Pairing up choreographers and composers: stories behind the clash of creativity

12.9.2018 | dance. , music.
Sharen Lau

Sharen Lau

By Vivienne Chow

When You See by Hu Song-wei Ricky (Choreographer) and Olivier Cong (Composer)

When You See by Hu Song-wei Ricky (Choreographer) and Olivier Cong (Composer)

Cheerful laughters are ringing in the air inside a pitch-black dance studio at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in a summer afternoon. The darkness is brightened up by the joy of choreographer Ricky Hu, composer Olivier Cong and two dancers. It is the last day of the two-week Creation for Freespace: Choreographer & Composer Lab presented by West Kowloon Cultural District, during which Hu has experimented eloquent dance movements that flow with Cong’s subtle music. The outcome is an emotional piece inspired by a spherical moon lamp that glows in the dark. And apparently they are pleased with the results.

“I see shadow because of light,” says Hu after the last rehearsal in the dance lab. “This is a rather conceptual and a personal piece. I want to talk about a sense of hope amid the darkness of life.” 

Every dance choreographer has a story to tell, but chances are slim in Hong Kong. With limited resources, rehearsal venues and the lack of vision for risks-taking experiments, the voices of the city’s dance choreographers have been muted.

Creation for Freespace: Choreographer & Composer Lab

In light of this, the West Kowloon Cultural District and Hong Kong Ballet first joined hands in 2016 to make a little difference to the city’s dance scene. Hu was one of the two choreographers who took part in New Works Forum: Choreographer & Composer Lab two years ago. He, together with fellow choreographer Yuh Egami and composer Mike Orange came up with new title Carmen, which went on show in May 2017.

This year the lab returns in a different format. Three pairs of choreographers and composers — Hu and Cong, Egami and Mike Yip, as well as Li Jiabo, Hong Kong Ballet’s principal dancer, and Tsui Chin-hung — enter a multi-phase creative process to explore the new frontier of contemporary ballet while telling their stories through the emotive language of dance and experimental body movements.

For two weeks, the three pairs of choreographers and composers turn the studios of the Cultural Centre into a lab for artistic experiments. Unlike the usual collaboration between choreographers and composers or musicians, where choreographers would usually dominate the artistic direction of a dance piece with music playing a supporting role, the lab setting provides a platform for the choreographers and composers to work together on an eye-to-eye level.

The Monkey King leaps to life: Li Jiabo and Tsui Chin-hung

Choreographer Li Jiabo and Composer Tsui Chin-hung

In one of the studios, Li is focusing on his experimentation of the character of Monkey King and his journey with seven dancers with the music written by Tsui. The ensemble launches themselves into elaborate ballet movements under Li’s direction, and the dancer who portrays Monkey King leaps forward in a grand jete as if he was struggling to run away from his destiny. At times, Monkey King’s weapon, the magical staff Ruyi Bang, weighs him down and forces him to face his fate, as represented by the barre workout.

The story of Monkey King, a character from one of Chinese literary classics Journey to the West written in the 16th Century, is one of the best-known tales in Asia. He begins his journey as the Monkey King wild to the strongest and most loyal disciple of Tang Sanzang, guarding the Buddhist monk throughout his journey to retrieve a set of sacred scriptures in the West with his magical abilities. Over the course of time, the story of Monkey King has been told many times in many forms, from Chinese opera to film, television and animation.

Li admits he’s a fan of the story, and he believes the tale of Monkey King is still highly relevant today not because it is a lively portrayal of a mythical character, but the exact opposite. “When I told my idea to Tsui and my artists, they could all relate to it. They felt that they were also living the life of Monkey King, that they had to work hard to polish their crafts in order to become what they are today. That is exactly what Monkey King does in his story, struggling to revolve his issues and pick the right path,” he says.

Li wants to share this story to the audience through the language of ballet, which is the reason why he decides to take part in the dance lab for the first time. He says in addition to being a dancer, he has been trying his hands on choreography, but mostly short pieces. He enjoys being on stage, but at the same time he wants more to his dance career.

Rehearsal of Empty Awakening by Li Jiabo and Tsui Chin-hung


“As a ballet dancer, I feel that I have certain responsibilities. After dancing for so many years, I feel that dancing well is not enough. Dance isn’t just about performing on stage and then go home. I want to create something and leave a mark somewhere in the world,” he says.

The dance lab gives him the perfect opportunity to explore his path. Li says when he brings up the idea to his musical partner Tsui for the first time, Tsui immediately resonated with his approach. “He kept telling me he could envision how my segment will be like on stage. He said my approach was very visual,” Li says. “And then he brings back music that is very visual, which further enhances my choreography.”

A gift for my never-born child: Ricky Hu and Olivier Cong

When You See by Ricky Hu Song-wei (Choreographer) and Olivier Cong (Composer)

While Li and Tsui are working on the elaborative yet mystical re-interpretation of Monkey King’s struggle, Hu and Cong try to figure out a way to tell a story of emotions that does not have a plot across another studio. They start with the moon lamp and one musical note.

“I saw the moon lamp on the internet and I thought, wow, it is really beautiful. And then I started contemplating if and how I can incorporate this moon lamp into a dance routine and demonstrate its beauty through dance,” Hu says.

The fashionable object becomes a hook to a much bigger and personal story that has left a mark in Hu’s life — nearly half a year ago, Hu lost his unborn child because of medical complications happened during his wife’s pregnancy.

