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[ENG] Hong Kong Arts Festival Dance: A Bird’s-Eye Review

This season the Hong Kong Arts Festival catered to a wide range of tastes in dance – apart from the familiar 19th century classics. The two big story ballets on offer were of very recent provenance: Christian Spuck’s Anna Karenina for Ballet Zurich, and Alexei Ratmansky’s Whipped Cream for American Ballet Theatre. Innovators from Japan, Austria, Israel, Spain, Australia, Cambodia, the U.S., and Slovenia brought whimsical, often mesmerizing work that interrogated the very purpose of dance. Experimental new work was delivered by Hong Kong and Mainland choreographers, some of it breathtaking in originality and execution, all of it thought-provoking.

Central preoccupations of the Festival’s dance season were encapsulated in The Pursuit of Happiness, a surreal tour de force by Slovenian dance troupe EnKnap Group, in collaboration with the New York-based Nature Theater of Oklahoma. Dressed as cowboys, the dancers enacted a series of brawls in a Western saloon, spouting uncowboy-like dialogue about their inability to find fulfillment in life. They then traveled to an Iraqi battlefield with the modest goal of bringing about world peace through modern dance. Non-native English speakers delivering absurd dialogue in proximate Southern drawls hilariously underscored the constant cultural appropriation that takes place in dance. Tropes of modern dance, social dance, and vaudeville were deployed to hammer home the proliferation of truly terrible art, modern society’s addiction to images of violence, and its obsession with branding and commercial success.

Between Tiny Cities; Choreographer: Nick Power; Photo: Thoeun Veassna

In an era when unmanned drones are sent to annihilate enemies of the free world, spawning new ethical dilemmas, it is important to zoom in on conflict between individuals and imagine alternative forms of resolution. This was the preoccupation of a twin bill that paired Israeli choreographer Ofir Yudilevitch’s Gravitas with Australian Nick Powers’ Between Tiny Cities. In Gravitas, two men tested the limits of friendship in a literally unstable environment, tackling each other on an inflated gymnastic mat. Between Tiny Cities envisaged a face-off between two wary strangers from hostile tribes, who find common ground in their respective street dance languages.

Street dance fused with contemporary, jazz, and Chinese opera references proved a beguiling mode of expression for Hong Kong choreographers Kenny Leung and Yip Chan, who sought to claim and reshape space in Battle Zone; for Solong Zhang, who questioned his identity in Most Things Haven’t Worked Out; and for the trio of Sichuan’s Yang Chang, Beijing’s Zhang Yixiang and Hong Kong’s Pak Wei-ming, who parsed the various ways in which they inhabit their masculinity in Pomelo, Orange, Tangerine.

Alexei Ratmansky explored a fantasy of boyhood in his reimagining of a failed ballet from 1924 Vienna, set to a luscious and complex score by Richard Strauss. The Viennese, still traumatized from World War I, took a dim view of the extravagantly designed “Schlagobers” (in English, “Whipped Cream”). Today, the surreal confection whipped up by Ratmansky, in cahoots with visual artist Mark Ryden, radiates joy and whimsy. Yet a sense of oppression hangs over the plot of a boy’s rescue from a grim hospital by Bacchanalian forces. In the end, children triumph over hypocritical adults; order, symmetry, and beauty prevail over fascism.

While Ratmansky embellished the slenderest of narratives in Whipped Cream, Christian Spuck excised copious material from the epic novel Anna Karenina. In his powerful distillation, the tragic unraveling of Anna’s love life played out in contrast to the marital complications of two couples in their circle, under the stifling watch of the ensemble, who exemplify 19th century Russia’s decaying aristocracy. In the bracing score, Rachmaninov bumped up against biting, discordant compositions by the likes of Witold Lutosławski, and industrial soundscapes created by Martin Donner. One of the latter fuels a compelling scene in which reform-minded landowner Konstantin Levin seeks to work alongside peasants in the fields – a choreographic vision of class confrontation that owes not a little to street dance.

Pas de Deux for Toes and Fingers; Dancer: Svetlana Zakharova; Photo: Pierluigi Abbondanza

Those who prefer their ballet à la Russe were gratified by the appearance of the great Bolshoi ballerina Svetlana Zakharova, in a rare performance with her husband, virtuoso violinist Vadim Repin. His gifts were vastly better served than hers, however, in a program adorably titled Pas de Deux for Toes and Fingers. She brought the old Russian calling card, “Dying Swan” – an unfortunate metaphor for the impact of politics on the Russian ballet world.

