Karen Cheung (second from left), Director of CCDF, with festival partners in Hong Kong. Photo provided by CCDC.
Globalization, art commercialization, cultural tourism, aestheticization of politics… you name it. Whatever the drive is, the phenomenon is ubiquitous art markets across various art forms; and dance, to nobody’s surprise, is one of many. When Hong Kong moves from 2017 into 2018, it hosts two new dance festivals. Where can they possibly sit amongst the already crowded worldwide festival scene?
I talked to Karen Cheung, Head of China Dance Development of CCDC, who managed the City Contemporary Dance Festival (CCDF) held in November 2017; and Daniel Yeung, veteran dance artist who has doubled up as the Director of Hong Kong Dance Exchange (HDX) scheduled to take place in Hong Kong in January 2018. I wanted to find out how they differentiate what they’re doing when they have neither the discursive nor bargaining power of the established, large-scale festival networks. And it was heartening to learn that the answer is obvious.
Both Cheung and Yeung hold the opinion that ‘art market’ is an outdated concept. “While they were intended to be occasions when program buyers meet artists in person, art markets have turned into repeated gatherings of the same group of authoritative presenters. Artists’ presence is not even required because the presenters gang pick the next star and put him on tour for the next couple of years,” Yeung said. No wonder institutionalized programing strategies have been accused of dominating art tastes and eroding cultural individuality through the globalization of taste. “See, I don’t call my upcoming project ‘festival’, I call it ‘exchange’. The key is to exchange not just programs but artistic vision, non-monetary resources, and people relationships, across an artist-to-artist network.”
Cheung also stressed that, while presenters have been invited to CCDF, there are not going to be any pitching sessions to talk about ‘products’ – dance pieces awaiting touring opportunities. “We launched the idea of DanceX, X for exchange, in Guangzhou in 2015, because I came to the realization that people networks take time to develop. What a festival should provide, instead of transaction mechanisms, is a platform for independent artists to gain international exposure. This time around in Hong Kong, we [have] organize[d] the daily events in a way that the presenters and the artists will attend performances together, to talk and to get to know each other. And they are encouraged to take all the time they need to do so.” With their deep understanding of the characteristics of presenters and artists, and a meticulous selection and invitation process, Yeung and Cheung have hit the nail on the head when it comes to the role of a festival organizer: networking like-minded people so that their shared visions can collide and create sparks. At the end of the day, the exchange required to turn conversation on, not to mention creativity, goes beyond merely exchanging name cards.
What is the creativity they are looking for? To Yeung, dance production does not happen on the stage alone. “It takes creativity throughout the cultural sector for a good dance to be produced. But I find this rather lacking in this city. I therefore hope that artists could contribute to the festival scene, introducing artists’ perspectives to tasks traditionally led by administrators. All my presenter-counterparts at HDX are choreographers.” Cheung, as a seasoned arts administrator, believes strongly in the equal importance of every stakeholder in the sector and throughout the production ecology. “Like-minded presenters and artists with similar tastes and working from platforms of similar nature and scale are more prone to develop synergy and work collectively. I emphasize appropriate matches instead of a work per se.”
Daniel Yeung (on the left), Festival Director of HDX, with dance group Libre Joven and The Ghost Dance Group at the New Dance for Asia Internationals Festival in Korea. Photo: Won-gyu Choi
Who gets a ticket to the table of appropriate matches? Or, put another way, who decides what goes into the exchange? Yeung invited four panelists who together selected eight 20-minute works that had their debuts in the last two years, to be featured in HDX. He stressed that the fact that all eight pieces had been created by young(er) dance artists was a coincidence instead of a curatorial strategy. “One should look at this combination as a phenomenon of the current dance scene. If you ask me what we are facing, I gather, first has to do with the comparatively greater willingness of young artists to dedicate extensive time to creating a new work; second has to do with the limitations of the local art funding system. Public funding does not favor dance artists with ten years’ experience or more. Grants or subsidies available to them for the creation of new work are pretty limited. On top of that, this tier of artists might have entered a life-stage when they have to devote their time to family obligations. The scale is unbalanced. There are many, or maybe too many, choreographic opportunities and resources for the young ones to try things out.” If Yeung has not suggested a curatorial influence, it is even softer at CCDF. “The programs in CCDF came from an open call-for-submission. They have to be ready for ‘exchange’ - over the next three years these programs may travel to the partner-festivals in our network of Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan,” Cheung explained.
“Networking is not merely a watchword,” remarked Yeung. “We should expect substance: that networking triggers considerable effects, that networking shows us the tipping point.” Therefore, Yeung chooses to build networks with small-scale, flexible festival circuits and talks to those festival directors who possess the open-mindedness favorable to the development of new generation Asian dance. “We have always envied how European dance artists tour across nearby countries. We attribute that to similar culture, to low-cost transport, and the like. But actually, in Asia we can do the same if we pool our resources. My festival collaborators are looking into presenting events in Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore between February and December 2018. Later on, we may have Macau in the picture too. So, with this ‘network’ we are already realizing the possibility of touring around Asia throughout the year.”
Playing the devil’s advocate, I pointed out that societies following the value system of the New Liberalism do not necessarily value the ‘art’ in ‘the arts’, hence art funding systems are managed by technicians and bureaucrats rather than artists. How do we translate the artist-led vision into the language of the funders? Cheung acknowledged that “We don’t know if we are doing the right thing but we can only try. We cannot solve all problems with one answer. What is important is having different people doing different things, because, each one of them is like a piece of a puzzle and only by putting them together can we see the complete picture.” Yeung wonders if one always has to follow the institutional game plan. “Can we think outside of the box? Do resources always mean money? Can it possibly mean people network, cultural interaction, and artists’ dedication?” Having said all the above, there is one thing that will always stay at the core no matter how things will or can be done differently. “Make a good work. No matter where the world is going, a good work is where it all starts.”
Body Language, HDX Fukuoka Dance Fringe Festival program. Choreographer: Kota Kihaha & Yoshika Shinohe @ Kota & Yoshika
So, we have two long-time Hong Kong dance practitioners, one an arts administrator and the other an arts creator, both shouldering a sense of obligation to the betterment of local dance development, both taking unconventional paths. They demonstrate to us that there does not really have to be a divide between artists and arts administrators – a situation facing Hong Kong and the larger festival scene. Yeung and Cheung agreed that international trends have changed and it is NOW high time to do things differently. To them, the notion of ‘festival’ has immense potential. There is more than one way to define it. While it is too early for either of them to try to propose a new ‘festival’ standard, they believe they are engaging in a conversation about what Hong Kong currently needs, namely, filling the (creativity) gap in the larger culture sector. I cannot agree more, as it echoes my observations, that Hong Kong has received loud wakeup calls in the past few years. And, there have been sparks here and there, arousing our desire to make bottom-up changes. What we need is a collective and strategic effort to gather the sparks into a bonfire visible from a distance.