“It was a heavy blow to me and my wife,” Hu says. “Then when I saw the moon lamp, I thought, that’s life, growing inside the body of his mummy. I imagine vision of the baby inside his mummy’s womb — he can sense the light, but he can’t see everything. He can probably only see shadows.”

As the dimly lit moon lamps flow along the contours of dancers’ bodies when they move in the dark, they become the sole source of light that guides the audience, who are like babies living in the mother’s tenebrous womb curious of the outside world. Hu’s story might not have a plot or even somewhat conceptual, but the strong emotions can only be experienced through dance and music — the story is not to be told through words, but conveyed only through the emotive, artistic languages.

Like Hu, Cong was searching for the light in the dark, but in a musical way. “When I was composing one night, it was very dark. I was looking for the light. I remain open-minded and let myself engulf in Ricky’s world,” he says.

Hu says initially he and Cong wanted to suppress their emotions. “But we realised that the more we suppress our emotions, the stronger they are. So we let it all out and this is a great experience,” he says.

“Although this piece has a dark background, I don’t intend this story to be bleak and sad. I only take that energy as an inspiration and develop from there,” Hu says. “I want to talk about hope. It’s a gift, a gift we once had. It is something simple I give to my wife and the baby.”

Writing a heart-breakingly beautiful letter with movement sensors: Yuh Egami and Mike Yip

Rehearsal of Wordless Letter by Yuh Egami (Choreographer) and Mike Yip (Composer)

Egami and Yip’s work might appear to be more logical and mathematical, but it is equally emotional nonetheless if not more. Dancers wired to sensors are moving from one posture to another according to a series of cold, electronic beats generated by a synthesiser from the 1980s. Their body movements might seem robotic at times or even awkward, but they demonstrate an unspeakable connection with each other. As they move their bodies along, words and alphabets projected on the big screen behind the dancers continue to change, as if the body movements were brushstrokes composing a text, which, however, cannot be read properly.

“It is Virginia Woolf’s last letter,” says Egami.

Egami says he first got his hands on the late English author’s works few years ago. He learnt about her tragic tale, how she decided to end her sorrows by taking her own life, from Woolf’s famous letters. And one of them, Woolf’s suicide letter to her husband Leonard, caught Egami’s attention.

The letter read: “Dearest, I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.”

“I was connected to this letter,” Egami says, because the letter reminds him of an old friend.

“When I was 20, one of my best friends passed away. He did not leave us any letters. When I read Virginia Woolf’s letter I couldn’t stop crying. It is beautifully written but at the same time it is also her darkness and her love for her husband until the very last sentence,” he says.

“And I wondered what my friend went through in his head when it happened. I started discussing this with Mike, thinking what was on Virginia Woolf’s mind at that time. Was she nervous when she stepped into the river? Was she feeling unsettling and vulnerable? So I went on to research on that.”

Then at one occasion, Egami encountered the technology of axis neuron, a kind of computer software that facilitates motion capture, from a friend who has been studying how the technology might help create dance pieces. “It just stuck in my head, and I really wanted to give it a try, because I had never done it before.”

He went on to modifying the software while brainstorming for an idea. He then met Yip, a composer and a jazz guitarist, and was inspired by his electronic music and his open-mindedness, believing he has found the right partner to work on this experiment.

Yuh Egami (Choreographer) and Mike Yip (Composer)

Among the three pairs, Egami and Yip operate very much like scientists working in the labs. Everyday they experiment new ideas, adding or reducing materials, musical notes, beats and body movements. The synthesiser from 1980s plays a key role. “The sound works emotionally and atmospherically. This tiny thing can create the texture of string music that resembles the pain that Woolf went through,” says Yip. “We did a lot of experiments until we found the right mood. We are very glad that we took our time.”

Egami admits that the piece poses as a challenge to the dancers, who not only have to memorise the postures but also learn to work with the sensors in order to create the text. “I asked the dancers to combine the letters. The first girl began with ‘dearest’, and then it goes on one after another,” he says.

“The sensors are a starting point. Virginia Woolf is also a starting point. The sensors inspire different postures and that’s why it is so interesting,” Yip says. “We discuss different stages and the structure of the work, which is very important to me. And to interact with dancers, moving from note to note and materials to produce the next act. I’ve been trying to get into the state of mind of the work.”

The results of the dance lab will continue to be rehearsed until the showcase on 13 September. General audience might find Li’s rendition of Monkey King more appealing as it appears to have a much stronger storyline detailing the journey and struggle facing the famous character from Chinese literature classic. But audience might have a hard time to follow Egami and Hu’s works, as they appear to be much more conceptual and abstract. The traditional ballet techniques anticipated by a general audience aren’t obvious either.

But it doesn’t seem to concern Egami and Hu. In fact the two members of Hong Kong Ballet have worked together on many projects previously, including Bolero (2015), which was the winner of Outstanding Ensemble performance at the Hong Kong Dance Awards in 2016.

“To me it’s the emotions that touch people, not the plot. This is not a drama piece,” Hu says. “If it is classical ballet, we need to explain everything clearly to the audience. But this isn’t. We cannot please everyone. What I really care is Olivier’s opinion, because this is our project. If he likes it, the dancers like it, then it’s great. We are open to feedback but should we make changes for everyone who makes a comment? At the end of the day, this is a work that belongs to us.”

“We are just the kind of people who want to give everything a try, so that we do not repeat ourselves. We are not making excuses for mistakes, but hey, this is a lab, take it! This lab encourages us to be daring,” Egami says.

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