It is gradually becoming an annual tradition for the Hong Kong Arts Festival to commission emerging local choreographers for new works. This year, the program opened with Talk to Me by Max Lee, What’s the Matter by Justyne Li and Rush by Li Cheng. The premier was staged at the Studio Theater, Cultural Center on March 21, 2013.
Talk to Me
The story centered around the theory of Six Degrees of Separation: everyone is six or fewer steps away from any other person in the world; so “a friend of a friend" can connect any two people in a maximum of six steps.
One by one, Lee laid bricks on the ground, bending his back and knees like a farmer planting his crops. As the network of 6×6 took shape on stage, a net hanging from the ceiling was lit up and in turn projected onto the backdrop. The 3D network thus created reflected how everybody is connected in real life. The theme is particularly relevant to Hong Kong, the gateway to China for the rest of the world who are often puzzled by the mysterious power of “guan xi” (relationships).
An insightful idea and compelling visual no doubt, but as Lee laid down the final piece to complete the network, the audience – who had been eagerly anticipating the climax, were left disappointed. The build-up of dramatic tension and intrigue went to waste. It is a pity (and surprise) that dramaturge Franky Mcnugget – with his training in drama and performance experience at the World Shakespeare Festival, should fail to observe the basic dramatic structure of a story: Exposition —-> Rising action —-> Climax —-> Falling action —-> Resolution. Even if it is not strictly followed, he could have done more to convey a clear message than constant unintelligible mumbling. As the lights faded, we were reduced to birthday boys and girls who had blown off the candles only to find no icing on the cake.
Luckily, we were compensated for this by the delightful surprise of a live band. The trio – keyboard, percussion and violin, broke the stereotype of contemporary dance relying solely on recorded music. Chronically under-staffed and ill-budgeted, contemporary dance struggles for the same respect as ballet, partially hindered by the lack of live music. So this addition, apart from making the performance a more coherent whole, stood out as a refreshing change.
What’s the Matter?
When this question is asked, people usually interpret it as “What’s going on?” or “What’s the problem?” Here, “matter” means a situation, an action, something incorporeal. However, it can also mean the opposite (i.e. a physical substance), as in “the matter of which the earth if made”. Similarly, man is made up of two seemingly opposing elements: body and soul. “The body is not just a carrier; it is the manifestation of the soul… The body is the soul, and dance is the exploration of the soul.”, Li believes. Perhaps this explains why when she danced her own work, her body and soul did become one.
Movements can be read as the harmonization between the intellectual and the animal in man. First, we saw robots – the epitome of human intelligence: quick stiffening followed by relaxation of muscles to create an illusion of energy in flow or machine in motion. In juxtaposition, we saw insects in flipping antenna, tilting head and fast-crawling limbs. The highlight came when Li and Sylvia Lee lied down for a duet of fingers. With spotlight focusing on the two hands, they transformed into two ants: forelegs tapping on the floor, heads banging as if sending encrypted signals to each other.
Robot of insect, Li demonstrated the power of creator and performer as one. She exercised masterly control over every inch of her skin and every joint. I could easily feel energy flowing like liquid from her head to toes. Such flawless execution can only be the result of spontaneity; it requires the dancer’s complete understanding and full engagement with choreographer. In this case, the two are one, which her duet partner found hard to live up to. The latter’s movements appeared rigid in comparison, as if a rusted machinery unable to operate smoothly.
While the body has a script to follow, the face doesn’t. Therefore, it became even more obvious on the dancers’ faces whether or not their movements were spontaneous. Void of emotions, Li’s three dancers did manage to jump and turn as prescribed, but their faces revealed how constantly they were struggling to remember the next move.
The piece shone with the magic of a dancer performing works choreographed by and for herself. It resonates with a common practice of choreographers tailoring certain sequence for their favorite ballerinas. With ideas taking shape in the form specifically designed for them, the ecstasy of the body and soul becoming one can perhaps equate to a mutual orgasm.
My father once said, “In order to become an artist, one needs to be a thought-leader first and foremost.” With her intelligence and endeavor, Li, after excelling in classical ballet, is fast growing up from a pretty girl in pink tutu to a dance artist in its truest sense.
The title conjures up images of a thousand suits rushing out of Central MTR station at 8:45am. This is exactly what the piece is about and the audience it targets. From the white shirts to the office politics scenes, business elites in Central can find every detail of their routine here.
Perhaps unique to Hong Kong, “rush” can be translated into “唔使急，最緊要快!” (No need to hurry, just make sure you do it quickly!). Boss says it every time he adds one more file to our piles already reaching the ceiling. The theme is rightfully chosen, considering our home city is the world’s most notorious for working over-time and our lifestyle in desperate need of work-life balance.
Every element was easy to relate to, hence the problem: too easy. The piece was a mere portrayal of a plain fact without much value-add. It’s a report without analysis, an observation without insight. Art comes from reality and rises beyond. In Rush, it clearly didn’t. The ending saw the main character waking up from a nightmare, then abruptly drew to a close. So what now? The choreography failed to dig deeper, resulting in a piece more like a TVB soap opera for the masses than a thought-provoking artwork for educated minds.
Lacking in depth, Rush is also short in breadth. All three fellow employees were one and the same. If only given some individual characterization, they could have portrayed different types of “bad co-workers”: perhaps the Slacker who never does any work and right before the deadline, asks for help? What about the Star, the golden child of the office who gets all the plum assignments, takes credit for all the work we did together, and generally looks down on us? If the piece was meant to a “report”, at least make it comprehensive, right?
Naturally, the depth of one’s work is a direct reflection of the artist’ depth of thoughts accumulated from time and life experiences. I look forward to a more mature dance scene in Hong Kong as these emerging dance artists, currently in their early 30s, mature.