April 10, 2017 | Jane Chan

The signing Ceremony of Memorandum of Understanding on Dance Exchange and collaboration between Hong Kong and Finland.
Photo provided by WKCDA.

 The West Kowloon Cultural District Authority (WKCDA) is partnering with three Finnish dance institutions, Dance Info Finland, Zodiak – Centre for New Dance, and Dance House Helsinki, to offer six dance artists, three each from Hong Kong and Finland, opportunity to foster artistic dialogues with each other. The Hong Kong dance artists selected for the 3-year residency exchange program entitled, Creative Meeting Point: Hong Kong × Finland, are Justyne Li Sze-yeung, Wayson Poon Wai-shun, and Ivy Tsui Yik-chit. The program aims to support artistic practice, research, continued professional development, encourage works-in-progress, and help realize co-productions between Hong Kong and Finland in 2019. The dance artists will take part in six residency exchanges in the coming years, working independently and collaboratively to further their artistic practice.

 The Hong Kong artists embarked on the project on 30 November 2016. Their exploration began with ICE HOT, an international dance festival in Denmark that gave them time to broaden their understanding of the regional dance scene in Northern Europe. This was followed by residency at Zodiak – Centre for New Dance at the Cable Factory in Helsinki as part of the Helsinki International Artist Program.

Visiting Dance Info Finland. Photo provided by WKCDA.

 The Artists

 Justyne Li began her career as a ballet dancer and never thought of doing anything else until she met her future husband, Wong Tan-ki, in 2004. Working with him she realized choreography could be a possibility and she has persevered at it ever since. When I asked why she wanted to participate in the program, Li’s reply was simple, “Why not?”. She wanted to try something new, break habits, be in new spaces, new contexts, and build new working relationships.

 Wayson Poon has been looking for new opportunities and ways to further his professional growth. This residency exchange program came just at the right time for him to develop an international perspective he knows is vital for his personal and professional development.

 Ivy Tsui had her heart set on choreography quite early on. She worked freelance for several years and realized there wasn’t enough time to refine her choreographic practice. She was continuously going from one project to another, busy choreographing and dancing. She has been interested in participating in a residency for some time but never had the opportunity. This residency will also give her time to reflect on her practice and a chance to stop ‘project hopping’. The project seems to have come at the right time for all of them.

Meeting with Finnish artists. Clockwise from left seated: Carl Knif, Ivy Tsui, Wayson Poon, Justyne Li, Sari Palmgren, Linda Martikainen.
Photo provided by WKCDA.

 Residency at the Cable Factory

 After attending the ICE HOT festival, they started their first residency period at Zodiak. The apartment they stayed in there was in the Cable Factory and close to the studio. “We’ve counted, it’s only 30 steps away,” Tsui says. They describe the apartment as very spacious. Space is abundant in Helsinki unlike Hong Kong where it is a very precious commodity.

 The Cable Factory is a former industrial complex converted into Finland’s largest cultural center. It is located by the sea, and very close to the city center. “It’s full of artists. You eat, sleep, breathe art as you are surrounded by many artists and projects”, Li recounts. “The studio faces the sea, there were foggy mornings, or ice floating on the sea and narrow beams of sun shining through the windows… Like a beautiful painting!” Poon exclaims.

 As Poon talks about it, it seems ideal, “The residency was a platform for us to communicate. We conversed, debated, and listened. Took turns to lead tasks and workshops based on our research to further our knowledge and receive feedback from the rest of the group. It was a great way to get to know each other through our practice”. Li and Tsui agree.

 A typical day went from 10am to 3pm in the studio followed by attending performances in the evenings. They would start with an hour warm-up every day, followed by workshops that they took turns leading. Li remarks, “The Finnish artists seemed to be very busy. Attendance was a struggle but on the other hand we were able to visit their project to see what they are doing and share what we are doing in a presentation for their students. I would love to have spent more time together. It was, however, a learning experience, gaining a different perspective to better understand the reality of their working life.” She suggests it may be beneficial to have full attendance to fulfil their objectives and further their practice. It seemed they had a great time despite having some constraints. There is always room for improvement, with artists and organizations learning from experience to help tweak the program.

Studio Work during Helsinki Residency. Photo provided by WKCDA.

