Out of Sight, Out of Mind – the Fading Hong Kong Dance Scene

View of the installation of Jevan Chowdhoury in the metro station Wan Chai

Jevan Chowdhury

Hong Kong is tamed – it seems so. But under the surface, art is looking for new ways, especially in dance. Dance needs the body and increasingly finds an avatar of itself. The digital is one tool among many to help the body find its right when, in Hong Kong, it has to remain in lockdown

I stroll the city, watching out for the dance in Hong Kong which, since 2020, has been forced into a tight corner and is still searching for its way forward.

To many Hongkongers, the years 2020 and 2021 were difficult to make sense of. How we went through those times was quite a mystery. Just like our fellow human beings in many other countries, we were hit by waves of pandemic and restrained by various confinement measures, rendering us economically and emotionally precarious.

Street view of Wan Chai. Dancers everywhere, even on the sun awnings

While we are lucky in a sense that there has not been a complete lock down, unlike citizens of other countries we are not allowed to question the measures as that is regarded as a threat to ‘national’ security. Hongkongers have become so influential that an average citizen’s complaint jeopardises the security of one of the world’s powerhouses.

At the time of writing, Hong Kong is badly hit by a new wave of pandemic, with between 10,000 and 20,000 cases reported daily, in a city of 7.5 million dwellers. A series of even more stringent social distance measures is imposed. Performance venues of all sizes, sports centres and dance studios are to be closed at least for the next two to three months, alongside school suspension. Some dance practitioners have expressed that as upcoming projects are being cancelled one after the other, their income projection for the year is seriously reduced. Perturbation is in the air, again.

A sense of normality, real or makeshift, is to be sought at all costs. Among the minds of many Hongkongers, it doesn’t cost much to let go of dance.

At 220 meters long, the Hong Kong Ballet in the metro shapes the image of the city

Silence

‘What does dance do to a gloomy city? Make it worse!’ The indifference to dance among Hongkongers took a negative turn in November 2020. On 19 November, an individual diagnosed Covid-19 positive visited a dance hall in the Wanchai area, triggering a chain of infections of over 300 cases which spread among dance-goers moving from one dance hall to the next. This group of patients was dubbed ‘the dance cluster’ by the medical experts and was regarded, by the public at large, to have triggered the beginning of a serious wave of infections which lasted into the first quarter of 2021. A newspaper report of the South China Morning Post said that ‘Sweeping the intergenerational dancing community, a growing cluster of 311 cases linked to dance venues is driving Hong Kong’s fourth Covid-19 wave.’

Dance halls in Hong Kong are quasi-restaurant establishments where the public visit to dance with people they know or they don’t. Some freelance instructors give one-on-one training or simply charge for being dance partners. While dance halls are located in commercial and residential areas, they can be clandestine. ‘Women keen to impress at local events pay top dollar for professional dance partners, with some even brought over the border by speedboat, as the same newspaper reported Nov 26. One couldn’t help but feel the sneering. Such scandalisation of dance reveals the lack of respect the city has for it, only too happy to finger-point at it when some anger needs to be vented.

Dancers in classic outfit before their camera appearance

The silence of dance gets deeper with the imposition of the National Security Law (NSL) on 1 July 2020 and the arrest of a group of individuals soon after, some of them already sentenced to years in jail and the others going through a long and painful process of trial.

Authoritarian rule is nothing new throughout history, and so is art censorship. However, Hongkongers have been seemingly enjoying the freedom of speech. Overnight, the mere act of speaking can cost one an arm and a leg. For those who do not possess the skill to identify and negotiate the red line, remaining silent is the most direct and safe way to go.

What does NSL actually do to dance practitioners? The point is exactly that it doesn’t speak the specifics. It is its exteriority of a heightened regulatory culture, from legal- and institutional-imposition to the self-imposed restrictions of the individuals, that engenders fear. NSL sits above the Hong Kong Basic Law and was produced in the National People’s Congress in Beijing. Its guiding principles are unfamiliar to Hongkongers, its enforcers immuned from the rule of Hong Kong legislation. Art creation, and its prerequisite, namely the freedom of expression, is no longer a human right that overrides man-made legislation but an exception only to be granted should it meet the requirement of an overarching doctrinal environment.

… and action. But all looks go in the opposite direction

‘Pro-Beijing forces have stepped up pressure on the arts funding body and the flagship museum in Hong Kong for allegedly sponsoring or displaying “anti-government” works, in a move critics fear could dampen artistic freedoms. The campaign has forced the Arts Development Council into stating it might suspend grants to artists who advocated independence,’ as South China Morning Post reported on 19 March 2021.

