The dance world has never been kind towards ageing dancers, with most performance careers ending in their 30s. But for 50-something year old dancer Qiao Yang, her age becomes a point of pride as she manages to continue dancing even today, and is the subject of her autobiographical solo piece Almost 55, playing as part of the Esplanade’s Huayi Festival 2020 this February.
Created by award-winning Taiwanese choreographer Chou Shu-yi for Qiao Yang, Almost 55 traces Qiao Yang’s rise with physically challenging dance solos and personal monologues, allowing her to share journey in dance as she reflects on her life’s purpose. Tracing her career from her early days in Shaanxi in the ’70s to Guangzhou in the ’80s before Hong Kong in the ’90s, not only does Almost 55 show us the life of a dancer, but also reflects on the places we call home. In the lead-up to the show, we spoke to Qiao Yang herself on her career and decision to dance, all the way from then to now:
Bakchormeeboy: What was the impetus behind choosing now to create and present this work? Is there a significance behind the age of 55?
Qiao Yang: The reason I engaged in the creation and performance of Almost 55 is that I have been dancing for 43 years. In general, a dancer of age 55 is old. People may be very curious about how a professional dancer of such age presents her movements on stage. So, to challenge myself at this age is exactly what I want to do. I want to showcase with my physical strength, caliber and technique that age doesn’t matter. Age is simply a number. With a good attitude and focusing on comprehensive training every day, one can actually dance much longer.
More importantly, I would like to dedicate this piece to Mr. Willy Tsao, the founder and former Artistic Director of the City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC) in Hong Kong. He has changed my whole life; I wouldn’t be who I am today without him. As I mention in the show Almost 55, the most crucial point in my contemporary dance career is that I met the admirable mentor Mr. Willy Tsao who guided me.
Bakchormeeboy: At what point in your life did you decide to carve a career out of dance, considering you started at the age of 12, and why?
Qiao Yang: I started to learn Chinese dance at 12. I liked dancing very much ever since kindergarten and all the way to primary school. Naturally, I was admitted to the Song and Dance Ensemble in Baoji City, Shaanxi province. After joining the Ensemble, I had already made up my mind to be a professional dancer. I tried all my best and was self-disciplined in daily training, in everything.
Bakchormeeboy: The lifespan of a dancer’s career is relatively short – why have you decided to carry on dancing even into your 50s?
Qiao Yang: Normally, a dancer’s career is very short indeed! Most dancers stop dancing and change to another job because of various reasons such as injury or family. I am lucky enough to be a full-time dancer up till now. It takes the right timing, the right place and the right people. The more I dance, the more I feel attached to the stage. I realize that I dance past a day, and that very day is gone. No one knows what the future holds. I cherish living at the moment so much. That’s why I am firmly determined to dance.
Bakchormeeboy: Choreographer Chou Shu-Yi has crafted some ‘physically challenging’ movements for you to perform during Almost 55. How have you managed to maintain your form and physicality till this day? Is it hard to ‘keep up’?
Qiao Yang: At the early stages of rehearsing Almost 55, Chou Shu-yi, the choreographer, told me to do loads of improvisation, helping me to be re-aware of my body. What a challenge! I was not used to his type of movements, for the dance company works that I performed are all choreographed and I always felt sure. But at the beginning working with Shu-yi, that feeling of being sure was completely gone. I started to doubt my body. Did I know how to dance? How come it seemed that I couldn’t dance? However, the Shu-yi was very patient, and we improvised and did basic training together.
A few months later, the feeling of being sure and my confidence were back bit by bit. Another challenge during the rehearsal was that I have two monologues to say on stage, which are about some of my experience. For dancers, physical expression is their strength, but verbal expression is a different story. I was especially scared of speaking on the stage. I was really freaked out. I worried about missing the lines, saying something wrong or speaking inarticulately. Then I realized that a solo takes attention on so many things. At last, after numerous practice for a long time, I overcame feeling insecure, and nailed it!
Bakchormeeboy: As one of Hong Kong’s most acclaimed, active dancers, and with such a large body of work, what kind of performances still excite you when you’re asked to be a part of it? Are you more selective with the works you perform in now?
Qiao Yang: As an experienced Hong Kong dancer working in the dance company for over two decades, I have performed in the repertoire and in diverse roles, especially those by former resident choreographer Helen Lai. Of course, I also dance in works created by the founder and former Artistic Director Willy Tsao, the current resident choreographer Sang Jijia, among others. My dance techniques become advanced by dancing in their works year after year. I also look forward to being involved in works by various choreographers and the challenging works.
Bakchormeeboy: Over the 400-day creative process, despite it being a biographical work, was there anything new you still managed to discover about yourself you hadn’t considered before?
Qiao Yang: Almost 55 is like a documentary, which is a fine piece by the creative team working over 400 days. The stellar team is comprised of choreographer Chou Shu-yi, set and lighting designer Lee Chi-wai, video designer Maurice Lai, music composer and sound designer Steve Hui, and costume consultant Lin Ching-ju. I have learnt a lot from them, and they helped me get over many hurdles. I found out more possibilities of myself, rediscovered my dance and the capability to be versatile. I am still learning.
Bakchormeeboy: To younger dancers, what is a piece of advice you’d give them while they’re still in the early years of the career?
Qiao Yang: I would like to share with young dancers who just embarked on their career that if you want to work as a professional one, you must devote yourself to it. Basic skills are important at the beginning and crucial for the future. You’d better plan out the career. It’s a pity that countless dancers have to give up because of injuries, so protect yourself from getting hurt. To all the young dancers who takes dancing as a career, wish you dance happily!
Almost 55 plays from 7th to 9th February 2020 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio as part of Huayi Festival 2020. Tickets available here
The 2020 Huayi – Chinese Festival of the Arts takes place around the Esplanade from 31st January to 9th February 2020. For the full list of programmes and tickets, visit the Esplanade website here