The “Dying Swan” resurfaced in Martin Hansen’s if it’s all in my veins, a cheeky statement on choreography as a mode of production, and on appropriation as the animating force in dance. The Berlin-based Australian choreographer purloined phrases from the work of Pavlova, Nijinsky, Pina Bausch, and other modern dance icons, as captured in popular GIFs on the internet, and assigned them to a heroic trio of women in sneakers, who also doubled as stagehands. Stripped of historic patina, these shards of the original works were recaptured on film and woven into a timeless new work.

Wu; Choreographer: Alice Ma; Photo: Cheung Wai-lok

Newcomer Alice Ma, one of a handful of Hong Kong choreographers promoted by the Festival, leveraged both the “Dying Swan” and the sinister figure of Odile in Swan Lake, in an edgy solo reflective of the body shaming that society inflicts on women. Perched on a small platform, her face caked in whitening make-up, she performed stiff mechanical movements like a broken doll or a parody of a young, inexperienced dancer at a strip club. She began to hemorrhage black feathers from under her skirt – the piece is titled Wu (Black) – and spent the rest of the dance desperately scooping them up, trying to stuff them back into her dress. The broken doll movements gave way to an interpretive dance of great abandon and virtuosic control – powerful imagery of youth abused and humiliated by the myriad ways in which female bodies fail to conform to an ideal of femininity. This was, to me, the outstanding performance of the season.

Another icon of the Western canon, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, was hewed by Japanese choreographer Saburo Teshigawara into a meditation on loss. He and fellow dancer Rihoko Sato were whipped by invisible forces across a treacherous landscape created mainly by dramatic lighting, suggestive of some natural or man-made cataclysm. Their spiraling movement echoed the score’s expansive, frustrated search for resolution.

Sometimes a dancer deliberately creates their own cataclysm onstage. Israel Galvan’s appearance at the Festival in FLA.CO.MEN signaled one such occasion. He smashed crockery under his flamenco boots, repeatedly head-butted a bass drum pedal, and charged through the stalls in the pitch black, carrying a little wooden platform from which he unleashed unnerving fusillades of percussive footwork. “Disarming flamenco,” he called it – a manifestation of the rebelliousness that has characterized flamenco since its invention.

Choreographers find other ways to disarm dance. In Vortex, Hong Kong choreographer Wayson Poon created a tai chi-inflected contemporary duet for himself and Lo King-san, in which intimacy is conveyed without physical contact between the men. The movement unfolds so slowly that it seems to slow down time itself.

Dance, if you want to enter my country!; Performance: Michikazu Matsune; Photo: Michelle Yeung

Sometimes dance superimposes different layers of time – as Vienna-based Japanese dance-maker Michikazu Matsune did in his wry tribute to Alvin Ailey and the Ailey Dance Company. Titled Dance, if you want to enter my country!, the work was inspired by a bizarre incident of ethnic profiling of an Ailey dancer by border police at Tel Aviv airport in 2008. Matsune embroidered the story with flights of fancy and tales of his own encounters with border control officers around the world, which he’d surreptitiously filmed over five years. The result was a whimsical provocation, illuminating the racist underpinnings of geopolitical power structures.

Of all the geopolitical power plays today, none is perhaps as consequential as that of Beijing over Hong Kong, as the territory continues to see its freedoms erode even before the Mainland’s promise of “one country, two systems” expires in 2047. It seems increasingly important for Hong Kong to be able to marshal a plurality of artistic voices that speak to cultures in confrontation, in negotiation, in assimilation. And for Hong Kong and Mainland artists to make common cause where they can – as in the witty Pomelo, Orange, Tangerine mentioned earlier. Another collaboration cultivated in this season’s Festival, by Jiangxi’s Xie Xin and Hong Kong’s Poon Chun-ho, titled ..after…., yielded a searing examination of the sabotaging of a romantic relationship.

Among the seven Hong Kong choreographers who were given platforms in the Contemporary Dance Series ‘Dance-Off’ this season, two were presenting their work for the first time. I described Alice Ma’s stunning feathery solo earlier. The other was Evains Lui’s Respiration, a duet for herself and Bobo Lai, both women encumbered with Perspex boxes that encased their heads – a striking metaphor, perhaps, for the ubiquitous glass-screened technology that has crippled day-to-day human contact. Another remarkable work in ‘Dance-Off’ was the brain child of Felix Ke, whose White Noise traced the evolution of a couple’s relationship from shallow insincerity to an intimacy fraught with peril. Reportedly inspired by Don DeLillo’s novel of the same name, White Noise hinted at powerful societal forces that poison human attempts to make meaningful connections. Such imaginative explorations deserve to live on beyond the Festival.


Carla Escoda

Carla 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.

46th Hong Kong Arts Festival Festival Period: 23 February – 24 March 2018


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