[中][ENG]我們需要重新定義這世代的香港舞蹈—楊春江專訪 Redefining Hong Kong dance for this generation -- An interview with
[中]我們需要重新定義這世代的香港舞蹈 — 楊春江專訪
[ENG] Redefining Hong Kong dance for this generation
-- An interview with Daniel Yeung
Original Text: Yuen Kit Man
Shortly after he took up his new role as Chairman of Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC) Dance Group, we sat down with Daniel Yeung to hear his thoughts on the industry’s current hardships and his hopes for future change.
The tangled dilemma for the Hong Kong dance industry
Yeung believes that the most important dilemma that the Hong Kong dance industry faces is not the current suspension of classes and events due to the Covid-19 epidemic, but the long-term difficulties of developing the art of dance in Hong Kong. After completion of their professional training, dancers spend most of their time working in dance education and commercial productions, or even take part time jobs unrelated to dance in order to make a living. He describes this taking of non-artistic jobs to support the development of a career as an artist as ‘crossing the line’.
The reality is no one can support themselves in Hong Kong by working solely as an independent dance artist. Dancers receive professional training and learn to create art - if they then have to spend most of their time putting together dance routines for primary and secondary students and focusing their attention on taking care of them, that means, says Yeung, that they are: ‘sewing bridal dresses for others’. Teaching does not necessarily inspire dance artists to create high quality artistic work and may make it difficult for them to explore and develop a unique vocabulary and style. And while they may be able to take part in commercial performances, that experience may also not be helpful when it comes to creating their own original work.
From his observations, there are many reasons leading to the imbalance of the dance ecosystem. On the one hand, for many years, the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA) has been criticized for functioning as a vocational training institute which puts the emphasis on teaching dance technique rather than on nurturing dance artists. Yeung agrees that HKAPA should not concentrate only on traditional dance techniques. “Students are focusing on technique based on power, turns, jumps and extensions and measuring their skills. This does not foster a diversity of choreography. Yet in the current industry’s ecosystem, HKAPA’s direction is unavoidable. Students need these techniques to teach and to perform in commercial shows after graduating. Besides, owing to the government’s failure to provide properly planned arts education in primary and secondary schools, students might not have undergone any systematic dance training before entering HKAPA. Four years at the academy is far from sufficient to nurture an independent artist."
Daniel Yeung ; Photo: Terry Tsang
The government’s arts development policies have always focused on performance venues – in other words, hardware – ever since City Hall was established in the 1960s. The government knows to build venues and provide subsidies, but the construction of venues does not keep pace with the increase in the number of artists, including each year’s crop of local graduates as well as artists returning from overseas. For dancers to stay within the industry, they have no choice but to work in education.
In general, the lack of effectiveness of the government’s arts development policies has always been widely criticized, and the government has faced even stronger complaints during the Covid-19 epidemic. Since the outbreak began in Hong Kong in late January, the government has closed all performance venues, causing almost all dance performances to be cancelled or postponed. With schools also closed and classes suspended, many individuals, organizations and companies in the dance sector have been left facing huge losses.
The Arts and Culture Sector Subsidy Scheme from the government’s anti-epidemic fund is an inadequate measure - the assessment criteria adopted pretty much rule out either freelancers or arts education organizations benefiting from the fund. As the new Chairman of HKADC Dance Group, Yeung says that the government simply does not know the right way to help the dance industry. For example, HKADC came up with the $7,500 subsidy for individual arts practitioners (something that was criticized by the whole arts industry), based on the number of registered voters in the Performing Arts sub-sector. However, many artists and private tutors who are arts sector stakeholders are not registered voters. “the HKADC calculates with the figure of around six thousand voters. So that’s how much [subsidy each gets] after saving some for reserve.”
