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[ENG] Sculpting Weighty Narratives On Asian-Male Dancing Bodies

Yang Seung-kwan’s Who are you?;

Photo: Alan Wong

Six solos by six young male choreographers presented by E-Side Dance Company at Ngau Chi Wan Civic Centre on 27 October 2018 appeared to tread similar ground. This impression was fueled mainly by the similarities in the scores assembled for these pieces, which leaned heavily on moody atmospherics from the likes of Max Richter, Deaf Center, and Nils Frahm. Spoken word also cropped up in recorded clips of angst-ridden conversations.

While these similarities induced a certain amount of tedium, it was fascinating to observe the way each performer sculpted work on his own body, de-familiarizing the body in some fashion. Most of the solos tackled weighty social themes, yet the one which left the most unforgettable impression did so without any overt message or narrative.

E-Side has been a fixture in Kowloon East since 1988, nurturing the next generation of contemporary dance-makers. This particular platform, known as the Asian-Male Contemporary Series, provides a rare opportunity for an international contingent to come together on the same stage. For its 9th iteration, artistic director Jacky Yu Yan-wah selected three male choreographer-performers from Korea and one each from Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

The Koreans, all new to Hong Kong, brought pieces with strong social messages:

Ji Kyung-min combined elements of martial arts, break dance and voguing to suggest a physical or psychological disability that may end up isolating the afflicted. Titled Shyness, his work seemed to ask us to be more aware of differently abled people, to make an effort to meet them where they are, and value their gifts.

The most engrossing element in Yang Seung-kwan’s Who are you? was the video projection of a disembodied human face appended to a robotic arm. In the video, make-up was applied to the face through an increasingly violent set of maneuvers. Onstage, Yang moved like a half-robot-half-human, his own head obscured by a silver leather helmet. Upon discarding the helmet, he wielded a lipstick to scrawl ‘FREEDOM?’ on a mirror. Turning to face us for the first time, he revealed lips that were painted red. This plea for freedom of gender expression would have resonated more strongly if its soundtrack hadn’t been dominated by cheesy dialogue from the sentimental Hollywood sci-fi flick, ‘Bicentennial Man.’

We didn’t see Kwon Jae-heon’s face at all in The Weight of Smoke, for he too wore a heavy mask. Some kind of hidden device periodically produced an eruption of fine white powdery dust or smoke from behind the mask. The score was in part excerpted from a work by Kyoto theatre collective Dumb Type and contained a long series of instructions recorded in a robotic monotone (“erase my memory”/ “keep on seducing me” / “set me to zero” / “dance with me”). Elsewhere, we heard a sacred chant. Kwon moved like someone wounded in battle, then like a puppet, his movements gradually growing bigger, bolder, more fluid. Was the smoke a metaphor for pollution and its toxic effects?

With Speechless, Taiwan’s Chang Chi-wu produced a striking metaphor for the way humans are both liberated and oppressed by science. Lighting effects at first suggested an environment of toxic radioactivity, perhaps from the meltdown of a nuclear reactor. Then, a rapidly scrolling series of numbers, as if produced by a computer, sometimes shrinking to tiny points of light that flashed like strings of diamonds, were projected onto Chang’s body, attired in white vest, briefs and a boxy coat made of clear plastic. As he moved, he was lit first in a manner suggestive of Indonesian shadow puppetry, then with the kind of pointillist effects used by Robert Rauschenberg and Aaron Copp in Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace. In that work, the dancers merged into the backdrop, subsumed in a sublime pastoral world; in Speechless, man is trapped in a stark machine world. Just before the blackout, a countdown was projected on his chest. In a world devoid of math, Chang seemed to ask, would man die?

The other two works – Am I……? by Hong Kong’s Lam Po and Rain by Japan’s Minoru Harata – preoccupied themselves with strictly human concerns and required only the simple stage technology of a chair. They both did heroic things with chairs – in Lam’s work a chair seeming to stand in for an absent romantic partner. Relationship angst appeared to drive him to the edge of a cliff (the apron of the stage). Paranoia set in as he repeatedly slipped and slammed his body to the floor, then dragged himself up to stand again. Before the blackout, he retreated upstage, looking back fearfully as if a stalker lurked in the audience.

The pleasure of Harata’s work stemmed from the elegance, control and abandon of his performance. Wearing a three-piece suit and a haunted look on his face, he was in thrall to a towering Ryuichi Sakamoto score from the movie ‘Babel,’ in which violins seemed to be battling a piano. His movements started out restrained and Chaplinesque, then he ripped his jacket off, draped it over his head, and danced with increasing intensity – spinning, trembling, fighting imaginary demons. The score switched to a trite ballad by Angela Aki, yet Harata rose above it, in a smooth and powerful dance built on voguing. Whatever nightmares he was battling seemed to have been washed away (hence the title Rain?) and he walked insouciantly back to his chair. Magnetic performances of this calibre remind us that great dance can be cathartic in their intensity of emotion, without doing or telling us anything.


Carla Escoda

Writes about dance in Hong Kong, London, both coasts of the United States and the oft-forgotten cities in between where dance is thriving. Her writing is published on various sites including KQED Arts, the Huffington Post, Bachtrack, and Ballet to the People. Carla trained as a ballet and modern dancer with Ballet Philippines and at Yale University.

Asian-Male Contemporary Series Episode 9

Choreographers: Yang Seung-Kwan, Ji Kyung-min, Lam Po, Chang Chi-wu, Kwon Jae-heon, Minoru Harata

Performance: 27 October 20:00 Theatre, Ngau Chi Wan Civic Centre


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