Freespace Dance 2023
Luc Depreitere / Daniel Tchetchik / Estelle Hanania
Freespace Dance is about exploration, transcendence, connection and hope.
Starting from this year, West Kowloon’s contemporary dance programmes will be presented from April to May annually as the month-long dance festival Freespace Dance, with different curatorial themes each year. This year, Freespace Dance showcases works by female choreographers that raise questions about our contemporary world, social structures, gender, time and space, as well as various differences and constraints in our daily existence through their unique perspective, life experience and female subjectivity. Whether thematically or aesthetically, they offer different imagination, discourse and strategies, with different forms of bodily narration and choreographic language for aspiring towards greater diversity, more fluidity and further possibilities with their inquisitive and innovative spirits.
While planning Freespace Dance 2023, Hong Kong’s pandemic prevention policy still required foreign visitors to undergo mandatory quarantine upon arrival. Hence, we mainly focused on selecting solo and duet pieces for our overseas programmes.
The two German choreographers Lisa Rykena and Carolin Jüngst of She Legend are not only well-versed in parody and the creation of highly stylised characters, they also care deeply about accessibility and actively integrate this approach into their works. Besides sharing their creative practice through performance and workshops, they offer audio description and touch tours for visually impaired audiences, as well as a public sharing on the application and creative possibilities of audio description in dance in Europe. This is a rare opportunity as there has been little engagement and discussion on this area in Hong Kong.
It’s going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend by Belgian choreographer Lisbeth Gruwez debuted in Europe ten years ago to stunning critical acclaim, followed by a long period of international touring. It has been six years since I watched this performance in France, and I still remember it vividly. Lisbeth is a powerful performer – she exudes the charm and magic of oration through her body and Maarten Van Cauwenberghe’s music with rigour and accuracy. Although the work has been around for a while, good works and meaningful themes are still worthy of being staged in this era. When we decided to focus on female choreographers this year, I immediately thought of introducing her to the audience in Hong Kong.
Israeli choreographer Inbal Pinto has always been creating large-scale dance productions and ensemble works, but the pandemic gave her the opportunity to create solo and duet works. Living Room was created during the pandemic, and it explores how a woman in domestic solitude redefines, reclaims and even embodies the space around her. Although she is confined, her mind is free.
I saw Crowd by French choreographer Gisèle Vienne at London’s Sadler’s Wells. It was the opening programme of “Dance Umbrella”, and everyone was very curious: can such extremely slow motion be considered dance? However, it was through such a way that Gisèle developed an alternative temporality that amplifies the narrative, characters and emotions while blurring the boundaries between film, photography, dance and theatre. When our daily perceptive frame is challenged and transposed, we establish a different and profound connection with the crowd on stage.
When it comes to local female choreographers, how could we not mention Mui Cheuk-yin? At 63, she is still very active, creative and full of ideas. This time, she collaborates with the young male wedding chaperone Chan Kin-man to reflect on commitment and sincerity veiled in traditional wedding rituals. During rehearsals, I observed up close Mui’s curiosity for everything and her keen insight into life. Her focus, dedication, determination and strength are extremely moving.
Also inaugural this year is the “FIRST Creation Platform”, developed to encourage local independent choreographers to present their latest creative ideas in a relatively stress-free environment. This year, we have invited the female choreographers who participated in West Kowloon’s “Creative Meeting Point” (CMP), including Blue Ka-wing, Justyne Li, Alice Ma, Ivy Tsui, Wong Pik-kei and KT Yau. It has already been seven years since the first edition of CMP, so I am very curious about the creative ideas of these mid-career choreographers after the past three transformative years. This platform not only allows us to understand their current artistic focus, but also provides a good opportunity for us to discover new works with potential for future support and development.
I have always hoped that there could be more dance critics and discussion about dance in Hong Kong, so as to cultivate a healthier dance ecology. On the occasion of Freespace Dance, we work with International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC) to host the Dance Appreciation and Criticism Writing Workshop and encourage more dance criticism. To enrich the audience’s viewing experience further, I have designed a series of pre-show participatory physical introduction sessions for the audience to experience the dance vocabulary of the works before the programme begins. During the performance, the dance works could be appreciated not only on an intellectual level, but also perceptually through the body as the audience fully immerse themselves in the experience.
