Hong Kong Dance Company's Yang Yuntao on Modernising Chinese Dance

Arts

August 8, 2016 | BY Joanne Chan

The artistic director on his growth as an artist and keeping with tradition

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Photo courtesy of Yang Yuntao

The year 2016 marks a significant milestone for Hong Kong Dance Company as it celebrates its 35th anniversary. “Every year is and has been important,” says Yang Yuntao, artistic director of HKDC, “but thirty-five years represents reaching a certain level of maturity, just like a person who has accumulated more experience, who has survived the ups and downs of life.” I first met Yang in 2011 when Yang was then the Assistant Artistic Director of the HKDC and was awarded the Jean Ho Fellowship to launch a residency with the acclaimed Shen Wei Dance Arts. But it was not until mid-2014 when I joined the Board of the Hong Kong Dance Company, not a year after he stepped up to the helm as the company’s youngest-ever artistic director, then at age 38, that I sat down with him face to face to have an intimate talk. Two years on, and I see first hand his dedication to the company and the reaction from the public. Recently I caught up with him again about these first two years, and would like to share his latest thoughts on taking HKDC forward. 

“To be honest with you, I haven’t had time to reflect on the past two years,” says Yang, speaking with his characteristic candour. “I have just been too busy.” And “too busy” is no understatement. Yang hit the ground running, with his directorial debut The Legend of Mulan premiering in November 2014 to critical acclaim. The story was familiar territory: young Mulan, from a family with no sons, dons a male disguise and joins the army in her father’s place. But while popular incarnations of Mulan in movies and television have tended to play up the romance factor, HKDC’s rendition decidedly took audiences closer to the story’s roots. Yang conceived the production as a retelling of the Ballad of Mulan, the sixth-century poem memorialising the heroine’s brave deeds. Celebrated at the core of the poem — and what the production refocused on — is Mulan’s filial piety: her deep love for her father, in light of which her going against social conventions to enlist and her ensuing bravery in battle must be read. The Legend of Mulan took to the stage and, in a production that blended technical bravura with nuanced explorations of the protagonist’s psyche, met with wild success. It went on to win the 2014 Hong Kong Dance Award for Outstanding Production; along the way, HKDC bagged more accolades: Outstanding Ensemble Performance at the Hong Kong Dance Awards 2014 and Best Dance Show at The Hecklers 2013-14.

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Photo courtesy of Conrad Dy Liacco

If the remarkable first season had drummed up expectations of what HKDC would next essay, Yang certainly did not disappoint. The 2014/15 season saw the staging of five productions, among them reinterpretations of well-loved classics such as The Butterfly Lovers, and also Dim Sum Adventures @ Lung Fung Teahouse, Red Poppies, and Shao Nian Yau. Perhaps the most experimental among them was Storm Clouds, a dance adaptation of Ma Wing-Shing’s The Storm Riders, a cult comic series first created back in 1989 and which has since spawned TV spinoffs and other popular adaptations. From appearances the collaboration was an unlikely crossover — by all stretch of the imagination, dance and comic art seem to appeal to such vastly different audiences. But in other ways, it made perfect sense. Both art forms turn on evoking scene and imagery, and not least eliciting emotional resonance. Both transport their audiences into the heart of the narrative action. And then added onto that was wushu  — the world of martial arts intrigue in which The Storm Riders perambulate  — which is, concurrently, one of the traditional Chinese art forms Yang believes HKDC is best poised to explore and advance. Pushing at the boundaries of high and low art, Storm Clouds not only took avid dance audiences on a journey into the world of comic art; it was, without a doubt, also an induction for many a comic fan who had never before stepped across the threshold of an auditorium. 

