane actions rather than a lot of complex movements. At times I was bored, but movement choices were made according to choreographic vision rather than showing off technique.
GG: There was a connection between physicality and concept. I thought all choreographers showed a curiosity for movement investigation.
AT: My memory of most new choreography in Hong Kong from, say, five years ago, was about the display of technique, and choreographic concept and theatrical realisation took a back seat. These three pieces did try to select and craft movement languages, rather than basing everything on the technique class. Which is encouraging.
GG: New Forces in Motion does offer fresh and thoughtful investigations into choreography. The choreographers were working out relationships between concept and physicality. It’s a creative research, which still could be taken further, but they are choreographers making informed and imaginative choices.