Has Hong Kong’s dance changed as a response to the fear brought about by NSL? One cannot be sure yet because this is a situation concurrent with the social distance measures of the pandemic. Much fewer new dance works have been created since 2020. However, there is the phenomenon of new works turning their focus to within the cultural product itself, for example the exploration of formal aesthetics and the shift to digital manifestations, instead of responding to an extra-cultural reality. No, one cannot be sure yet because some dance practitioners have left Hong Kong for good, and more will follow suit.

The Green Screen turns dancers into passers-by

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.

The worker saw by no means what we see

Dance as Nostalgia

As the Covid situation stablised in the second half of 2021, theatres gradually re-opened but audience capacity was limited first to 50% and later expanded to 75%. To compensate for the reduced capacity, ticket prices rose. The lowest-priced tickets in an average performance rose from around 15 euros before the pandemic to around 25 euros. This definitely has an impact on the willingness to go into theatres, especially when the economic situation is yet to recover.

Once resumed, many dance performances were presented in a short time span, mostly to digest the backlog from the previous year. Two of them, Nine Songs, a thirty-year old work by renowned choreographer Helen Lai and re-staged by Hong Kong Dance Company, and Luck-quacka, adapted from the ballet classique Nutcracker and presented by City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC) drew sentimental responses. A group of dancers now in their 40s and 50s recalled the times when they performed in the former runs of Nine Songs. To see it re-staged brought back personal memories of how they used to dance, and live, in Hong Kong. The key cast in Luck-quacka was Uncle Drosselmeyer, the old man who tried to bring the Prince back to life. If a young man is the rising sun and an old man the sinking one, Hong Kong is undoubtedly felt by many to be in the dusk. The audiences saw in these productions the best times of Hong Kong, which is now an object of nostalgia.

Nostalgia was most felt by the dance field when CCDC Dance Centre, which had been THE cradle for a few generations of dance makers, closed its doors in October 2021. For four decades, the Centre had been housed in a seven-storey building located in the Wong Tai Sin area at the east side of Kowloon. The building was a piece of family property of the founder of CCDC, Willy Tsao. He decided to leave CCDC a year before and wanted the property back for re-development. Although an operation unit of CCDC, the Centre has been at the heart of the HK dance community: it has been the source of low-cost rehearsal studios for independent dance makers, it housed a small theatre and provided presentation support to emerging choreographers, it offered residential space for local and overseas dance artists, and the dance courses offered at relatively low fee had enabled thousands of dance lovers to pursue their interests. In other words, it was the Centre of Hong Kong’s dance in the truest sense. CCDC Dance Centre had since been relocated to a much smaller space in the New Territories. Its connection with the HK dance makers and lovers has undoubtedly been interrupted. Whether that could be rebuilt is yet to be found out.

Reflections also help to make the dancer look like an apparition

Well, the government did not do nothing. It launched a cash support scheme to the workers in selected industries seriously hit by social distancing restrictions. ‘Art and culture’ was among them and money was distributed via the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (ADC). An immediate question arose: who were the art practitioners? This went back to a deeply rooted question of how artists identified themselves to social institutions. In this very case, to be eligible, individuals had to attach themselves to organised units such as educational institutes, scheduled productions funded by the government, performing art groups, dance schools, etc. Those who did not belong to any of the aforementioned institutions at the time of application came away empty-handed. They now live off their savings, work as security guards, deliverers or take other odd jobs. And are eagerly awaiting the lifting of the de facto occupational ban.

The support scheme gave out HK$80,000 (around 9000 euros) to organisations (irrespective of size) who were ADC grantees in themselves. For individuals, the ceiling was HK$7,500 (around 850 euros). The rationale of allocation wasn’t quite clear, but people were so battered that they were happy to receive something as soon as possible. One may ask for how long this small amount of money would last in the world’s most expensive city. Subsequently, a second and third round of support was in place later in 2020 and 2021, given out on the same criteria but the sum was smaller. For those who did not happen to be attached to any of the above-mentioned units at the time of application, they did not receive anything. Some lived on their savings, some worked as security guards, delivery men, or other odd-job workers while waiting eagerly for the ban to be lifted. While I would like to trust that this is not a conscious selection process in disguise, it inevitably invites the concern of who could afford to stay in the dance field after the pandemic and how it will affect the aesthetic multiplicity and willingness to experimentation.

