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Flash Journal, 12-5: In Really Mixed Company
Dancing wide from New York to Hong Kong

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2005 Maura Nguyen Donohue

Week 1.5, Nov. 13 - 25: Back Home

I'm playing house in Hong Kong, where I arrived November 12 as part of a contingent of four New York dancemakers collaborating with four Hong Kong peers in DanceWide HK NY. With two kids in tow the experience isn't quite as sexy or seedy as a Wong Kar Wai film, but it's still thrilling. I love this city and I'm getting to play out a dream I've had for several years. I'm living and working in a town in which I've often wanted to set up shop. This is my potentially ideal home base for my potentially idealistic bicultural lifestyle. They've got the great Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts (HKAPA), the highly active and altruistic professional City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC), a groovy independent pick-up group with its own little loft on the top floor of an industrial building (DanceArt HK) and a fantastic Cultural Center. I'm interfacing with each of these gems as part of an exchange project that's brought the New Yorkers here to teach at each of the first three locations and to premiere a new collaborative work with the four Hong Kongers on December 9 and 10 at the fourth space, after four weeks of rehearsal.

It's a cosmopolitan city, with a good deal of spoken and written English and an excellent public transportation system (do I really have to thank the British colonialists?). Plus, on the Kowloon side of things, it can get pretty old school Asian -- without all of the interpersonal angst that Vietnam brings up each time I'm there. I've got these two Chinese pups with me (okay, they're only half Chinese but that quarter of Irish in them is lurking somewhere too deep to change how the world views them) and one of them, having just reached her second birthday, was due for some serious language immersion. So was I. Can't have my kids growing up with a special language they could share exclusively with their dad at my expense. So my stake in this project is personal. I'm keen to go native -- or at least pass as local.

Just 12 hours after our arrival the night before, local Allen Lam arrives at my apartment to escort Pilobolus veteran Rebecca (Becky) Jung and I to class across the harbor in Hong Kong. I'm staying on the Kowloon side in the very residential Hung Hom area. I've paid extra to accommodate the needs of the fam and by an administrative error get to spend the first week in a 27th floor, three-bedroom, two-bath apartment with an amazing view across the harbor to Hong Kong's gorgeous skyline. It feels like the high-life even if the streets of our immediate neighborhood appear decidedly decrepit. We're actually a couple blocks from the Kowloon Canton Railway (KCR) and the cross-harbor tunnel to Hong Kong. So it seems like this city really IS never sleeping.

Allen pays our fare for Bus 115 with his watch (!) and we're off into morning traffic. I can actually see HKAPA from my window but it's going to take us over half an hour to get there. I start my week teaching Level 2, the lowest level. These 17-year-olds are keen to learn and quite goofy. I've made it my goal to try to learn everyone's name, and get it right, having just created a show based on names. I get a Pinky and a Kinky in class, both wearing high ponytails. They're good. I'm still quite dazed after a sleepless 14-hour flight from San Francisco and just a small negotiation of sleep from the five-month old. I'm hoping that my students learned something from me about connection to the floor and dancing on long diagonals and spending time upside-down but I honestly have to spend a chunk of class getting my own body back into working order. At 10:45 I teach the Level 5s, the highest level. A few alums join class and while I thought the Level 2s were surprisingly good I'm provided suddenly with a treat. I've never seen some of these movement phrases look so good. They're right there with me moment for moment improvising and connecting with the floor, dropping weight, fluidly shifting and following throughout the warm-up with respectful attention. I think things are going really well and am pretty impressed with myself for getting through these two classes but then I'm totally upstaged by the arrival of Perry and the kids at the end of class. The Chinese love their babies and they swarm mine like superstars.

