BWW Review: Hong Kong Dance Company regains her strength through BEAUTY BEYOND WORDS at Shatin Town Hall
Two years ago, Hong Kong Dance Company invited Beijing Dance Academy to collaborate and put on the production of DREAM OF THE PAST: ANCIENT CHINESE COURT DANCES. It is a collection of court dances choreographed by the late Sun Ying since the 1980s, replicating the style of ancient Chinese dances from the Spring and Autumn period to the Tang and Qing Dynasty.
I was one of the audiences of that production, and unfortunately, even though I appreciated the choreography by Mr Sun as well as the learning effort from the dancers at Hong Kong Dance Company, the execution of the dances were not in full shape. especially when the dancers' movements were not synchronised. The ensemble work was just not tight.
After that, Hong Kong Dance Company ventured on its experimental repertoire within the last two years, with dance dramas CHINESE HERO: A LONE EXILE and LADY WHITE OF WEST LAKE, experimental dance theatre such as REVERIES OF THE RED CHAMBER and VIPASSANA, and the latest TALES OF THREE CITIES, which all are questionable productions on concept and execution.
Now, Hong Kong Dance Company invites Beijing Dance Academy to collaborate again, doing two shows at two weekends, BEAUTY BEYOND WORDS: ANCIENT CHINESE DANCE CLASSICS, performed at Shatin Town Hall at last weekend, and the revival of DREAM OF THE PAST at Hong Kong Cultural Centre at the coming weekend. I saw BEAUTY BEYOND WORDS, and it was an exciting night for me as finally, Hong Kong Dance Company has regained her strength of being a dance company focusing on traditional Chinese dance after two wandering years.
BEAUTY BEYOND WORDS is another collection of ancient Chinese dances, some from Mr Sun's DREAM OF THE PAST performed by Hong Kong Dance Company, while others are newly choreographed and performed by Beijing Dance Academy.
Some of my most favourite dances from DREAM OF THE PAST are preserved in BEAUTY BEYOND WORDS. Mr Sun's choreography is the textbook on how to balance traditional Chinese dance with a contemporary touch.
The essence of Chinese traditional dances, especially in these ritual dances, requires the 'beauty' of dancing. To define that 'beauty' is not just about the level of difficulty in performances, but also whether the sense of communication towards deity (or something equivalent) is presented for the audience to feel it.
That is why the choreography is the fundamental part for the dancers to communicate first with him/herself, and then once the dancers can use the choreography as a language to communicate his/her own feeling, the message of 'beauty' will be delivered to the audience.
And I can see that through Mr Sun's choreographies in his pieces. With the ensemble dances created by Mr Sun, I can see the philosophy in ritual dances of communication through the vibrant choreography in traditional style. There is not one piece from Mr Sun that is about showing off of his newly invented movements or how these dancers have to be acrobatics in order to beg for applause from the audience.
However, they also speak contemporary. 'Spring Excursion' opens the show with female dancers performing as an ensemble over a song instead of music. The style of the song is not in traditional Chinese musical style but more a pop song style of an ancient lyrical ballad, yet it never loses its musical tropes of a traditional song. With the authentic design of the costumes and the choreography, the whole piece just wildly in place. It instantly gives me a feeling that this is not just a museum piece but a work that I can relate to. It is a piece that welcomes me to celebrate Chinese heritage more than to ask me to see the dancers how well they have danced.
The formations of Mr Sun's dances paint a mise-en-scene on stage that strikes a balance between conservation and revolution. This has never been lost touch along the programme of Mr Sun's repertoire. 'Small Victory Dance,' a piece adapted from 'Emperor Qin's Victory Dance' in Qin Dynasty for court dancers in Tang Dynasty, shows three female dancers dressed as warriors, and dance with highly difficult skills of turning and spinning, showing their athletic charms without losing their femininity. After all, it is kind of a show-off of these dancers' skills, yet with Mr Sun's cunning structure of the piece, the show-off is balanced with these four dancers interacting with each other as if they are enjoying the dance rather than to perform the dance. Turns out, they are not performing but playing for this mini victory that they have owned.
And then there is 'Duke Xie's Shoes', still after two years my most favourite and also the best piece of all Mr Sun's pieces I have seen between the two shows. 'Duke Xie's Shoes' is based on Southern Dynasty poet Xie Ling Yun's image of being an anti-social scholar who invented a style of wooden clogs that makes people more convenient to travel through mountains and rivers. People started to adapt this invention, and named it commonly as Duke Xie's Shoes.
Southern Dynasty is a dark period in Chinese history where the country is divided yet again, thus to create 'Duke Xie's Shoes' as a dance piece, the longing for freedom and unity is right out of the core. Mr Sun totally captures this essence in the piece with layers in music (again a mixture of traditional and pop) as well as the layered transitions in the formation of the dance. A group of 13 male dancers, all in the typical image of Chinese scholars, move with the specifically designed wooden clogs. The ensemble moves in unity with long wide sleeves flowing in circles, while the dancers' feet stomp on the floor with weight. The piece builds up, with inner sleeves flying out as long sashes within the wide sleeves, the scholars dancing in circles, their heads spinning along with the music as if they are connecting with the nature presented in front of them. The climax revealed with them facing the audience in one strong beat, then slowly they bow to each other to farewell.
It is a piece that I can sense an urge for freedom through the choreography while I also can see that they are dancing as lone wolves. They join, they communicate, then they leave individually. One can say it is a celebration of the essence of scholars in ancient China, but it also can be read as the situation of scholars in that period that they only have that short period for embracing freedom as a unity, then they need to not be seen together after that, just like a hidden cult.
And it is this ambiguity of defining its political nature that makes Mr Sun's 'Duke Xie's Shoes', at least to me, a timeless piece.
Of course, pieces like 'Maid of Honour with Fan' and 'Chu-Style Waist Dancing' seems to be more traditional, not to mention the style and the recording quality of the music of both pieces speak ancient, but they still have touches of sincerity.
That probably is because the Hong Kong Dance Company dancers are really paying respect to Mr Sun's pieces. Even though I have to say the company still have a distance to embrace themselves to 'speak' in ritual, i.e. to be more open to the characteristics while hitting all the boxes of the skills required, the dancers at least are paying tribute to the spirit of the dances. 'Maid' presents the beauty of intellectual ladies in Qing Dynasty, 'Chu-Style' shows the 'witches' (female sorcerers who can speak to the dead) their flexible waist and through that the enjoyment of these 'witches' of searching for their spiritual selves, 'Duke' is closely performed in such unity without losing the search for liberation, and even for the end piece 'Grand Chorus', a Han-style court dance choreographed for a dance drama DANCING GIRL OF THE BRONZE SPARROW PAVILION, the dancers are focus, embodying the movements with strength and subtances.
Not to mention the dancers are far more improved from two years ago, at least they are definitely not lost this time. From what I saw within the last two years of Hong Kong Dance Company, BEAUTY BEYOND WORDS is definitely one of the best shows that they have put on, which the company's strength is showcased at its fullest .
BEAUTY BEYOND WORDS: ANCIENT CHINESE DANCED CLASSICS at Shatin Town Hall
Closed on 3rd June 2018