I'm wary of search engines and surveillance as I write this piece, but it's difficult to talk about anything without a soupçon of context. Hong Kong has been in the news much of late, largely politically speaking, but of course the socio in socio-political can't be denied.
In such a volatile, divisive environment, one wonders about the impact on the cultural conscience and related creativity. Enter the room Hong Kong Soul “a new platform to showcase the diverse range of HK dance and performance in a collective way”.
The troupe are performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 2-13 August with London previews from 29-30 July, I attended the latter to see five pieces over the two performances.
The opening evening included TS Crew's No Dragon No Lion and Cheuk Yin Mui's Diary VII: The Story of…
Hong Kong Soul is “motivated by TS Crew” and they've definitely brought a show to town with No Dragon No Lion, but for me it's a somewhat confused one. Their aim is to deconstruct the Lion Dance, and this they've managed, with the Lion itself a plain, wicker version, and the 10-strong cast dressed in black jeans and white t-shirts. No red and gold in sight.
The majority of the movement is acrobatic, with elements of martial arts shown through poses and physical wizardry, and they meld differing genres together with admirable ease. The troupe seem to know no fear, and this is indeed intoxicating, but not quite enough to disguise elements of execution being too rough and ready, and certain choreographic sections feeling very lost and in need of some serious editing. Two of the cast perform beatboxing which is ingenious, ranging from what sounds like pig snorts to the didgeridoo. Other musical accompaniment varied from pop to classical, but nothing overtly traditional as one could expect.
TS Crew seem to have the gumption and resilience for what it takes to create and survive in the arts, but I'd suggest their next step is to work with some external choreographers and producers to take things to a more polished, professional level.
Cheuk Yin Mui started her Diary project in 1986, fast forward to 2023 and the 63-year-old Mui presents Diary VII: The Story of… a work exploring ideas of “home, country, diaspora, and emigration”.
Being in the presence of greatness isn't a daily occurrence, so one tends to know when it's happening. Case in point Mui. My only regret is that I don't speak Cantonese, as during Diary VII: The Story of… there are two monologues, one assumes written and spoken by Mui, that I would've loved to engage with. I can only imagine that her philosophy, or poetry is as profound as everything else she offers.
Though Mui isn't the only star of the show, she's accompanied by many props and some (flat) feline friends. An abundance of props normally makes me want to run for the hills, but what Mui shares is an extraordinarily realised, multidisciplinary work.
She offers dance, (live) film, set and light design, sculpture and engineering. And it's all seamlessly interwoven into performance through her practice.
As a dancer, she's composed and refined, each movement taken with such care and consideration. The piece's structure is a handful of sections focusing on different elements: dance with intricate finger/hand choreography, shadow play questioning perspective and proximity, and at times moments of minimal movement if not stillness, encouraging the observer to engage with the environments Mui conjures.
I was absolutely transported to the streets of Hong Kong. Through the soundscape of rainfall and commuter trains, and the atmospheric feline visuals created through Mui's simple but inventive production creativity. The programme notes reference Mui as iconic on the Hong Kong dance and choreography scene, and this statement isn't hyperbolic. I'm hooked.
The Sunday matinee was a triple bill called The (Hong) Kong Girls, with work by PK Wong, Justyne Li and Alice Ma. The blurb offered some contextual insight into the show's title: “originally a misogynist label for women in Hong Kong, the term ‘Kong Girl' has been reclaimed and now takes on new meanings”.
Off the bat, I'd say this isn't good programming. Though the show is only 60 mins long, three solos that are all concept, angst-heavy is a bit much even for hard-core theatregoers.
PK Wong's Bird-Watching deals with the male gaze in relation to her “naked and liberated body” and nakedness was the name of the game. I'm not here to propose what an artist should or shouldn't do, and we all have the right to agency over our own bodies, but when performance includes nakedness it can often become only about that – especially when nakedness evolves into the realms of anatomy. Whatever Wong's philosophy, it's unapologetic and apparent. Her articulated movement of gesture and convulsions has presence and power throughout and hats off to a fellow observer who was involved in some rather intimate audience participation. Not for me.
Justyne Li's Bleed-through looks at suppression and what the body houses in both thought and emotion, and I definitely got suppression, but in relation to the flatness of the piece rather than a more profound reading. Fundamentally I experienced a one-dimensional work in relation to content, pace and structure. Li can only be described as a consummate dancer, but Bleed-through needs some rethinking. It's currently in the territory of screensaver – something's happening… but not enough to garner actual attention.
Alice Ma's Wu addresses conventional notions of femininity according to the blurb, and this was evident in an obvious kind of way. Ma is placed on a pedestal, all idealised pose and grimace until things start to crack. To a soundtrack of snaps and kinks, she breaks in front of our eyes like a mannequin. Her pretty girl attire seems to have black feathers underneath that fall, and act as a metaphor for failure? Individualism? Whatever the reason this sets Ma into hysterical, aggressive laughter which was actually quite funny. But was it the point? There's very little ‘dance' to comment on, and I feel there's a bigger topic to be addressed here.
Dance scenes go through periods, fads even, and Hong Kong seems to be very much in the conceptual moment. This is of course necessary, interesting (at times) work, but movement, even dance can be a part of this thinking. Creatives just need to desire it or have experienced, inspiring mentorship that can't be ignored. Let's see what 2024 holds for Hong Kong's creative soul.
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers' Teaching Diploma in 2007, and was fomerly on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011 and has been a freelance writer since 2010. He is a Trustee (2021) of the Royal Academy of Dance and works in the Law Sector.