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Flash Dispatch, 7-12: Hong Kong Ramble
Smart Moves: a Weekend's Worth of Dance in Hong Kong

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2000 Maura Nguyen Donohue

HONG KONG -- Well, it's hotter than Haiti in Hong Kong. We're only supposed to be here for as long as it takes to get a couple of visas into Mainland China and Vietnam. Luckily, in the meantime, a workaholic curiosity and the smallest amount of urging from PBI sends me into three days of dance observation and contact (either personally or peripherally) with just as many generations of modern dance in Hong Kong. The "founders" from the '70s like Helen Lai, Willy Tsao, and Sunny Pang are followed by "80s babies" such as Mui Cheuk-yin and Pun Siu-fai who are in turn chased by "young ones" including Andy Wong, Ong Yong Lock, Daniel Yeung, Yeung Wai Mei and, my-personal-hostess-to-today's-downtown-HK-dance, Abby Chan. I met Abby a couple years ago when she performed in a site-specific work of mine at the Bates Dance Festival but, you too were as likely to run into her on the streets of NYC thanks to a few Asian Cultural Council grants. With her help I was able to see performance works by Ong Yong Lock's South ASLI Dance Workshop and Andy Wong & Frances Leung's DanceArt HK as well as make visits to the Fringe Club and rehearsals at City Contemporary Dance Company's studios and school. Of course, I've also got to offer props to Perry Yung, travel companion, HK tour guide, Cantonese translator and pending -- "ahem" -- partner.

Interestingly, despite, or perhaps to spite, the 1997 reunification with the Mainland this current generation of dance artists seems hell bent on creating and performing work that appears very Western in form. Perhaps I could come back again and experience something entirely different, but not this summer. The Hong Kong Ballet is performing "La Fille Mal Gardee," Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet is coming with "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and the balletic People's Liberation Army Comrade Dance Troupe uses the bourgeois-est form of dance to celebrate communism in "Rhythm of Military Life." Of course, how can I speak of issues of performative identity in a city where famed Taiwanese director Ang Lee, best known in the States for interpersonal dramas like "The Ice Storm" and "Sense and Sensibility," opens "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (a martial arts interpersonal drama with HK heavy hitters Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh) in the theater right next to "Me, Myself & Irene," the latest gift from America's Kings of Crass, The Farelli Brothers.

So for now, I'll just report on what I saw and some of what's to come without too much sociological exploration of what it means for Asian American artists. Though I'll admit it makes for interesting conversation over your 10HK$ ($1.50USD) lunch special of wonton soup & tung sum choi at the Hollywood Plaza Mall.

But first...

If you don't have an Abby Chan to guide you then check out South China Morning Post's "24/7," a free weekly guide to what's on in Hong Kong. Andy Wong was on the cover this week and Abby's show was "choiced" in the Best of the Week picks. Email: twentyfour@scmp.com.hk

OR pick up or surf to Hong Kong Arts Centre's monthly calendar at its web site.

OR stop by The Fringe Club, 2 Lower Albert Road, Central, for dance, theatre, music, art exhibitions, talks, or maybe just for a drink in their not-so-secret rooftop garden. Mandy Yim, another ACC grantee, who presented work in NYC at PS 1 and Pace Downtown Theater, is currently giving workshops here in Stretching and Modern Dance. This is also the home of HK's annual Fringe Festival. Click here to check the web site.

AND, the Hong Kong Dance Federation has organized some serious dance fever for the Hong Kong Dance Expo 2000. This annual event is split into three segments: a four-day program with over 60 shows from July 13 - 16; an international dance camp; and an international dance education conference. This year's guest speakers include Chinese choreographer Zhou Ming, Professor Ruth Solomon from the University of California and Phrosso Pfister, a former principal of London College of Dance. Click here to visit the web site.