Montage of a dance scene in the subway station where the picture now hangs

Finding Dance on the Screen

Dual track or live-stream theatre productions have been close to non-exist in Hong Kong before 2020, given the short travel distance to and from theatres and the limited population of theatre-goers. When being physically inside theatres was no longer possible, it was the bigger companies who responded first – dance companies supported by public funding had to meet their contractual requirements of maintaining certain levels of presence to the public, albeit on screen. They started with releasing pre-recorded performances online, then with live broadcast. Some were caught in the dilemma of losing money in producing a show which did not bring enough revenue (as the audience was yet to respond to paying for a live-stream or pre-recorded dance). Some stretched the potential of digital connectivity and launched programmes such as virtual residency, online classes and open rehearsals, and collaboration with new and existing work partners across different creative media.

Among these endeavours was an inclination to two-dimensional, lens-based dance making in the form of dance videos. I would attribute three factors to this. Firstly, in Hong Kong, close to 90% of the population over ten years old own a smartphone. Making and watching videos on this device is familiar, accessible and technically-friendly for many; Secondly, ‘Jumping Frames International Dance Video Festival’ has been presented by the City Contemporary Dance Company since 2004. The local dance scene has had ample access to dance videos from worldwide players and has made enough inroads into making some itself; Thirdly, other virtual dance experiments, for example augmented reality or motion capture, can be prohibitively expensive to access for the majority of dance practitioners.

Exactly illuminated pub neighborhood – in reality there is no one in the picture

The Hong Kong Arts Development Council was quick to respond. In 2020, it launched ‘Arts Go Digital’, a custom-made funding scheme to support individuals and organisations, each with a grant between HK$300,000 to $500,000 (between 35,000 to 58,000 Euros) to create digital artworks. This scheme was probably launched more as a good-will support to art practitioners than to promote digital artmaking, as one criterion for application was to distribute the grant to as many project team members as possible, within reason. For all intents and purposes, it was typically Hong Kong in a sense that ‘outcome’ was expected quick: by 30 June 2021, meaning grantees were to produce new digital artworks in nine to twelve months. Sixty-eight individuals/ units were awarded, among them only four from dance world.

Here is one example: Since Our Last Goodbye (2): Reset, choreographed by Cyrus Hui @ Siu Lung Fung Dance Theater and Elaine Kwok, was already performed on 27 September 2020 and broadcasted live to the audience over thirteen Facebook and Instagram accounts. Smartphones were held by thirteen people, mostly stationary, inside the theatre while the performers moved around. As a result, these cameras were only capable of capturing some parts of the performance. The audiences, on the other hand, were physically absent but could switch freely between those accounts to construct his own picture of the performance. Due to unstable network connectivity and the effectiveness of the phone cameras in dim lighting, my personal experience watching this was quite confusing. Yet it spoke directly to our habit of being spoon-fed of performance content in a theatre and our unwildering belief of the reality happening before our very eyes.

Sylphs – Ghosts in the shopping street

From July to September 2021, Zelia ZZ Tan, a dancer of the City Contemporary Dance Company, has been hired by the Roxy – TanzLabor, based in Ulm, Germany, as a ‘distant digital dance maker’ to perform Augmented Reality dance in a theatre setting. Her recently published self-reflection at the Hong Kong Dance Journal gives an interesting insight into what technology meant to her. When reviewing the movement of the avatar constructed with the nineteen sensors on her mocap suit, she found that ‘this avatar allows me to present the dances of my imagination in another space, and to break through the limitations of the physical body, turning volumetric movement trajectories into digital data without having to rely on 2D imagery… In order to have maximum control of my avatar’s movement rather than having to spend a lot of time on data clean-up, I needed to have a clear understanding of how to perform my dance so it could be accurately rendered digitally.’ What is interesting to me in her reflection is her consciousness to the pair of ‘mechanical eyes’ that looks at her corporeal body as data. This is an awareness so vastly different from making dance videos in which tremendous effort is devoted to presenting the corporeal body as intactly as it is in the transition from 3D to 2D.

In this case of dance powered by technology, it has long since ceased to be about the medium itself, but about a new kind of fluidity between those who observe and those who are observed. From the role of yesteryear, newly drawn avatars emerge with binary codes, ‘interpreted” by old, biological eyes. Indeed, there is always something “new” to see, as long as we are willing and know how to look.