Research Topics

 Each of their research areas is fascinating. Tsui focuses on communication and is interested in dance performances with text, having used text in one of her previous works. She came across artists using text in their works and most of them use English. She wonders why this is. Do the artists adapt their works for international audiences? Do they start with their mother-tongue? As part of her research, she taught the Finnish artists some basic Cantonese. She speculates, when people are faced with a foreign language, how do they communicate? She is fascinated by this idea and would like to explore the use of gibberish for her upcoming work, thinking about how it might be received. She pushed the idea further, extending the dialogue between body parts instead of between people, for example, head and hand, then adding another body part, like elbow. How would the dialogue and dynamics change?

 Li is finding ways to create improvisational tasks that challenge the mind and body. She thoroughly enjoys it when dancers are 100% focused on the task of improvising and forget that they are performing and being watched. That’s when she is most engaged. She would like to create tasks like that for her work. “We agreed it is a difficult since improvisation focuses on the moment and performance is a more considered form. Improvising in a performance can be contradictory. However, we know it is possible to improvise while performing but it is about the freedom within parameters that are set beforehand. Lots to think about”, she adds.

 Poon has two main research focuses: kinetics and creative tools. He is fascinated by how the body moves. At present, he is focusing on Qi. The energy and life force that living things possess. Qi is very much influenced by philosophies and beliefs from China and India that he has been reading a great deal about. These philosophies and beliefs not only help him to create but also add a dimension to his daily life. Osho (Shree Rajneesh) is one of the most influential philosophers for him.

 He also wants to find ways to structure improvisation for collaborators who aren’t trained dancers because he envisions working with collaborators from different disciplines. He would like to create and investigate some of these tools with other artists and hopes to come up with something fruitful by the end of the process. To Poon, every creative process is composed of software and hardware. For him, concepts, ideas, philosophies, and beliefs are the software. The studio, physical space, and materials that are tangible are the hardware. The body connects the two and is the starting point for research and for creation. “I doubt I will be able to develop these in three years but it is the learning experience that is significant for me professionally,” he says.

Discussion during Hong Kong Residency. Photo provided by WKCDA.

 Observations

 When asked what they have observed or taken from the residency so far, Poon mentions that one of his foremost observations was how mindful Northern Europeans are of light. In Helsinki and Northern Europe, due to their geographic location, days are very long in summer and as short as four to six hours in winter. Poon relates this to how European artists use light as tools for storytelling and to enrich performances. “I was definitely inspired. I would love to research, develop, and work with lighting designers in the coming years to develop ways to work with light, space, and bodies.”

 The performances they attended throughout the weeks had a huge impact on Li. The extensive variety of productions were unlike those in Hong Kong due to differences in culture, climate, frame of mind, and space among other factors. Some works presented at ICE HOT may have seemed dull to others but were in fact Li’s cup of tea, especially pieces that dealt with repetition. Li recalls something Pina Bausch once said, “Repetition is not repetition… The same action makes you feel something completely different by the end”  maybe that is what attracts her to this device.

 Li enjoys performances that are logical and rational like science experiments. She appreciates the concentrated way of working and the artists’ determination to focus on just one thing and use different perspectives to view this one thing, whatever it may be. She tells of a dance she particularly enjoyed – a piece with three stationary dancers, each had a long string and used movement phrases to move the string in space. They performed the movements at the same time but in a different order. The piece was about 20 minutes long and the dancers created a soundscape of a melting iceberg. Li appreciated the piece, as it was like being taken on a journey, but was aware that it might not be to everyone’s taste.  She also enjoyed the winter in Helsinki. She realized nature, space, the lack of sunlight, and the cold weather have tremendous effects on people’s biological rhythms, she suspected these were the reasons the pace in Helsinki was slower and the artists there had a stronger sense of focus and attention to detail.

 Tsui spent most her time thinking about the relationship between research and exchange. Which should take priority? At first, she was overwhelmed and tempted by new and inspiring stimuli, nevertheless, she recognized that her core questions and research were connected to her sense of identity as both a person and a dance artist. Her recognition of the importance of self-reflection to art making was a valuable lesson.

 Tsui, Li, and Poon look forward to hosting the Finnish artists and showing them their home, Hong Kong – the fast pace of life in the city, its amazing food, and the dense living conditions. They would also like to see Hong Kong from their Finnish counterparts’ point of view. The Finns might offer them new perspectives that could help them consolidate notions of their own identity and how they see Hong Kong.