City Contemporary Dance Company

Six years ago I first saw CCDC members (and their members, if ya know what I mean) at La Mama in "The Pink," Muna Tseng's revealing work based on a forbidden erotic novel of ancient China. (Note: CCDC has also worked with Sarah Skaggs and Shapiro & Smith.) That many of those dancers, including Andy, Frances, Lock and Abby are now part of the 'young' choreographers scene is no accident. CCDC seriously considers itself to be an agency that supports the continued development of modern dance in Hong Kong. General Manager Kwong Wai-lap jokingly refers to it as a full-time dance production house. But, though that might make the administrative offices work much harder it has had an enormous impact on the modern dance scene here. Since its inception in 1979 CCDC has committed itself to providing emerging choreographers with creative resources and opportunities. Their school attracts an annual attendance of over 30,000 people and each year they produce 80 outreach performances. And we had just missed their annual 'young' choreographers showcase, which this year was an 'exotic encounter of Dance and Fashion' called "Strip Teaser" featuring designers Silvio Chan, Henry CW Lau, Ruby Li, Pacino Wan and choreographers Abby Chan, Allen Lam, David Liu, Sang Jijia, Xing Liang, Daniel Yeung and Yeung Wai-mei. You know my salacious self was bummed but as a consolation prize we did get to view part of Pun Siu-fai's rehearsal of "Somewhere in the Past 80 Years by the Railway" for upcoming performances later this summer. Three years ago when we were passing through these parts last Abby invited both of us (Perry had performed in the NYC production of "The Pink") to a dress rehearsal for their upcoming thirtysomething concert, which included Pun's "Nine Does Not Match Seven," a post-modern work with Peking Opera visuals. Pun too has done some NY time, also thanks to the ACC.

Technique reigns in the section of 'Somewhere' that they were working on. It is full of high (and I mean HIGH) extensions, attitudes and formal port de bras. At times the only apparent difference between the dancers of CCDC and any other first-rate dance company in the world would be their appearance. They just all happen to be Asian. If a dancer isn't an import from some other Asian city then they've most likely come through the Academy of the Performing Arts (APA), which means that the community is full of fantastic technicians though not too much diversity. Imagine a New York where almost everyone is a white Julliard grad. It seems one must work much harder to express individual artistry. Of course, that statement alone could reflect a very American opinion about the importance of the individual but I'm going to say it's a modern dance opinion instead.

The section opens and ends with brief shifts into a calmer past. Solo dancers pour tea and move slowly through traditional Chinese dance shapes in the more human moments of the work before abrupt breaks into urgency. Pun makes great use of space and counterpoint. The music is a frenetic tango and the movement meets it with various rhythms playing themselves out on stage simultaneously. Watching him rehearse the 13 dancers (6 men/7 women) is a performance in itself as he switches between English, Cantonese, Mandarin and movement.

In addition to various performances of 'Somewhere' this summer Helen Lai, Resident Choreographer and CCDC's AD from 1985-89, has been invited to take part in the Lyon Biennial Dance Festival this September following the success of the UK debut of "Nine Songs." Which I'm guessing must be the same phenomenal work that Taiwan's Cloud Gate Dance Theater brought to BAM a few years ago. In November the company performs for the much-awaited opening of the Heritage Museum and next February it premieres "Rock 'n' Roll." In CCDC's tradition of collaboration, "Rock 'n' Roll' will include live music from famous Beijing rock star Cui Jian, film from Zhang Yuan (recently named Best Director at the Venice Film Festival for his work of 17 Years), and 30 dancers.

For more info on CCDC's performances, programs or classes email admin@ccdc.com.hk or visit its web site.

"Dumb Moves"

Ong Yong Lock is one of those 'young' artists who has received significant support from CCDC. "Dumb Moves" was jointly presented by his South ASLI Dance Workshop and CCDC at Hong Kong City Hall Theatre July 7-9.

The work opens with video on a white scrim behind which six horizontal white coffin-like cubicles are revealed. One man rises from behind them and slowly makes his way downstage, laying himself underneath one of the boxes as other bodies are exposed within each of the light-rigged remaining cubicles. The video flashes brief glimpses of humanity against an eerie electronic soundscape, giving an impression of the rush of daily life in a city like Hong Kong.

As the scrim rises, the dancers engage in shaking off movement while the boxes are continuously rearranged in a constant shift of the performance space. This was an excellent interaction between scenic elements and dance. Which makes perfect sense, as choreographer Ong Yong Lock was also the set designer. The boxes are used in several different manners and are an integral part of the entire work. Horizontally, they created multiple performance levels for the dancers, who crawl, slither or are caught beneath them and sit, fall and dance on top of and around them. One effective duet has one dancer laying within the box shadowing another laying just on top of it. Just when the shifting of the set pieces seems to be wearing thin, the dancers go vertical with a go-go dance image revealing the reflective inner surface of the boxes, which then become a peripheral city maze and later a projection surface.