May the future be in Our Hands

In the decade before the pandemic, a fair proportion of the new initiatives in dance has been driven by the government’s wish to brand Hong Kong as a creative city. There were different pools of resources available for international cultural exchanges. Dance practitioners were encouraged to attend overseas art markets. tanzmesse at Dusseldorf, Germany, was a case in point. Hong Kong delegations organised by the Asian Dance Council were sent in 2016 and 2018. Furthermore, many international dance artists were invited to perform and collaborate throughout the years. The interaction with them has further expanded the perspective and opportunities for local artists. Performing overseas has also been a solid source of income for some dancers as the local market is simply not big enough for them to survive solely on performing. The pandemic puts a halt to all these and suddenly, Hong Kong dance seems to be at a loss of where to go in order to ‘develop’.

In the final step, the photographs are seamlessly joined together

The 2022-2023 budget speech made by the Financial Secretary Paul Chan on 23 Feb 2022 might have instilled a sense of hope. ‘To consolidate Hong Kong’s role as an East meets West centre for international arts and cultural exchange, I will allocate (HK)$42 million (equals 4.8 Million Euros) for organising the first Hong Kong Performing Arts Market within two years. The large scale arts market, which is designed for the performing arts industry, will serve as an integrated platform for showcasing the works of top notch performing artists and arts groups from the Mainland, Hong Kong and overseas.’ Chan also said that he would allocate a total of (HK)$40 million (equals 4.5 Million Euros) to encourage the application of arts technology in stage production. While the details are yet to be learnt and the NSL remains to loom behind future art making, these sums of money nevertheless promise opportunities. It will be up to the practitioners to interpret its relevance.

The spotlight seems to illuminate whole three images

But arts technology does not mean the same to everyone, at least not among the younger practitioners. I spoke to Michael Li and Holmes Cheung of Tin Project. Having been in the field for around five years, Li has a full-time job as arts administrator; Cheung a freelance performer and graphic designer. Not supported by any public funding, they run a small art space, Tin Project, in an old residential building in the centre of Kowloon. The space was intended for rehearsals, small-scale presentations, and residency for artists across different art forms. Due to the pandemic, however, projects have been suspended and this inevitably brought financial pressure. What drives them to shoulder such a burden in a city where space is a luxury?

“Because it takes space to safeguard the autonomy against the rule of game of government venues. The usual way of dance presentation in Hong Kong is not really friendly for the newbies – those who have just left the academy or come from another art discipline, as one is required to come up with a complete work. We need a space, in a physical and attitudinal sense, that embraces the value of the process and supports work-in-progress presentations.’ Li explained. Cheung, who did not receive institutional dance training, is under the impression that ‘those who allocate resources have a checklist of what’s good and bad. How did that list come up? Can I propose a different list?’

Undeniably, throughout the history of the arts, young men and women in each era dared to look straight into the eyes of the tradition and question the legitimacy of dogmatism. Some of these people were called the avant-gardes, some heresies. Li and Cheung agreed that the desire to experiment with the ‘new’ did not start with them, but they also pointed out that the post-2019 generation has a strong urge, maybe more so than their predecessors, to find their own voice, push media boundaries, and question the convention they have inherited. If the three big dance companies and the single academy have dominated the definition and aesthetics of dance in Hong Kong for forty years, is it the responsibility of this generation to revert such a lingering disequilibrium?

Ten sylphs in widescreen format

‘We must admit that we are among a relatively small group of our generation. For example, we are not really into digital dance-making, at least not yet. But I do see how social media communities mean to us. Take Discord as an example. Due to this instant messenger there are communities of all kinds of interests and the members are very attached. Such attachments cut across established hierarchies and can be turned into strong emotional support to our belief and tangible financial support to our sustainability,’ Li says.

Arguably, the need for human connection is not limited to specific age groups. Technology has offered us more options to transcend geographical distance and come up with new modes of staying in touch, but the true essence of connection remains at the core of human desire. The contemporary anthropologist Gregory Feldman brought home the beauty of connection (in 2019 in ‘Love and Sovereignty’), ‘…that people, in all their plurality, do not usually choose to live – to be – in isolation even though they occasionally need solitude, and that people struggle to become something new in the future… But, love is also a spatial experience insofar as it creates bonds between people in the present.’ I personally hold the view that there is not, at least not yet, an art form that connects bodies, hence people, more than dance does. To find dance in the city is to believe in the consoling power of cuddling, the will power of togetherness, and bring to light the living, the social, and the loved. That’s what humans are made of. Also in Hong Kong.

More from “This is Wan Chai” at https://windandfoster.com/home/this-is-wan-chai-5xzzz

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