“I feel that my job is to link the past to the future and to chart out a new path — not to create something completely new." — Yang Yuntao

“It’s what art should be,” Yang had said back in 2014, “Hong Kong Dance Company should always be experimenting, changing, moving.” While moving the company in exciting new directions, Yang is ever mindful of the legacy they inherit. Chinese dance is the very DNA of HKDC. At its founding in 1981, the company was set up as a non-profit with the aim of promoting Chinese dance. Now as ever, Yang believes Chinese dance — bringing together the forms and movements of multiple traditions including tai chi, Wushu, and ethnic dances  — continues to give HKDC its definitive character. And his role as artistic director, in no small part, is to lead the company in interpreting the traditional art forms in our contemporary context.

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Photo courtesy of Conrad Dy Liacco

Directing a company that has more than three decades of history behind it is no small feat. At HKDC’s thirty-five-year mark, the challenge of staying forward-looking while holding true to its identity remains ever present. “I feel very lucky to be here at HKDC and to be in this position at this milestone; it is a big responsibility,” says Yang. “I feel that my job is to link the past to the future and to chart out a new path — not to create something completely new because HKDC has already gone a long way, but to have the company more firmly established in Hong Kong.”

"In order to be successful, you also need to be part of the community. You have to pay attention to the world outside, and not just live in your own bubble.”

And what, for Yang, would it look like to further establish HKDC? “As one can see from Hong Kong Dance Company, its name is very simple and straightforward. In its name is a simple ‘Hong Kong’, which gives us a lot of room for creation and possibility.” In today’s political climate where discussions of what Hong Kong is can easily touch a sensitive nerve, one cannot but wonder by what lights Yang navigates. Two years ago, we spoke at length about art being individualistic and issuing from an intimate place in the life of an artist. While that remains integral to every moment in dance and something Yang continues to nurture in his team, now as he spends considerable time managing people and projects at a more macro level, the question of how art, artist and the community all connect looms large. And might it not be this sense of community that HKDC tries to grasp at, question, celebrate, and create through each of its productions? The company has certainly done so in the staging of Storm Clouds and L’amour immortel (2015/16), reaching out to narratives that resonate in the collective memory of many in Hong Kong (the latter being a dance adaptation of local film giant Tsui Hark’s “A Chinese Ghost Story”). And this not driven by nostalgia for “bygone glory days”, but equally, an openness and receptivity towards dialoguing with cultural forms that are circulating in society, as we have seen in the way HKDC daringly embraced comic art (Storm Clouds) and a cappella music (Voices and Dances of the Distant Land, 2015/16) in its recent productions. 

Yang acknowledges all this involves a difficult balancing act: “Being an artist and creating is a very subjective experience, but the challenge is, in order to be successful, you also need to be part of the community. You have to pay attention to the world outside, and not just live in your own bubble.”

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Photo courtesy of Yang Yuntao

And in turn, the world is paying attention. In March 2015, The Legend of Mulan toured to New York and performed to a full house at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Later that year, the company reprised their performance in front of an international audience, this time at The Concourse Theatre Chatswood, Sydney. Yang has spoken about HKDC’s role as an ambassador to a foreign audience for the marvelously rich world of Chinese traditions, and he is making good on his word, locally and abroad, opening portals into what is both ‘contemporary’ and ‘traditional’ not only in Chinese dance, but also Chinese culture in a broader way.  

The past two years have been hectic  — and fruitful. Whatever the challenge, Yang has, in his unassuming way, risen to it. He remains extremely humble about the successes, repeatedly attributing them to luck. “I am not experienced enough,” he says, “I am just trying to do my best and handle what’s in front of me.” There are daily challenges, he admits, and managing people and talent is not always a walk in the park. And yet, having watched and talked to him, it is not difficult to see the leadership he has brought to the company over the past two years. Here is a man who lives and breathes dance, who is constantly thinking about improving his craft, and constantly looking to inspire his dancers to bring the same level of passion and commitment to their art. Beneath the more practical exterior now demanded of his role, it doesn’t take much stretch of the imagination to detect the visionary that Yang still is: quietly insistent and devoted to his craft, open-minded and optimistic about his audience, and at the end of the day, hopeful in the power of authentic art to reveal to us, artist and audience, the nuance