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Flash Journal, 12-23: Feats of Fury
Take me 'Back Home'

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2005 Maura Nguyen Donohue

Editor's Note: Maura Nguyen Donohue, along with fellow New York choreographer-dancers Rebecca (Becky) Jung, Julian Barnett, and Christopher Morgan, recently concluded DanceWide HK NY, an international project which paired the Americans with Hong Kong artists Abby Chan, Wai Mei Yeung, Allen Lam, and Andy Wong in the creation of a new work, "Back Home," which premiered December 9 in Hong Kong. In this entry, Donohue chronicles the third of four weeks of collaboration in Hong Kong, which also saw the Americans give classes at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts (HKAPA), City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC), and DanceArt HK, as well as view evenings of work. (To read Maura's previous journal, on the first two weeks, please click here.)

Monday, 11/28

Yesterday would have been Bruce Lee's 65th birthday. Perry and I took the kids to the Avenue of the Stars along Tsim Sha Tsui's promenade to see the unveiling of Hong Kong's most famous son's statue. The best part of the modest ceremony was the continuous '70s soundtrack blaring amidst the small crush of people squished between the New World Center and Victoria Harbor. It made me think of ownership. I think of the late film star and black belt as an American icon, a major role model for Asian-Americans; HK calls him their own; yet some small town in Bosnia beat them to the punch and erected a memorial statue a day earlier.

9 a.m. teaching was rough this morning. My body is feeling slow and worn down from the endless rush of this city, with teaching every morning, rehearsing every afternoon and every moment otherwise being devoted to getting to the kids and getting them out and about. As soon as class was over I jumped on the train to the Sham Sui Po flea market to meet Perry, grab lunch and take over childcare so he could see a guy about some bamboo for the shakuhachi flutes he crafts. Then I scrambled to find somewhere minimally private to nurse the baby before throwing him back to Perry and running for the train back to rehearsal. As soon as that was done, though I'd have loved to rehash rehearsal or just simply get some hang time in, I knew I'd need to bolt to jump on a bus so I could sit in traffic for an hour to simply get through the cross-harbor tunnel and relieve Perry of daddy duty in time to put the kids to bed, so he could run out and keep his Internet flute business alive, since we can't get online in the apartment. There's no window shopping or bar-hopping or socializing. There aren't really any dinners out because 1) dinner is no fun with sleep-deprived infants and 2) we still won't even submit the most devoted relative here to caring for two babies at bedtime.

This is no paid vacation. Hell, with the kids here it's not even a working vacation. It's very exciting to be here but Man is it work to make this work. I get up in the morning and stand on the overcrowded double-decker buses with the rest of the enslaved and, late in the evening, trudge back home. I'm feeling a bit disgruntled. This is going to be a rough week. The reality of the situation has settled in. Perry and I won't be playing in this great city this time. We're not going to check out those groovy little stands or shops we see from the bus, we're not going out for drinks and we're not going to be sleeping too much. I'm also being hit with a bit of culture shock a couple weeks late. It's the relentless mall culture here that I hadn't noticed so much as a traveler. With Christmas approaching the pressure to shop is overwhelming. There's very little green space so Hong Kongers go to malls for leisure time. I've been working on subverting materialistic tendencies for several years now, so it's all starting to get to me that I feel an obligation to buy something with each free moment. Traditionally the Chinese burn "Joss," paper money, at funerals to insure the departed will be well taken care of in the afterlife. Here in HK, I've seen shops selling paper TVs, sofas, computers, bicycles, trucks, pianos, electric massage chairs, etcetera. My consumer rage has no place in a culture that believes you really can take it with you.