Abby Chan, the hardworking woman behind the entire HK NY project, Chris Morgan, Becky, Perry and I meet up with Hong Kong artist Wai Mei Yeung and head to the Atrium for lunch. Abby, Wai Mei, Allen, and Andy Wong, the fourth HK participant, are all HKAPA alums. Abby and Andy also danced for CCDC, Allen and Andy both work together in DanceArt and Wai Mei and Abby have worked as a pair called Mcmuimui. However, this project is the first time they are all working together as a group. In the past, Abby brought guest teachers to Hong Kong as part of the Big Apple Dance Project. Miguel Gutierrez, Colleen Thomas, Alex Beller, David Dorfman, Lisa Race, Michelle Miller, and KT Niehoff have all come over to teach and informally show some work. For DanceWide HK NY, Abby expanded the project to include a true exchange. For ten days in August the eight of us (Julian Barnett joining me, Becky, and Chris in the US contingent) worked together in New York to introduce ourselves to each other and generate material. And man did we generate. Each day one of us would lead a warm-up and develop some creative idea. At the end of our time together we presented over an hour of material in a studio showing at Dance Theater Workshop. Now that we were all back together again, or would be once Julian arrived Monday night, we had the hard task of making an actual cohesive whole from all that we'd spewed. I've been collaborating and exchanging solidly for the past three years in Thailand, Japan, NYC, Vietnam, Cambodia, and NYC again. But I've never been in a situation where eight choreographers are invited to come together and create an entirely new work. We didn't choose one another as a collective. Abby did, thinking it would be interesting to bring American artists with mixed Asian backgrounds 'back,' but she's not leading the development of "Back Home," the title we've given our collective work, creatively. We're also not being directed by an outsider, or even following a lead artist. It's a level playing field. We have to work together as equals and perform and make something worthwhile. On top of a heavy teaching schedule.

It's a big project. And the first week takes its toll on our energy and good spirits. But in the end I have faith in Abby's vision and deeply respect her desire to offer both her community in Hong Kong and her community in New York increased exposure. She heartily wants to insure that Hong Kong dancers get a chance to experience an antidote to the kind of big dance companies that generally come to town via the arts festivals; get a glimpse of Downtown, experimental work and styles that don't fit into rigid conservatory categories of dance; and meet dance artists who work and survive outside of established institutions and whose work thrives there. And in return she's revealing a sophisticated, highly trained community of devoted dancers to those who might not generally think of Asia as a breeding ground for innovative dance-making. I'm impressed and grateful that she, just another dancer, took it upon herself to leverage support from organizations and continually grow a project whose impact is noticeably rippling outward. There isn't enough support for dance out there to begin with so it's truly heartening when you meet another artist willing to bust her ass for more than just herself.

At the end of week one I've taught Level 2 three times, Level 3 once, Level 5 once and members of the DanceArt Company once. I've met Australian Maggie Sietsma, the new dean of HKAPA's dance program and Tom Brown, the associate dean (currently very busy developing an MFAprogram), had a production meeting, been photographed and interviewed by HK Magazine, met with the lighting designer, rehearsed for four days for four hours each and run frantically up Ice House Street hill in heels to arrive just in time to catch Andy's show at the Fringe Club. Andy and a longtime collaborator, Taiju Matsumoto from Japan, have committed themselves to dancing together once per year in a theater for the next ten years. Serendipitous for us in that we get to see the first installment in a space I've heard much about. (The only unfortunate thing about the show was that it kept Andy out of a couple of rehearsals and clearly exhausted when he was present.) The program, entitled "Dance Forest," was like a series of unrelated poems. It began with a hearty dose of dancing in a duet, "Double Selves." The partnering and vigorous movement provided an exciting and promising start. The two of them did look interchangeable and well matched. From there the piece is mainly a series of solos with some quickly devised transitions. Taiju and Andy were at their best when highly physical; the ponderous transitions with clicking rocks or pregnant pauses played out as filler and didn't serve the overall journey of the evening. Taiju's solo "Thunder from a Distance" and Andy's solo "Shadow Taking the Lead" both stood out as clear ideas with sharp execution. It was great seeing Taiju again, having truly enjoyed his performance in Andy's "Paper Balloons" five years ago. (See my Flash Dispatch of July 12, 2000 to read about this and also of my earlier impressions of the HK dance scene.)

What I really loved about the evening, aside from meeting a Chinese Harry Potter named Jonas who I insisted on calling Joshua (as apparently many Americans do) at the reception afterwards, was the feeling that this groovy little 65-seat theater was a home in which Andy was comfortable. A home he's returned to countless times over the years. A home he expects to be welcomed in for years to come, where the stakes aren't so high and he can work out a few ideas in front of an appreciative audience. The Fringe Club is a stubborn snub to a local sentiment that HK is a cultural wasteland. It includes two small theaters, a gallery space, a bar and a rooftop beer garden. Jackie Lo, the chipper program manager, invited all of us to bring our work to the space and Catherine Lau, the manager/administrator, is a benevolent roll-up-your-sleeves-and-serve-drinks kind of champion for the innovative spirits around town. The night felt intimate and easy and with a piece called 'Back Home" in my head and a constant clash of cultures in my path I was instantly nostalgic for a happy little moment when all was familiar.