Exploration and transcendence are the nature and essence of art. Through Freespace Dance, we hope to provide a platform for programmes with diverse visions to connect audience experience and foster the sector’s development. With new imagination and hope for our world, everyone can dance freely.
Producer, Performing Arts (Dance)
West Kowloon Cultural District
English translation: Narratives Studio
Thanks to Tenderness, the Teapot Starts to Talk
During her acceptance speech for the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk spoke on the meaning of tenderness. She said that tenderness is the art of personifying, of sharing feelings, and tenderness personalises everything that it touches, making it possible to give the smallest of things enough space and time to be expressed. She said, “It is thanks to tenderness that the teapot starts to talk.”
In the performance Living Room, part of Freespace Dance 2023, we indeed see a teapot that can “speak”! As well as a teacup, table, chair, cupboard and even a whole room within which they inhabit. In this creation by Israeli choreographer Inbal Pinto, objects are given life, and strange, object-like, inhuman bodies – that of the dancers – share a fantastical world with the objects. Within this world, none dominates the other. There is only the dialogue, the game, the connection and, at the same time, the inter-exploration of an endless flow of changing forms. The space collectively created by him/her/it/them is both exterior and interior; there are rooms within rooms, inner realms embedded within realms. When we believe the existence of forms to be infinite, our ways of searching for and creating space also become boundless. This is perhaps a circumstance that Virginia Woolf had not experienced or imagined a century ago when she argued the importance of having “a room of one’s own”. This is a decentred circumstance possible in the 21st century. Inside a room seemingly enveloped in the miasma of solitude, all object and mental images are connected, teeming with an underlying genesis and passion for life/forms.
The “something outside of ourselves” that Tokarczuk is concerned with is an interconnected and cohesive ecosystem, a mythical experience of the world, and all the fragments and chances in the universe.1 From another perspective, considering our relation to the “other”, as suggested by Judith Butler, what is “outside of ourselves” can also be a kind of social framework shaping the self, regulating life and defining the world.2 This is the perspective explored by three other works that are also part of Freespace Dance 2023.
The two co-choreographers and performers of She Legend, Lisa Rykena and Carolin Jüngst, are from Hamburg, Germany. They create a first-person narrative through bizarre physicality. Their “I” is a non-conformist shape-shifter: am “I” the burly green giant Hulk? Am “I” a laid-back hipster? Or an abstract and obscure soft sculpture? How can “who I am” be examined? Who can decide? A totem stationed on stage rejects adhering to old mythologies. Popular superhero discourses are deconstructed by the duo’s unnameable and continuously morphing bodies into howls of laughter. In the recent third season of American television series Umbrella Academy, one of the superhero characters and its actor both came out as transgender in theatre and in life. As can be seen, the jokes in She Legend are not mere hypothetical jest but substantial possibilities.
Using a similar kind of queer parodic oration, It’s going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend offers another strategy. Compared to the fun and games of She Legend, this dance work clearly channels rage. The first-person narration of Belgian choreographer Lisbeth Gruwez is a painful (and perhaps also exhilarating) transgression. She uses her “self” as the medium – dressed in a suit, she begins by exploring the physicality of political orators and reconstructs a powerful performance in mansplaining.3 Just as strange as the peculiar superheroes in She Legend, this commanding “self” lures one in and then slowly tears apart the mask of those in power to expose their violent subconscious. (Butler would probably applaud this and say “deconstruct the frame!”) The corporeal strategy in the dance code of this performance precisely and scathingly provokes how we understand the role of “language” (in a general sense) in politics.
As the title suggests, Double Happiness: The Promise of Red by local choreographer Mui Cheuk-yin creates a world in red. The celebratory joy of conventional festivities envelops the entire stage and the silhouette of a lone woman. She wanders within, at times following tradition and at others trying to break free from it. Performing with Mui is male wedding chaperone Chan Kin-man, who demarcates boundaries within the red “framework” with oration and actions used in traditional wedding practice. Chan expresses his personal emotions through subtle details to become a mirror of the protagonist despite seeming like a bystander. A walled village female elder sings a bridal lament and pushes the tension between the bride and a red promise to the extreme: how can one express one’s voice in the face of separation, fear and loss of subjectivity? Throughout the performance, the sound effects ostensibly allude to joyful festivities, but the harsh and unsettling percussion serves as the finishing touch that knells to the grave of wedlock.