Wednesday

Tired. Really tired. I shouldn't complain because I love being here, but it's a substantial workload. Not simply teaching and creating an entire work in a few weeks but the effort of getting around is draining. The crowded buses, not being near the MTR train line, standing, walking, the stairs, stairs, stairs, endless pedestrian overpasses that make the simple act of crossing the street unbearable with a backpacked baby and toddler-in-stroller. And getting it up each day to lead and hope to impart an aesthetic concept and find food and feed kids and show up for rehearsal with a charitable spirit and wealth of creative ideas.

I also find I'm tiring of answering to a general ignorance about mixed-race experiences or just a simple mixed cultural experience. A reporter for a local magazine assumes that I'm a sorrowful mutt, unwelcome anywhere, or rather, in need of a side to choose. Becky asks me if I think I "act Asian." I don't even know what that means. I just say I try to act local when possible. Abby talks about bringing us "home" for this project and I find life-long pet peeves tugging on my tongue just itching to get me to spew. Julian spent the early part of his childhood in Japan but because he doesn't look the part anymore, he's an assumed white boy. He's got family and friends and access to language and cultural norms but somehow that's all disrespected and he gets pegged by an irate project administrator as being a pushy American. I've worked in Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, Japan, India, Thailand, Laos, Japan, Cambodia and Vietnam again and yet somehow feel that I'm on the receiving end of some sort of UNICEF program for wayward Orientals. Granted this is a first trip to Asia for Chris, and Becky hasn't been here in over a decade. So the range of experience is more significant than for the HK artists, who have all lived, studied and worked in NYC at length, but we're hardly a group of oblivious "Jook Sing," to use the local slang term for Chinese born overseas, which literally means "hollow bamboo."


Thursday

Three days in a row I've been brimming with tears in the middle of rehearsal. Fatigue. Frustration. Family stuff; my mom just broke her ankle at the gym on Sunday morning. My dad's about to go in for prostate surgery. And I, responsible eldest daughter, am too far around the globe to be of any help to them. I feel guilty for my absence and find myself questioning the value of art-making over filial piety. Needless to say, I don't feel generous in rehearsal. I feel irritated and selfish. I just want to keep forging ahead and finish the work. We've got 45 minutes of material but some of my colleagues want to stop and rearrange things, risking logistical logjams. I feel my hackles rise and remind myself that the struggle is good, that I need to go beyond my comfort zone, or have the way roadblocked a little. But sometimes it feels like building up and up only to have someone stomp on your little sandcastle.

We also hit on some of the truly personal stuff about being away from home in our look "Back Home," as our piece is called. We're into foreigner and outsider stuff, which takes on a different meaning here for the New Yorkers. It dredges up experiential histories of name-calling and being told to go back to our own country in our own country. The chronic lateness or sudden disappearance of an over-committed collaborator thwarts our flow. And I'm just resisting moments I've been dragged into that I'm not interested in and feel more and more impatience rising. Each rehearsal starts too slowly, we talk too much. Before any idea can get on its feet we've got loads of questions and comments, generally valid but still causing us to dawdle. I feel the clock ticking, I question the sanity of a project with too many collaborators, and I don't want to respect some ideas or rather, the ability of the artists in question to execute them. Clarity and drive are vital and when they're missing I get cranky. But I also know this is just part of the process. If it's to be a true collaboration and not just some invited artists complimenting my own vision then it's got to be rough because I'm giving but I've also got to let go and let others satisfy their own creative agenda. Make sure we've all had our say and done what we came here to do.

By the end of rehearsal I'm a bit happier because one of the things I get to do is improv with Julian in a raw, rough and tumble slamfest of sorts. It's exhilarating and uncomfortable. He's just the right size and solid enough to catch me when I jump on him without warning. So at least I'm having a little fun along the way and maybe bringing in something aesthetically challenging and sincere, hopefully visceral. I want people to feel uncomfortable and banged around and emotionally exhausted because I feel that enough to want to go back home. Plus I feel like this is something I brought from home. It's almost hyper-American (though to be fair, I think some eastern Europeans could take it further). It is something beyond our typical informalism or casual post-modernism that moves us into a space that isn't safe or packaged or clean. Who knows if it'll survive the final week.


