Responses to Hong KongDance Overview 2020
‘In between’ Changes – A Field Record of the Encounters and Observations of the 2020 Hong Kong Dance Scene
Leung Hiu-tuen Melissa
Translator: Lee Hoi-yin Joanna
Leung Hiu-tuen Melissa, fell in love with the theatre when she was an undergraduate and has met many wise and cultured practitioners ever since. Driven by her deep attachment to physical performance, she furthered her study in Singapore. There, she received contemporary performance training backed by Taiqi and meditation, physical movement and post-Stanislavki acting techniques; and four classical Asian theatre forms, namely Bharatanatyam, an Indian ancient dance art; Wayang Wong, an Indonesia court dance; Beijing opera, and Japanese Noh. Her experience living in Singapore and Korea has broadened her perspective of art education. In 2018, she joined City Contemporary Dance Company and pursued her Master’s degree in Drama at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. She is among the first batch of graduates with major in dramaturgy.
There is no escape for the humankind to face the impact of the pandemic and adopt changes on various dimensions, including their daily lives and modes of work, the running of the society, and their imagination of the future. These are also the dimensions with which I approach the meaning of contemporary dance here and now when organising my own experience for the purpose of writing this article. The closure of theatres, dance companies and dance studios, the suspension of schools and the malfunctioning of creation and performing methods which we have been accustomed to are problems faced by global art practitioners, who are coerced by the reality to explore escapes and opportunities. Such mandatory changes also invite reflections on the self and performing arts at a point of time when my creative career embarks on a new stage.
I was appointed as the Company Dramaturg of City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC) in 2021, a position new to CCDC and the dance scene at large. Being ‘the first’ does not imply ingenuity. Rather, it was a sincere effort, coming out of the tumultuous 2020, to embrace change. In the face of 99% chance of failure, what have we got to lose to strike back with courage for the 1% chance to win?
Exploration of Interactive Experience of Dance Education
Before taking up the position of Company Dramaturg, I was the Assistant Artistic Director (Education). Outreach programmes were hit worst when theatre closed and school suspended in 2020. The 300 school tours that were to span over three years had to be put on hold. While the impact on our income would be minimised should we had produced videos and distributed them to the schools, it would be beyond our knowledge of whether the videos had been watched by the students at all. Even if they had, they probably would have regarded them as other dance videos on Youtube and simply skimmed through them. We do not believe that live performances could be seamlessly replaced with videos. One the one hand, the movie language is entirely different from that of theatre performance, the latter in which lies the opportunity of audience education through instantaneous interaction. Instead of an alternative solution, I’d rather regard the situation as the creation of dance education performances, in a timely manner and with resources available to us, that respond to the societal situation and the students’ habit of receiving information.
We started with the awareness that, in the context of online classes, all online meeting platforms were in a sense vessels of performance. The functionality and operation of these platforms, how participants communicated on them, and whether they supported surprises and newness were the tools and materials of our creation. Admittedly, the form came first. We referenced the experience from our previous touring performances, for example how to rouse the students’ interest, enhance the visual impact of the dance, encourage participation, instil the imagination of dance among the audiences, etc. This programme, after all, was designed with the objective of breaking through conventional ideas of dance promotion in schools. As Cheung Kit-ying Natalie pointed out in her essay ‘Creative Dance Education: In Search of “Flexibility” in “Limitation”’,
Constrained by the popular conception of dance which focuses on technique, precision of arrangement, and costume design, the expectation for dance education is to accomplish, through adherence to the dance instructor’s choreography and instructions, with rehearsal or drilling, the completion of a work of dance. It does not necessarily involve discussion with students about creative ideas or structure; as long as it is aesthetically and technically challenging, students are happy to take it all in.
With the above in mind, we gave audacious real-time participatory performances on online meeting platforms. Such was an open and explorative experiment for both the creative team line-up and spectatorial experience. During the earlier stages of Zoom teaching, both the teachers and students found it pretty unimpressive because of the unilateral communication. The focus of our implementation design was therefore to elicit instantaneous exchange with the students (chats, emojis, videos). They were given the autonomy and choice while we upheld the beauty of the dance. By beauty, I refer not to neat formation, grandiose costumes, or showy techniques but to the performers’ bodies, sympathy to life situations and the simultaneity of the screens. This is how we expand the boundary of contemporary dance. We even had an ‘overseas tour’ by virtue of online viewing experience.
Putting a Dramaturg’s Mind to Practice: Identifying the ‘In-betweenness’
What I have described so far motivated me to put a dramaturg’s mind into practice. There are a few ‘inter‘s in the context of contemporary performance creation, namely, intercultural, international, interdisciplinary, and interweaving, which lend nicely to three post-pandemic aspects: the experience brought about by different modes of viewing, the work and its relationship with the audience, and its social relevance. An overseas speaker once said in a forum that ‘dramaturgy is about a more dynamic system of the inner flow of performance-making process’. One saw how art-makers expanded, transformed, changed, remade, and innovated their practice in the large- and small-scale productions in 2020. Besides their feeling, sensitivity and observation, the larger environment is more concerned with their world view and artistic belief. We, as individuals or institutions, must be trained to contemplate the potential which lies ‘in-between’. Are we watching online a dance film or a repurposed dance performance that came out of venue closure? On top of the technical mandates of technology and dance, how does the mode of viewing impact the experience and perspective of the audience? Can we possibly produce a dance performance along the afore-mentioned aspects with the media and materials available to us?
As a matter of fact, practice of such had taken place in 2020, for example, Since Our Last Goodbye (1): Lost & Found and Since Our Last Goodbye (2): Reset, a case study in ‘MOVEMENT/IMAGE: Re-situating Dance and the Moving Image in Hong Kong, 2020’ by Elysa Wendi.
The two works presented as part of Since Our Last Goodbye were sensitive contemplations of the artists’ response to the pandemic, with technological interventions integrated as both mechanisms to illustrate the artistic intents as well as a functional device for delivering the works remotely, creating new ways of seeing and experiencing a work. Unlike the usual adaptation of a live performance into digital or streaming presentation, Since Our Last Goodbye was conceived right from the beginning to include the elements of digitality and livestream in its content to respond to the present social condition and situation.
While Hong Kong Dance Overview archives Hong Kong’s dance, I hope that the practice of the dramaturg’s role and thinking, and her writing of the changes in dance-making, will continue. A dance work like Since Our Last Goodbye (2): Reset is not only a one-off tribute to the closing of CCDC Dance Centre. Its concept, experience, and the change of mode of viewing can be further explored in the next presentation and developed into a methodology or system of dynamic dance-making. Will the post-pandemic times we are now in ever end? If yes, when and how? From my 2020 experience, the ‘inter’s do not limit themselves to the trans-cultural, international exchanges before the pandemic. Instead, they are being practiced everywhere from the grassroot to the elites. We will continue to find new ways to imagine and re-define them through our hands-on experiences.