The tender narration that Tokarczuk aspires towards also recalls the moving perspective and stunning artistry in Crowd by French-Austrian choreographer Gisèle Vienne. The whole dance creates a cohesive and exceptionally challenging temporality through extreme physical strategies. The passage of time on stage is stretched by highly controlled stop-motion, everything is suspended in space. Within this kind of temporality, no one on stage is normal: every movement, expression and touch between one another are magnified by time, revealing all kinds of eccentricities. Perceiving a diverse array of individualities in the continuous flow of time, the audience is made to continue to participate in the narrative, and even imbue the narration with events absent on stage – their own personal life experience as well as doubts, care, reminiscence or judgements towards the youth…all of these become inspiration for narrative creation within the extended unfolding of time. Audiences familiar with contemporary art are perhaps no stranger to this type of artistic strategy. The video works by artist Bill Viola can be considered classics in slow motion.4 Crowd is also similar to the works by the photographer Jeff Wall, who blurs the line between posed photography and street snap to create a unique time-space in between the theatrical and the everyday, motion and stillness, and instantaneity and predetermination, which makes use of the “gaze” as a conscious act,5 going “far beyond empathetic fellow feeling” to perceive a community just as Tokarczuk suggests.
Whether through the myth of heroism and gender stereotypes or power relations and collective melancholy of the times, the “tender narrators” in Freespace Dance 2023 allow myriad people, events and things in our contemporary experience to flow through the self, creating forms and vocabularies to carry, feel and convey these experiences. The tender narrators traverse back and forth between two overlapping sites that mark contemporary existence – the warzone and the playground. Their bodies are wild and fantastical, provocative and resistant. They themselves are fragile but difficult, historical and utopic, restricted but rapturously expanding. As the grounds beneath them disintegrate, their bodies continue to connect, and through narration – the body’s narration – they bridge every single minute but powerful living being.
When the body dances freely, we will see a tender power manifesting and expanding between us, hand in hand.
Text: Vee Leong
Vee Leong is a writer-director in text-based and intermedia art making. She is now Lecturer in Dramaturgy at The Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts.
English translation: Narratives Studio
- 1For example, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009) is about the power relations between humans and animals. The excerpts of Tokarczuk’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech quoted in this text are published in the last section of this novel’s translation (2003). Tokarczuk’s other representative works include Primeval and Other Times and Flights.
- 2Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (2002 Chinese translation).
- 3A new vocabulary formed from combining the words “man” and “explaining”, which refers to the explanation of something by a man to a woman in a patronising manner. The word “mansplainer” was listed as one of the “Words of the Year” by New York Times in 2012.
- 4For example, Viola’s works from the mid-1990s such as The Greeting and The Passions series, which re-enact classic oil paintings.
- 5For example, Wall’s classic works Mimic (1982) and Death Troops Talk (1992).
West Kowloon Cultural District Production Team
Marketing and Promotion
Communications and Public Affairs
Heidi Au Yeung
Key Visual Design
Wong San Mun*
Key Visual Design of Double Happiness: The Promise of Red
Eric Hong@Moon 9 Image*
Promotion Video Production
Translation and Editing
House Programme Website Design
Jessie Chung (Learning & Participation)
Arts with the Disabled Association Hong Kong*
Hong Kong Blind Union*
*Project-based engagement in this production
About West Kowloon Cultural District
The West Kowloon Cultural District is one of the largest cultural projects in the world. Its vision is to create a vibrant new cultural quarter for Hong Kong on 40 hectares of reclaimed land located alongside Victoria Harbour. With a varied mix of theatres, performance spaces, and museums, the West Kowloon Cultural District will produce and host world-class exhibitions, performances and cultural events, providing 23 hectares of public open space, including a two-kilometre waterfront promenade.
Freespace – Hong Kong’s new centre for contemporary performance in the heart of the West Kowloon Art Park – presents multi-genre performances and events, produces boundary-pushing collaborations, and promotes new ways of seeing and experiencing performance.
Partnering with emerging and established artists from Hong Kong and around the world, we nurture diverse creative voices and bring works that challenge and redefine the role of performing arts for our age.