Friday

Yesterday was my last class. We've been mostly based at HKAPA, although Julian and Becky still had to traipse out to the boonies to teach CCDC in the theater in which that company will perform next week. And Julian had to make amends for some scheduling trouble this past August -- when we were all supposed to be working together in NYC and he was the over-committed collaborator -- by biting the bullet and teaching out at DanceArt Tuesday and Wednesday nights to measly groups of inexperienced dancers. But our rehearsals and all of my classes were at HKAPA, which was delightful. It's been a great pleasure to walk through the doors of such an impressive building to the sounds of the music students practicing on the balconies of the second floor. And to see all the little ballerinas in their pink tights and fuzzy slippers walking out of the cafeteria. The facilities are great. The studios are many. And I'm continuously tickled to be working at "Fame" - Chinese style.

The students have been eager and willing. I vacillate between worrying that I'm not giving them enough of what they might need to get through their afternoon rehearsal and fretting that I've made them dance too hard by the end of class. But they go for it anyway. As a teacher I've been more a part of the liberal arts dance world so it has been thoroughly refreshing to enter into a conservatory setting and see dancers in formation. During the first week I was a little frustrated by the rigid nature of this setting, for which it seemed that a technique class was not supposed to include any improvisation (a process I use to get dancers connected to the floor and focused). But I also know that it rankled Chris that there were major gaps in some students' technical abilities and (to flip the situation at CCDC around) seriousness. Many of these students, the same age as college kids, didn't begin their dance training until arriving at HKAPA, so it's fair to say they probably do require clear technique and behavioral guidance. However, as a guest teacher with only a few scattered encounters with them I thought the match of play and practice was good. I'm taking the liberty of believing the sentiments expressed in a card signed by many of the students that the feeling is reciprocal. I was pretty goofy and I'm not about line and form anymore. I was looking for individual style and dancers conscious of working with momentum, weight, groundedness, expansiveness, risk-taking and dynamic choices. And I did get that from several bright stars. I also wanted to share my general love of movement, the simple satisfying joy of a body in energetic motion. And personally, yeah, I wanted them to have fun. I wanted them to love it, to get to a point in class where they felt some kind of exuberance from the dancing. I dance because I love it, because from as early as memory serves I always wanted to and I hope that from me and my three compatriots these students have learned about discipline, creativity and joy.

We rehearsed early so we could get to see a CCDC rehearsal for the work the company is premiering December 9, when "Back Home" also goes live. (Apparently this is typical scheduling for dance in HK. When it rains dance it pours.) Then the entire CCDC building lost power and we lost some ground in our progress. Abby had suggested that Perry play shakuhachi during a brief section in the second half of our piece, so he's been coming to rehearsals with the kids which, in reflection, I realize has been adding to my manic panics. Trying to split focus, or stay focused, when your toddler has hidden somebody's heirloom jade pendant or the baby's screaming himself to sleep is a Herculean task. Logistically, I do want them to come by during the day. I'm still nursing Jet and I spend a lot of what tends to be close to an hour of not getting on our feet at the start of rehearsal thinking I could be helping with the kids. But once we do start working, their happy diversion becomes a grating nuisance. And I'll tell Perry to come by at a certain time, only to have some other factor throw off the plan, as I end up running in and out of the studio or relying on Chris's phenomenal baby whispering skills. As the youngest of nine children who started his tenure of uncle (to 21 nieces and nephews) at the age of five, he's got a real knack for it.