The movement was often abrupt and jerky, leaving me wanting to see more out of these obviously well trained and versatile dancers. Thanks to the Academy of Performing Arts, it's hard to find a dancer who isn't technically proficient. But, it does leave me yearning for performers who can embody themselves with more confidence. In this respect, Jay Jen Loo and Elsie Chau stood out as particularly solid performers, comfortable and conscious enough of their abilities to own the movement and translate it into a personal style that stands out from the crowd.

Aside from the outstanding scenic work, the other production elements were noticeably well done as well. Malaysian lighting designer Godzilla's work was both subtle and striking, depending on the moment. Wong Sun Keung's techno soundtrack, though eventually wearing, sent me into several involuntary synaptic jerks. Karin's post-apocalyptic costumes of silvery tops and slippery black pants evoked a strong sense of tomorrow.

"Paper Balloons"

Where Lock's "Dumb Moves" showed humans struggling amidst the hustle and bustle of life, Andy Wong brings us into the complex struggle within our own hearts in "Paper Balloons." Inspired by Ryu Murakami's novel of a young girl's self-discovery but modeled most often on autobiographical input from each of the performers, the work examines human relationships, despair and hope. Interesting and ironic that these two shows were running at the same time, with "Paper Balloons" across the bay at Hong Kong Cultural Centre's well-equipped Studio Theatre in Kowloon, July 7-9.

The design elements were again excellent, with a reflecting pool installation and costumes designed by Ewing Chan. Site-specific staging with the black box theater was best realized during a sequence where the dancers run throughout the space and occasionally stop in the house to speak briefly with a narrator, Ulysses Chuang. The dancing is superb from the entire ensemble, and though the movement style has a very familiar downtown NY release-based vocabulary complete with fleeting one-arm balances, it well suits the sense of tossed and tumbling balloons. I found myself struggling to verbalize the seamless, unique quality of Wong's dancing. It's the kind of settling into one's body that comes from more than just years of movement but also from a profound understanding of one's spirit. Towards the end of the show he tosses water from the pool into the air, and transforms himself into liquid form, easily becoming a single droplet falling through space. Both Wong and Frances Leung are seasoned veterans of APA and CCDC whose striking grace and articulation present me with an antidote for the overwhelming technicality of Hong Kong dance. Leung executes a solo that is a pure expression of repression. Taiju Matsumoto meets Wong with a younger but equally as skilled refinement in their duets together. The remaining company of dancers, including Allen Lam, Rachel Yip, Frankie Ho and Lim Chee Keat, each shine at various moments while still maintaining a solid sense of the inherent ensemble. The sincerity of the work, the tight partnering and the complexity of the dancing makes obvious the enormous amount of input and commitment each performer offered to the creation of the dance.

We brought our friend Serge to his first modern dance performance. He said he loved it, enjoying the narrative elements and the depth of the work. But, I joke that he secretly hated it and tried to punish me the next day with an excruciating three-hour hike into the clouds of Sunset Peak on Lantau Island. It was a breathtaking experience in every sense of the word. But somewhere up there between Heaven and hell I thought of Wong's notes where he stated, "If I could summon the courage to explore uncharted depths (or in my case heights) and choose the path with my heart, I may find a palace that harbors invaluable treasures."

"Dancing Machine"

Abby Chan and Daniel Yeung will be presenting a collaborative romp into the backstage and front stage goings-on of the dance world at The McAuley Studio Theater, July 13-16 at HK Arts Centre. After watching them run through the piece for their stage manager I get an overwhelming sense of two dynamic performers eager to explore new territory in performance. The show includes elements of ballet, yoga, Butoh, improv, Chinese dance & opera, video, spoken text in Cantonese and English and zany scenarios. The work is created, it seems, in direct reaction against the omnipresent focus on technique in Hong Kong's dance world. What Chan and Yeung have done is created a work that allows each of them to work at their skills as performers and not just dancing machines. Though I would have missed much of the opening humor without Perry's translation, I think the message is clear. They aim to risk a life on the stage that moves beyond just the marionette demonstrations they have been party to in past activities.

And that's Hong Kong for now.... I'm off for some dim sum and "Crouching Tigers"....

 

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