Ballet and dance, Theater

Cecilia’s Rhapsody

Date: March 18, 2017
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Blue Ka-wing – The Invisible S
Ata Wong Chun-tat – Très léger
Rebecca Wong Pik-kei – Nook

This contemporary dance program brings together three works in response to “Cecilia”, a short story about Hong Kong’s urban landscape that launched Hong Kong writer Dung Kai-cheung’s career twenty-some years ago. Blue Ka-wing’s piece, divided into multiple segments, questions whether the body matters in this world. In one segment, two dancers, with their bellies on the floor (actually, on a glass podium positioned mid-stage) and their hands and legs flapping around, are caricatured as instant message-typing goldfishes swimming aimlessly in a fish tank, to the waltzy music from Disney’s “Up”. Meanwhile, music switches intermittently into abrupt sequences of Stockhausen-like pulses, whereby the dancers jump up and take turns to embrace, slap at, or just look at each other. In another segment, the two dancers take turns to physically abuse each other, whether by slapping, kicking or pinching severely, as if alluding to some uncomfortable realities of modern society. Overall, the theatrical presentation here is quite memorable, but the dance language is too varied, and ultimately muddled.

Ata Wong Chun-tat’s piece begins with a dancer, dressed in a geometrically awkward costume that seems precisely to un-flatter the human body. Dancer Mok Chun-tung’s weighty body seems to reinforce this idea, though it must be noted that Mok, being a theater-actor by training, shows dancer-like flexibility and endurance, not to mention well-defined facial expressions, in his captivating solo. In the background, the soundtrack begins with a primitive sequence of long electronic pulses and ends with a soppy Cantopop song, played through a portable deck player held up on stage by a performer. In between, Chan Tze-wing renders live music with a cello while donning a long black dress and sitting on the shoulder of a lifter (hidden within the dress). This musical development, from the primitive to the commercial, seems to mirror the gradual increase in sophistication of the dancers’ movements during the piece, as though the choreographer wants to describe a developing humanity, probably in relation to Dung’s urban visualization of the city. If the piece is meant to be thoughtful and broadly contemplative, it succeeds theatrically and visually. But as a piece of dance theater, the language here seems too broad, with neither a lasting impact nor an all-encompassing glue that brings the various body movements under a cohesive thesis.

Of the three pieces, Rebecca Wong Pik-kei’s “Nook” offers the most coherent dance language and the most satisfying mix of dance and theater. A dark stage is lid with four rows of LEDs across the depth of the floor, with two on the floor and two hanging above them. Dancers Alice Ma and Takao Komaru display a well-rehearsed partnership where two body weights counter each other with seamless perfection just as they move freely across the stage. The two dancers mostly dance apart, but when they are together they are mostly connected through a piece of red dress (worn on Ma). At times Komaru would grab one end of the dress and swing violently, flying Ma’s body across the stage. Dancers would occasionally wrap their heads in the red dress and be led by the other, as though human relationships, no matter how beautiful, could at times find one side to be suffocating and subservient. When the dancers move together, they offer a most intense eye contact, infused with meanings undefined and unknown, as if alluding to the unpredictable and often dreamy human relationships in Dung’s work. With “Nook”, the overall effect weaving dance and theater together is most cohesive, while the dancers’ performance is most natural, sizzling, and revelatory. Komaru’s solo effort at the beginning, frenetic and muscular, reveals the top-class classical training behind the utmost fluency of his steps.

Alice Ma and Takao Komaru, in Rebecca Wong Pik-kei’s “Nook”. Photo credit: Hong Kong Arts Festival.


Gandini Juggling: Smashed

Date: March 18, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Juggling, according to the program notes, is essentially a mastery over the “fundamental force of gravity”. Passing patterns, velocities and angles define not only relationships between two juggling hands but between two or more jugglers. The movements of pieces traveling mid-air, as well as the movements of the jugglers’ bodies and limbs, provide plenty of kinetic vocabulary to complete a masterpiece of choreographed drama.

Between its traditional role in a circus act in ancient Greece and Rome, and its status as a black-tie type of high art in the 18th and 19th centuries, juggling has a long and varied history. Juggling patterns have also been studied extensively in mathematical terms. Yet, as an entertainment device, it has nearly always been considered a sidekick to a wider circus act or an ambient backdrop in a movie’s crowd scene (see Casablanca, Hook etc.) With Gandini, juggling is vaulted to the forefront of theater: the act is well choreographed, while protagonists display distinct emotions and projecting living characters. Kati Ylä-Hokkala, Gandini’s artistic director and star performer, communicates with a sweet smile and gazing eyes, even as she busily juggles four to five items while crisscrossing the stage on strapped heels. Francesca Mari nurses a cool, if not also pesky, figurine who can throw as mean a smile at you as five (or six!) items rapidly in mid-air. Malte Steinmetz plays the part of a German-speaking joker who acts (and even looks the part of!) Cosmo Kramer, while Tedros Girmaye shines as the hilarious Donkey to Gandini’s collective Shrek. Girmaye not only juggles but performs incredible acrobatic acts too: in fact, before joining Gandini he has done time with Cirque du Soleil. Tensions ebb and flow during a performance, but tends to build whenever jugglers begin to throw items into mid-air and at each other in a perfectly choreographed web of cacophony: the utter concentration involved belies yet perfectly contrasts a lethargic, taped soundtrack of a Bach sarabande. In another, when items dance cooperatively in a three-item cascade just as Jack Little’s I’ve Always Wanted to Dance in Berlin play in the background, an air of relaxed serenity permeates. This communicative power is a culmination of more than twenty years of Gandini’s experimentation using juggling as a medium of communication. Whoever believes juggling is merely an act involving quick hands with neither dramatic quality nor impact should most certainly rethink that position.

If robots can juggle perfectly, then Smashed seeks to highlight that its juggling is performed by real, breathing human beings. Whether deliberate or by accident, items do occasionally, or eventually, get smashed (hence the act’s title). What makes juggling such a dramatic art form (at the hands of the Gandini folks) is not only the perfection resulting from the kinetic relationships between limbs and flying items, but the prospect (and hence the inevitable suspense) that an item may eventually face the natural laws of gravity. With Smashed, the Gandini eleven shows us why choreographed juggling is not only an electrifying but a legitimate form of theater.

Gandini Juggling: Smashed

Gandini Juggling: Smashed in Hong Kong. Photo credit: Hong Kong Arts Festival.