See the epidemic as a turning point for change
As the Chinese saying goes, ‘It takes more than one cold day for a river to freeze three feet deep’. The dance sector’s difficulties don’t just arise from the Covid-19 crisis, but from longstanding problems which have been building up for decades. Yeung agrees that the government's policy thinking on arts development has not kept up with the industry's situation, but the system always lags behind the development of the ecosystem. The industry needs to take the initiative and start by changing its own ecosystem.
First and foremost, dancers have to be aware that their role is not just to perform technique, but to use their technique to create and to become ‘Dance Makers’. Epidemics are unforeseeable, yet no matter the social environment, artists cannot remain unchanged. The most important thing dance makers need, second to technique, is flexibility. “Even though it is inevitable to ‘cross the line’ to survive in Hong Kong, everyone should find their own way of ‘crossing the line’.” Here, ‘crossing the line’ means that artists need to change according to the ecosystem, to break through themselves to find their own unique role. Yeung compares this situation to what happened to circuses in Europe. When animal acts were banned, the market shrank, so circus artists changed their form of performance to combining concepts of dance and physical theatre, with many circus artists becoming choreographers. “Every generation has to redefine dance and to build a new identity for themselves.” Yeung concludes.
So, how should dance for this generation change? This exploration needs to be driven by dance makers’ own personal aspirations. Yeung raises his own experience, as a dancer with visual arts background, as an example. As a visual artist, he is influenced by the ideological concept of “creation beyond galleries”, the concept where creative works happen in non-fixed spaces, supported by collective imagination. Hence, he tends to create unconventional dance works in unconventional performance spaces. Similarly, when artists seek to overcome the insufficiency of government-owned venues, some have taken the initiative to reach out to community centres and production companies for collaboration. After the turning of a new page with the landslide victory of the pan-democratic camp in the District Council elections last year, people raised the question of how to make good use of the District Councils’ resources to allow the art of dance to blossom in cultural recreation venues in every district. Yeung has even heard of artists baldly holding experimental performances in alternative outdoor settings. Although these venues have a smaller audience capacity for each show, they allow performers to come into contact with different kinds of audiences, opening up new markets. Aside from actual performance venues, Yeung also points out that many organizations now experiment with online platforms. These platforms have high accessibility and low barriers, providing everyone with channels to express themselves. This shows that dance as an art form and its applications have limitless possibilities.
Daniel Yeung ; Photo: Terry Tsang
In addition to artists proactively changing the scene with their work, Yeung also hopes that the system can improve to catch up with artists - that was one of the reasons he decided to run for HKADC Dance Group Elected Member. He says that taking office as an Elected Member is an arduous and thankless task. It is voluntary and pro bono in nature, with expenses for each work task being self-financed, and due to conflict of interest, it means his own work cannot be subsidized by HKADC during his three years term of office. Therefore, even though his livelihood is affected by the epidemic just like everybody else, he cannot receive any subsidy from HKADC. Nonetheless he still wishes to carry on the mission of his predecessor as Elected Member, Mui Cheuk Yin, and strive to bring about change from within the system. “Change needs time. First you have to spend one to two years dealing with the government, then changes might start to be implemented in the third year. An HKADC term lasts for three years, yet some plans cannot be fulfilled in one or even two terms.” In the long run, he hopes that more people from the industry will come forward to register as voters, and participate in policy-making. “Only when we all come forward and play our parts – so that the industry finds its way to redefine the application of arts and policymakers drive the system to be more in sync with the ecosystem – can we truly improve the situation.”, he says.
Winter is always one of the four seasons. Even though the dance industry is currently facing a bleak situation with “no market, no customers, no positive environment”, Yeung urges everyone to be active and gather like-minded people to break through the existing boundaries in search of new ways out. The road to change is long and arduous, but if we continue to take action and don’t give up, Hong Kong’s dance industry will take a turn for the better.
(English Translation by Tiffany Wong)
Text：Yuen Kit Man
M.A. in Theatre Criticism and Dramaturgy, currently an arts administrator and participant in drama production