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Ronnie Lam is a cultural studies student, a member of the audience, writer, and art administrator with her roots in Hong Kong.

Translator: Lee Hoi-yin Joanna

Interdisciplinary Experiment That Goes Beyond Zero-sum Exchange —

In response to ‘The Interdisciplinary Collaboration between Dance and Cantonese Opera: A Case Study of Hong Kong Dance Company’s Waiting Heart


Interdisciplinary (collaboration) is at the same time risky and rewarding for traditional performing arts. The creators and performers, maestros in their respective crafts, take the risk of stepping into unknown terrains. Tradition can be burdensome or motivating. The subject of discussion in ‘The Interdisciplinary Collaboration between Dance and Cantonese Opera: A Case Study of Hong Kong Dance Company’s Waiting Heart’ is a co-creation of Hong Kong Dance Company and Utopia Cantonese Opera Workshop. Rex Ng, Chief Executive and Creative Officer, said in the essay that interdisciplinary went beyond ‘putting two art disciplines together’. If one lays by the zero-sum evaluative dimensions, such as ‘remove and combine’ or ‘balance’, the value of interdisciplinary experience lies in the expansion of the audience market, a growing understanding of the collaborating artists, and the formulation of a ‘third’ purpose (i.e., creating something new which cannot be borne out of dance or Cantonese opera alone). ‘0.5+0.5=1’ becomes ‘1+1=3’.


Interdisciplinary and Blending à la Hong Kong

Lee Cheyi, Music Director/Composer, described Waiting Heart as ‘a form of artistic expression unique to Hong Kong. With our own Hong Kong traditional art and material, we develop our own performance unique to Hong Kong.’ To discuss ‘Hong Kong artwork’ in the context of interdisciplinary projects is a notion that deserves in-depth interrogation. Besides the interdisciplinary nature of Waiting Heart, art expression in Cantonese opera (Tang Ti-sheng’s The Legend of Purple Hairpin which premiered in Hong Kong in 1957) and western contemporary theatre are worth exploration in terms of the aesthetics that is ‘trans-territory’ and ‘trans-epoch’. Professor Ackbar Abbas, the then Head of Department of Comparative Literature, the Hong Kong University, describes in his book Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, that ‘Hong Kong has no precolonial past to speak of … The history of Hong Kong, in terms that are relevant to what it has become today, has effectively been a history of colonialism.’ The cultural-political aspect of Hong Kong was unique, as if a ‘hyphenation’ which ‘(was) being both autonomous and dependent at the same time, where autonomy is in some strange way a function of dependency, indicates that HK may well be a mutant political entity’. Abbas also predicted that Hong Kong would become a ‘space of disappearance’, and a ‘floating world’.[1] The blending of two art forms in Waiting Heart corresponds to the mission of Hong Kong Dance Company, namely ‘dancing across east and west, moving to the tempo of Hong Kong’. I opine that the two art forms and cultures brought together in interdisciplinary creation will transform into a third performing art form through a series of experiences and break itself away from the ‘floating’ status, in Abbas’ terms. Waiting Heart demonstrates this.


Tsui Tak-wai, Executive Director of Hong Kong Dance Company, believed that ‘[what] the artist does is to weave new sensory organisations’. He suggested that the performing venue of Waiting Heart was conducive to the new sensory organisation of audience members. The special spatial design was beyond the imagination of even the regulars of Cantonese opera, drama, and dance. Pan Lingjuan, dancer, adjusted her performance in consideration of the change in spatial arrangement and distance with the audience. While the essay has not included the comments from Hong Hai and Li Pui-yan, the Cantonese opera performers in Waiting Heart, such spatial design should be vastly different from the one-side facing stage and distance from the audience common in traditional Cantonese opera. In Waiting Heart, there wasn’t any obvious centre stage which the Cantonese opera or dance could conveniently take. The narration and sentiment relied on while being independent of each other. As Lee Cheyi suggested, ‘none more important than the other, none takes precedence over the other. One reconsiders, when two disciplines collide, what is the point of view here?’


In our audience building and marketing plans, we tend to categorise audience members by art disciplines such as ‘Cantonese opera’, ‘dance’, etc. Rarely do we regard ‘interdisciplinary audience’ as a category in its own right. If ‘the third’ characteristic germinates out of ‘hyphenation’, will ‘the third audience category’ be borne out of interdisciplinary perspective and impact art promotion and marketing strategy? It will take more interdisciplinary experimentations and audience surveys to learn whether these performances contribute to new sensory organisations amongst the vast audience and convert them into an independent group with distinct aesthetic experience. As for the art makers, will ‘the third’ alleviate the burden of the tradition and the audience, as described by Maurice Lai, Concept/Video Designer of Waiting Heart?


Interdisciplinary Art as Scientific Experiments

To say ‘interdisciplinary as experiment’ suggests mutual understanding as a step not to be missed during the process before the two art forms collide. It takes a lot of giving and accepting for results to be realised from those involved in the progression from singularity to mutation and evolution. In the essay, the interviewees talked about the two-year time span between the conception and performance of Waiting Heart, a rare case in Hong Kong for so much time to be dedicated to a performance project.  


Sufficient resources, ample blend-in, study and rehearsal time, monetary and human resources are critical factors for artists and performers to finish their experiments. As Ng puts it, ‘experimentation and innovation are two different things’. Be it artistic or scientific experimentation, it will take the accumulation of experience of generations of artists to succeed. Therefore, resources and time is required to develop a scientific documentation and research system of the performing arts creative process and outcome. 


[1] Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1997), 1-15, 141-146.

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