Dancer the Bread-winner
For those new to the Hong Kong dance scene, here is an outline of its structure: Dance companies officially came into the picture about forty years ago as a way for the then colonial government to formalise art development. Three ‘official’ dance companies, namely the Hong Kong Ballet, Hong Kong Dance Company and City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC), were set up around 1980. Their operations were supported by ongoing government funding and they still are. The legs of this ‘tripod’ of the Hong Kong dance scene come in the form of, respectively, classical ballet, traditional Chinese dance and modern dance. The only dance academy of tertiary education level, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, was added as the fourth leg in 1984. This picture has continued to be the most visible layer of dance for four decades.
Supported by time-limited or project-based art grants are five small-scale dance companies and individual choreographers. Among the professionally trained students, it is those with contemporary dance training that are mostly involved in dance creation. Others are more likely to pursue a career as company dancers or become dance instructors. Ballroom, ethnical, and sports dance are in general not regarded as artistic endeavours. Practitioners in street dance, hip hop and other popular dance genres make their living through commercial engagements.
We have never had such intensity of theatre closure in recent decades, not even in the heat of social movement in 2019. One may note that all the ‘proper’, in legal instead of technically state-of-the-art sense, performance venues of the city are government-owned, with but a couple exceptions. Therefore, when theatres, categorised as ‘entertainment venues’, were abruptly closed on government decree in the first quarter of 2020, not many responded well – those civil servants who managed art-related matters were at as much a loss as the venue users. Soon after, all dance classes in schools and privately-run studios were suspended. Dance practitioners had hoped that it was just a temporary measure, only to realise later that their livelihood was going to be seriously impacted. What makes the situation worse is that the local labour law has a dated and narrow classification of ‘art practitioner’. It can be challenging for freelancers to find their place in ‘work’ categories when it comes to applying for unemployment support.