Dance Critique as Cultural Study
（原文刊於2001年第三期第一冊 Originally published on dance journal/hk 3-1 in 2001）
香港的現代舞以自闢創意和喜走偏鋒吸引觀眾。在過去二十多年來，城市當代舞蹈團曾為香港觀眾帶來不絕的驚喜。在他的《三千寵愛》中，曹誠淵邀請了知名女藝人袁詠儀 （綽號「袁靚親」），於形如手掌的小細台上起舞。中國歷史裡美色與權力間的舞與弄，形象鮮明。黎海寧的《Plaza X與異變街道》以台後冰塊上，瀟灑跳脫的往來滑動，對比於台前實地上，欲去還留的沈重步伐。天上人間，時空裂變。城當的近作《脫衣秀》，則企圖越界於時裝表演與舞蹈演出，游走於性與身體作為商品想像和藝術舞弄之間。
Cultural study in today's academic context usually refers to the study of popular culture in daily life. An adjective "classical" is added to more traditional art forms such as music and literature to distinguish them from the rest of the living world. But classical music and literature were in fact once as "popular" as nowadays' pop songs and action movies. As time goes by, what was popular in the past either disappears for ever or becomes incorporated into the classical canon. New modes of popular culture replace old forms of arts. Timeliness and contemporaneity tend to mark the territorial boundaries of cultural studies.
A more traditional Chinese understanding of culture lies in the old story about the distinction between the Song of the Spring Snow (yangchun baixue 陽春白雪) and the Rustic Poor (xiali baren 下里巴人) sung in the state of Chu in ancient China. It was said that only a few could echo the refined melody while thousands of people could hum the vulgar song. The moral behind the story is that the higher the quality of art, the less popular it can become. Popularity seems to suggest vulgarity, cheapness, shallowness, and tastelessness. Proportional incompatibility between the quality of art and the number of audiences seems to delimit the value of cultural studies on popular forms of art.
Compared with traditional ballet and Chinese dance, modern dance as a genre enjoys more the privilege of timeliness and contemporaneity. Yet most audiences do not regard it as part of their living world. For many, modern dance belongs to the mode of the Spring Snow, or high-brow art, that most people can neither participate in nor understand. In terms of popularity, audiences may choose to see dances that conform to expectations than performances that challenge them. The Hong Kong Ballet Company can stage a performance of Swan Lake every year. Dance drama based on Yellow River Piano Concerto can be choreographed again and again in different parts of the Chinese world. Yet modern dance may not share the joy of frequent re-runs and repetitions. Its box office relies more on its gimmick to produce something new and different in each new show.
Modern dance in Hong Kong attracts audiences by being creative and adventurous. Over the years, the City Contemporary Dance Company under Willy Tsao and Helen Lai has brought forth numerous innovative surprises to the audiences of Hong Kong. In his Sexing Three Millennia, Willy Tsao invited a famous actress Yuan Wing-yee nicknamed "Yuan the beautiful" (袁靚靚) to stage her dance debut on a hand-shaped platform. The image of beautiful woman under the manipulation of history is then in full display. Helen Lai's Plaza X juxtapose skating on a big piece of ice on the backstage with dances on the frontstage. The world of heavenly transcendence and the street of earthly transience counteract each other in the clash of time and space. The Company's recent work Strip Teaser tries to cross the boundary between fashion show and dance performance, between commercialized imagination of sex and artistic maneuvering of the same body.
曹誠淵作品《地獄變》Willy Tsao’s Hell Screen (1989); 圖片由CCDC提供 Photo provided by CCDC
Being independent and interactive is the second characteristic of modern dance in Hong Kong. Take a look at the list of membership of Hong Kong Dance Alliance at the back of dance journal/ hk. One can find numerous dance companies in small independent units ranging from Mui Cheuk-yin's "Contact Point, Andy Wong's DanceArt Hong Kong, Rosalind Newman's Dance HK/ NY, Pun Siu-fai's Dancing City, Jocelyn Chung's Danseomanie, Jacky Yu's E-Side Modern Dance Company, Yeung Wai-mei's McMuiMui Dansemble, Ong Yang Lock's South Asli Dance Workshop, Afa Chiang's Three Colours. Although these small units can choreograph one dance program alone, more often than not they would join together in dance series in the name of Six Dance Brocade (liu duan jin 六段錦), Infinite Emotions (ba fen ba 八份八) , flu da gui (九大簋) or All Independent Dance Series (ge zi ge 各自各). Independent units of dances unrelated to each other are center-staged one after another, serving an experimental flavor of interactive chemistry. Seeing a modern dance in Hong Kong is like seeing a variety show with personality and diversity.
Modern dance in Hong Kong derives its originality and authenticity from the cultural space and historical time of our city life. Both Helen Lai's Summer Solstice and Pun Siu Fai’s Somewhere in the Past by the Railway make use of the same Italian piazza in the outdoor space of Hong Kong Cultural Center along the bank of Tsim Sha Tsui. Visionary glimpses of the forlorn past are conjured up in the eyes of the audiences. The busy passers-by are forced to stop and think about in the inner space of themselves part of their forgotten selves. Pun's recent environmental dance Journey to the Lion Rock: A Marco Polo Adventure once again makes use of the space of cultural heritages to remind the busy moving audiences in their repressed consciousness who they are and where they are. People have to wake up from the rosy dream of city life and see the vanished garden of Hong Kong history.
Last but not the least, our modern dance embodies a typically Hong Kong sensibility towards contemporary history and culture. The external world is subjectively visualized from the perspectives of local people and individual selves. Hong Kong audience can echo with choreographers feelings of grievance and absurdity in the turn of affairs in the June Fourth Incident in Willy Tsao's Hell Screen or in the melodramatic handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997 in Helen Lai's Revolutionary Pekinese Opera (Millennium Mix). We can also sense the ambivalence and hybridity of Hong Kong identity in Yuri Ng's Boy Story and Ciao Cio Suzie Wong. In Daniel Yeung's Dance Exhibitionist —A Paradise for Natural Body, we observe a small boy's fear of fragmentation and disintegration in the threatening gaze of an invisible 'Other' in total darkness. Our modern dance presents and represents Hong Kong in its living mobility and moving sensibility. Any serious critique of the dances should be regarded as cultural study of Hong Kong per se.
編輯手記 Editor's Note
Dr. Paris Chi-chuen Lau, a Lecturer at the General Education Centre of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, wrote this article in 2001 to discuss the localization of art and culture, and how contemporary dance reflects certain human characteristics of its time and place. Through continuous writing, discussion and dialogue, as well as more cultural critiques and records, the artistic qualities of an era may be collected and consolidated. The article also recorded the flourishing situation of the dance community at that time. However, modern art and how it operates are very different from the way traditional Chinese art reaches the public, and the editor therefore has some reservations about the author's argument that “Popularity seems to suggest vulgarity, cheapness, shallowness, and tastelessness”. Nevertheless, the article’s cultural criticism of Hong Kong is deeply thought-provoking.