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