Week Two

Thursday, 11/24/05: Thanksgiving

Have to teach at CCDC at 9 a.m.. Up at 6 with the baby, then Sasa; feed her breakfast and dress self, change a couple of diapers, dress kids and we're off. Energy is low and I fret that every morning I walk back into class with them it's like Sisyphus pushing the boulder back up the hill. It's early for company class and they've got a press conference today for a show coming up so I know they're tired from rehearsals but they're just so serious. And at the end of each class, when they're dancing and laughing, I think we've journeyed and shared an experience together and grown closer. But then I return the next day and it seems as if we'd never met. It leaves me wondering what I should be teaching them. They're already technically great dancers, and they too are about to premiere a work. So I don't know how focused on imparting a new perspective I should be, or if they really just want me to get 'em warmed up for the day; or do I want to give them a class that was fun and enjoyable just so they'll like me? And then I wonder what to do if I can't get it up. This much teaching has been intense. Far different from a couple weeks at Dance Space or master classes on tour or even a semester-long tenure at a university. We're all running all over town teaching a substantial range of dancers. At best we get three days in a row with the same group, which allows us to build a little foundation but not enough to effect any fundamental change. But at CCDC it's enough for me to watch these exquisite dancers turn my material around.

They chomp it up and spit it back out fresh and hot. So even if warm-up feels like a chore because they seem so serious and I worry that they're bored or wondering when we're going to get off the floor, it doesn't matter. This is a company. They laugh and support one another. I'm just not really inside that circle but it's heartening to see them together and to watch them kick some serious dance around with individuality, power, abandon and attack. I keep wishing the Opera Ballet of Vietnam dancers I worked with in Hanoi could take a book out of their page. They're similarly well trained technically but the incredible level of underexposure in Vietnam leaves them ignorant and subsequently disrespectful. I've had dancers there just sit down in the middle of class (I've been invited to teach) because they just don't want to move the way I'm asking them to. They complain about not getting enough information, but when I then present them with it, I've encountered arrogant diffidence. The CCDC dancers might seem quite serious in the morning but they pay attention, work hard and dance like devils.

Friday Night

It's the end of a second week's work. It's happy hour all over Wan Chai and I feel the lure of the lights and sounds and jolly "gweilos" filling the air with English. But instead I hop on a 101 bus on Hennessey Rd. and start chugging home through the endless rush hour back to Hung Hom, or Jersey City as I like to call our 'hood, which unfortunately isn't on the MTR (subway) line.

Yeah, it's Friday night and we worked hard and progressed a bit slower this week, but I think we got a little deeper creatively and the piece is really starting to take a solid and clear shape. We've got just under a half hour complete with transitions and musical choices. I think the second half could go slower though. It could be a harder path. But maybe it'll be a clearer explosion of our thematic ideas. Who knows?

So far we've managed to riff off of one another and interweave ideas surprisingly well. In the beginning someone would pitch an idea and several people would run with it. Back in August Allen taught us a movement phrase. We each came up with a variation and then he put four of us together and created some interactions based on that. Here, while Abby and I were talking to someone from HK Magazine, Allen was working on Julian's variation. We walk back in, see it and I think it looks like he's lost. We return to the idea of maps, a projection idea I had pitched but we let go of, but Julian feels strange about how the dance is suddenly a dance-with-map so Chris jumps up and grabs the map and starts moving around Julian. Now it's Chris who is lost. We get up and improvise around this and suddenly we're back to the original quartet, with Chris making his way around all of us trying to get directions. Allen and Abby give direction and we go from there. Everyone enters with electrons and protons firing and things get pretty electric. Or we get stuck and talk too much but it feels like there are a few of us keeping an eye on the finish line and making sure we walk away from each day's rehearsal with a solid chunk of new material and continued clarification of yesterday's idea.

I do feel that the New Yorkers are more aggressive about pushing the process and demanding choice-making, but it's not an unequal distribution. What's truly exciting is the challenge of working and learning and expanding beyond my creative comfort zone. It's interesting to feel a little second-guessed about preferences. It's as though there are seven editors out there calling me on every choice in every rehearsal but rather than feeling stifled I feel prodded to look more closely and have solid justification. I wonder how this will continue as the pressure to finish looms. Next week will feel critical but today I feel grateful. Grateful for the weekend, grateful to be welcomed by these peers and by the energetic, receptive students at HKAPA, for the honor of sharing time in a studio with the extraordinary dancers of CCDC, for the chance to tap into the pulse of this city.

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