香港賽馬會當代舞蹈平台《舞鬥》中《點指》；編舞 Choreographer：馬師雅 Alice Ma；攝：張志偉Cheung Chi-wai@Moon 9 Image
到韓國NDA 國際舞蹈節2019參與比賽與；攝：Anthea Chan
[ENG] Every platform nourishes artists
-- an interview with this year’s Tom Brown Emerging Choreographer Alice Ma
The brand new recipient of the Tom Brown Emerging Choreographer Award at this year’s Hong Kong Dance Awards, Alice Ma, has become one of the Hong Kong dance scene’s ‘favourites’ in recent years. Given the limitations of Hong Kong’s dance industry, she has been given a lot of opportunities. In 2020, prior to the pandemic, she had been scheduled to contribute to several platforms including Freespace at West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD), the Hong Kong Arts Festival (HKAF) and the ‘New Force in Motion’ series by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD). In this interview, I invited Ma to share her first-hand experience as an artist -- from creating independent works at smaller companies to working with Hong Kong’s largest cultural organizations -- to look back at the various platforms she has participated in.
Interplay - The Speechless Deer presented by The Interzone Collective；Photo：Moka
1. Absolute freedom is necessary for artists to develop
Ma is a very ‘pragmatic’ dance artist. Her way to become sure of her creative direction is by building milestones through creating more and more work. Right after graduating from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts as a dance major, Ma took every performance opportunity she had, even appearing in drama productions. There is nothing better than participating in a performance for artists to learn about the different aspects of their abilities. Hence, a performance platform that offers complete freedom is the perfect space for a young choreographer to mature.
In Hong Kong, new choreographers often start through small-scale platforms such as E-Side Dance Company (E-Side) and Y-Space. Soon after graduation, Ma was invited by Jacky Yu, E-Side’s artistic director, to present her works on their choreography platform. She says that E-Side’s policy of non-interference and giving artistic freedom nourished her creative path -- Yu seldom asked about the progress and direction of her works, and did not censor any topics. He only gave advice when she asked for his comments. “Some artists might need a lot of help and direction from the producer but I tend to solve problems by myself, and find the right people to talk to.” To Ma, the audience is the best director. As she continuously presented her work at E-Side, listening to feedback from close associates in the dance industry and a few long term audience members enabled her to carry on discovering how her creative concepts, messages and emotions can be translated effectively into dance performances, and allowed her to further develop her own style.
While the freedom of working with small to medium sized companies is enjoyable, they are often short on resources. It is inevitable that artists have to put in extra mental and physical effort to tackle props, costume, and even technical issues. Starting from her puppet-themed work Soulless, Ma began to master character shaping as a choreographic style, and began to work with larger organizations. Her best known works include Wu and Over-master, both of which premiered at HKAF and received a good reception.
2. Pushing the boundaries to make progress
Every year, the HKAF’s Hong Kong Jockey Club Contemporary Dance Series commissions young local choreographers to produce original pieces, and since 2018 Ma has been one of those selected. When asked about the differences between working with this kind of organization versus independent platforms in the past, one obvious point is the comprehensive programme arrangements they offer. The organizer takes care of all the details, from budgeting and booking rehearsal venues to sound and lighting design and technical support, enabling artists to occupy themselves only with their own creative work.
Another realistic concern is that the greater resources and scale of the platform offer Ma more room to develop her work. She values interaction with the audience. As she says, “I was a little discouraged in the past when it seemed that however hard I tried, my work could only reach a limited audience… I hope to show my work further afield.” The HKAF dance platform allows performances to be staged in a higher profile theatre and to attract a wider audience, some of whom seldom watch modern dance but come because of the ‘Arts Festival’ brand name. Besides, while dance productions in Hong Kong usually only have 2-3 shows, this platform has brought Ma’s works into schools and to cities around the world. These opportunities keep the works alive.
However, the organizer also emphasizes the overall programme planning for the platform. In addition to taking care of individual choreographers, producers and technical teams have to balance the artistic style and direction for the whole platform. They not only provide comprehensive support, they also place the work within a context. Furthermore, Ma has to discuss her creative objectives with the Associate Programme Director, So Kwok-wan, regularly for each collaboration.
So does this mean that in this resource network, artists are in turn restricted in their work? “Any place has its restrictions. I only think about how to realize my work within those restrictions.” Besides, these restrictions might not be obstacles, but opportunities for artists to break through themselves. From “doing my own thing” at E-Side to discussing every detail at HKAF, Ma has learnt to express herself. “Most choreographers aren’t able to clearly communicate their creative concepts. At my first meeting with HKAF (in 2017), I didn’t know what I was talking about, but during recent meetings, I realize that I’ve improved a lot.”
3. Focus on experimenting - success or failure are not defined by the work
Frankly speaking, continuous creation on its own is not enough to enable dance artists to grow. Young choreographers reach a stage where they need to broaden their horizons and advance their skills. Freespace by WKCD advocates phased studies and cross-media collaborations, creating artistic possibilities with time and space. Last year, they invited Ma to participate in their creative platforms, including Choreographer and Composer Lab 2020, a platform led by musicians and dance artists.
Having become used to the “production first” concept usual in the Hong Kong performing arts industry, Ma was confused by this ‘work-in-progress’ platform (developing creative works through showcasing their progress at each stage). After the platform’s curators Karen Cheung and Kung Chi Shing connected Ma with musician Fiona Lee, they let them create freely, but she admits that the exchange process was not all smooth and the product was not perfect.
If that’s the case, why should artists take part in a platform that is full of uncertainties? She recalls Kung’s words, which he re-stated several times. “You ought to create works without knowing what they are.” The creative process does not require thorough planning, rather, what’s more important is for artists to have the courage to try new things. The possibility of creating under no pressure, to “let the audience see what you get from experimenting”, are this platform’s most valuable aspects. “In reality, allowing artists time and space to create does not necessarily equate to how successful their work is.” From those unfinished experiments, Ma came to understand how artists from different backgrounds think and create. These experiences and experimental results can provide raw material for her future work.
4. No matter where I am, I always keep creating
Near the end of the interview, we asked Ma for her comments on the different platforms. She brought up the problem that each platform sticks to ‘minding its own business’. “In most cases, organizers don’t allow us to bring previous works from other platforms to develop on their platform.” Hence works created on one platform cannot be developed further on another one. Looking at it objectively, each platform’s unique role and positioning should allow them to complement each other, thus forming a larger scale, or more comprehensive, network of platforms instead of operating in isolation from each other.
Yet even though individual choreographers are the stars of these platforms, they play a very passive role. It is difficult for them to influence organizers’ decisions. Moreover, due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, some of Ma’s productions were postponed to 2021, and some are still fluctuating between postponement and cancellation. During this time, she can only continue her own creative process -- reading, watching movies and doing research for her next work, although she is uncertain as to whether or not it will be postponed.
No matter where artists are and whether or not they have a platform available, artists do not come to a halt.
(English Translation by Tiffany Wong)
Graduated from University of London, returned to Hong Kong for 3 years, interchanging between theatre organizations and freelancing;Writes about politics/ culture/ arts, takes Hong Kong as her belief.