So I keep the baby during our little attempt at a little bit of rehearsal in a tiny, sunlit studio on the second floor of the blacked-out CCDC building and bring him along to the Kwai Fong area for CCDC's rehearsal. I'm surprised to find that the company is still in the exhibition hall, where its stage has been set up. It's really just a large room with garish fluorescent lights and a raked stage with two Marley panels in front. I thought we were going to be watching a run-through on stage and that there would be some distance. I realize pretty quickly that this isn't going to be a baby-friendly situation, with the piece's sparse and grating score, so I end up watching the first half through a small window in the door. It's just as well since the work doesn't fully engage me until Act II. Honestly, as I sit down to rehash this five days later -- amidst my other distractions -- I can't remember much about the dance except that Joanna Chou, Dominic Wong, and Chan Yi Jing all had beautiful solo moments and that Xing Liang is someone I would watch for hours even when he's only walking the perimeter of the stage. "The Conqueror," choreographed by Liang in collaboration with the other dancers, is based on a historical tale and is set on a raked stage designed like a Chinese chessboard. Unlike orthodox chess, Chinese chess, or Jeuhng Keih, is played on the line intersections. The board is made up of ten horizontal lines and nine vertical lines. The verticals are interrupted by a central-horizontal void called a river.

Unfortunately, we don't get to enjoy the spectacle of a rising and falling floor for this river, and the raked stage clips the wings of the exquisite group of dancers. Clearly they are dancing at less than 50% energy for this rehearsal to keep from losing their balance and toppling forward. The actual tilt of the raked stage is barely used in the choreography, with only one satisfying moment, during which bodies roll quickly down from the top. The movement vocabulary is dynamic, full of martial arts combinations. Bruce Wong and Liang perform an electrifying duet full of wu shu (kung fu) passes. The two men duck, dodge, sweep and flourish with assured grace. The overall staging of the work is stilted and drawn out. This story could have been told with less dramatic pausing and walking and posing, in half the time, and had a greater emotional impact.


Saturday

There are no days off here. Perry and I have no choice but to start by 7 a.m. to take care of the children, and even without rehearsal end up running all over town. I try to insure some down time today by insisting that we get back to the apartment after any outings by nap-time but then we're up to Kowloon Tong to meet a shakuhachi friend of Perry's and his kids for dinner. Kowloon Tong has one of the newer and more impressive malls in town, Festival Walk. We barely glimpse a fraction of it and I'm overwhelmed but still grateful for the large well-stocked English language bookstore with a great Asian design and HK history sections.

We make a quick exit from dinner at Chicago-styled Dan Ryan's so I can help Perry take the kids home and then sprint for the bus to HKAPA in time to catch "Body Torque," a student dance concert with faculty and guest artist choreography. The program includes two traditional Chinese pieces, one ballet, one musical theater tribute to Frank Sinatra and two modern dances. Senior lecturer John Utans (from Australia) ended up with 18 dancers, more than half of the Level 3 - 5 modern stream kids, but he kicked out a killer group dance for them. "In the Pavilion of Night" starts quickly with the dancers in a line downstage speaking in short bursts to the audience and then Peggy Lam Wing-yan rocking out in a sharply executed solo. Utans keeps all of the dancers on stage and moving at a demanding pace for the duration of the work. Bodies rise and fall, hammering into the ground and shaking in place. The entire ensemble is excellent, with Lim Thou-chun, Zhuo Zihao, Cherry Leung Tsz-yan, Foo Yun-ying, Song Nan and Malvina Tam Mei-wah attacking the thrilling choreography with decided verve. Pewan Chow's "Solo Act" is less successful, mainly because Chow doesn't let the students dance until the very end. They spend a majority of the work pushing large blocks around and standing on them wiggling their fingers. However, when the group of 11 finally does get moving they look great.

After the show our modern students are clearly the rowdy ones, hooting and hollering. We begin a marathon of photos with one another and we Yanks join them for a little cast party. It's late and I hate to leave but I know I've got an insanity-inducing trek to Macau in the morning and hug and hug and hug and know I'll see them after our show next week but I'm going to miss some of these kids. They are a rambunctious bunch and their exuberance is infectious. I can't remember the last time I walked away from a performance so genuinely happy for the dancers.

 
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