Eternity Formed by Fragments; Choreographer: Anh Ngoc Nguyen, Photo provided by Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts
The Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts Second Academy Festival is on from April to July 2018. The Festival program included the School of Dance Graduation Performances. Graduating students in each of the three streams, ballet, Chinese dance, and contemporary dance, performed.
The first piece Eternity Formed by Fragments, was danced by ballet students and choreographed by Anh Ngoc Nguyen, Artist in Residence at the School of Dance. Reflecting on the title, it occurred to me that eternity and fragments are antonyms or oppositions. Eternity has no boundary and cannot be fully covered even by an infinite number of fragments. The ten dancers, all female, are dressed in slick black costumes that look like leotards or one-piece swimsuits. A mirror is placed at the back of the stage. It rises, and shortly after, descends. The dancers on stage are reflected in it. The mirror intrigues me, for each member of the audience faces the stage from a different angle; they each see a reflection of a different small bit of the stage. The mirror, itself a fragmental piece of the show, also breaks the continuity of the stage. If it were an infinity mirror, there could be infinite reflections receding into it. The mirror is removed for the next scene.
The dancers’ bodies are strong and sturdy. Their movement is more forceful and angular than I expect from ballet. They seem to push their way through the space in search of the end of eternity, holding and supporting each other through the odyssey.
Towards the end, large rock-like shapes, prismatic or tetrahedral with rounded corners, are flown in from the rigging. The dancers gaze in awe. I am reminded of asteroids that look like fragments in the eternal universe. The glare from two powerful upstage spotlights temporarily blinds the audience. Then, there is a projection downstage of snowflake-like fragments filling a two-dimensional shape of the human body. The white spots are dimmed. I imagine the dancers have moved to a different dimension. When the projection ends, one of the ten dancers appears in a glittering costume. I wonder if the big stones represent philosopher’s stones and like those legendary substances transformed the dancer’s sleek black costume into gold.
Despite the mirror at the back, the projections on the cyclorama and down stage, and the big stones, the stage still conveys a sparseness that oddly stimulates the imagination. Unsure of a narrative, I sense that the mirror, rocks, and dancers are fragmentary bodies, and the stage is a space of eternity that runs endlessly through time, in front of our eyes and then in our mind.
The Homeland; Choreographer: Zhang Xiaoxiong; Photo: Wendy Chu
The Chinese dance students performed the next work, The Homeland, choreographed by the Chair of Dance at Taipei National University for the Arts, Zhang Xiaoxiong. The house program explains that The Homeland portrays the Chinese scholar tree (槐樹) worship culture and expresses a man’s longing for his home. There is a notable tourist and cultural site in Hongdong (洪洞) County where many Chinese pay homage to their ancestral home1. Ancestors have planted scholar trees in other parts of China, and the scholar tree is a gathering point for those who have relocated.
In Act 1, Prayer, the dancers are costumed like workers or farmers, with unbuttoned jackets, dark brown pants, and white footwear. The backdrop shows a hill top with a solitary tree and its bare branches. A man stands aside and watches a group of dancers praying to their ancestors. He is getting ready to leave. A female dancer comes up to the man, perhaps to bid farewell. In Act 2, Fate, two women, one completely costumed in red and the other half in red, move joyously and coquettishly before a man who sits next to his suitcase. The man watches the women with his back to the audience, and the women steal coy looks at him. In Act 3, Love, a duet expresses much desire and passion. The three acts seem to imply a narrative of the home-leaver finding love in a faraway land. The same backdrop from Act 1 appears in Act 4, Celebration, but without the tree. The dancers move to music that is fast and jubilant. The man returns for a reunion. A brother or a best friend welcomes him, and the two men perform a brief duet.
The tree evokes layers of meaning. It could symbolize family tree and our yearning to trace our genealogy and record our family history. A tree grows, spreads its branches and leaves, and disperses its fruits and seeds, and people have migrated far from home since time immemorial. When the tree is uprooted and gone, we lose our roots and our culture. With just the single tree rather than a copse or forest, I also infer that a man has to leave his family and kinsmen to embark on his own journey.
Set and Reset/Reset; Choreographer: Trisha Brown (Restaged by: Diane Madden); Photo provided by Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts
The third dance is the late Trisha Brown masterpiece, Set and Reset/Reset, danced by the contemporary dance stream and restaged by the Associate Director of the Trisha Brown Dance Company, Diane Madden. The house program notes that the students were taught the precise sequences of the original choreography using the same set of instructions that Trisha Brown gave to her Company. The design is also based on the 1983 original by Robert Rauschenberg with the original score composed for the dance by Laurie Anderson.
Trisha Brown worked in cycles, pursuing a cycle over a few years. Each cycle focused on experimenting with different dance styles and dance elements, or a new way of working with the dancers. Set and Reset is the culmination of her “Unstable Molecular Structure” cycle in which she worked with a system of capturing and repeating what she had improvised with a group of dancers.2 She described each dancer as “independent molecules overlaying each other with the same material”, the material being the dance of Set and Reset. The dance scholar, Susan Rosenberg, has described that Set and Reset is a result of improvisations that were remembered, repeated, recorded, perfected, and elaborated on.3 There is a seeming sense of disorderliness of the dancers walking, running, dancing randomly, and nearly colliding with each other all over the stage, carefree and oblivious to one another. Suddenly a random dancer may fall into the arms of another, or drop to the ground, or give a hand to pull another off the floor. Swaying in total abandon, they could unexpectedly get in line in multiple pairs, trios, or more to dance in unison. Movements repeat, the free form abruptly reveals a pattern or patterns followed by disarrangement, but all under the control of their fluid bodies in tune with Laurie Anderson’s brilliant score, her voice repeating the phrase “Long time no see”, which is sometimes intoned in her flat straightforward style, or fragmented, or electronically manipulated through a vocoder or other filters. Set and Reset/Reset also touches on Brown’s frequent theme of visibility and invisibility, with dancers re-appearing on stage after exiting, dancers lying on the floor and getting up, and dancers performing not just on stage but also in the wings of the stage. The performance is oddly elegant, and intriguing with its hint of indescribable possibilities in movement.
All three dances are well performed by the students. The dances portray journeys to me. Setting off a journey is befitting of what the graduating students experience after they leave school. Unsurprisingly, there are many more female dance students than men. There were two to three male students in the Chinese and Contemporary dance works, but none in the ballet. I worry that classical ballet, which features many stunning pas de deux, may face challenges filling male roles in future.
1“Nearly 100,000 Visitors Seek Roots in North China County”. http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/884775.shtml, published by Global Times. 7 Oct 2014. Accessed on 13 May 2018.
2 Morgenroth, Joyce. Speaking of Dance: Twelve Contemporary Choreographers on Their Craft. Routledge, 2004.
3 Set and Reset: Trisha Brown’s Postmodern Masterpiece. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4juID0hSyaw&t=41s. Accessed on 22 May 2016.
=== Selina Tng is an occasional contributor to dance journal/hk.
School of Dance Graduation Performances Choreographers: Anh Ngoc Nguyen, Trisha Brown (Restaged by: Diane Madden), Zhang Xiaoxiong Performance: 28 April 2018 20:00 HKAPA Lyric Theatre