An interview with CCDC’s artistic director designate, acting artistic director, and resident choreographer reveals their vision for the company’s future, and how they’ve been coping during the pandemic.
HONG KONG – Founded in 1979 by Willy Tsao and with over 200 original works to their name, City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC) is without a doubt one of Hong Kong’s most important dance companies. Over the last 41 years, not only have they seen generations of dancers coming through their doors to develop and grow, they’ve also been integral to the Hong Kong arts scene, organising outreach programmes, festivals, and going on international tours as ambassadors of the arts.
While always at the forefront of creativity and pushing the contemporary dance scene in new directions, 2020 has been just as challenging for CCDC as any other arts company out there, with the team making last minute decisions to scrap plans, film performances for the digital medium, and adapt to the ever-changing flood of new rules and restrictions with the ebb and flow of the waves.
To even begin to come to grips with the sheer amount of work that has gone into CCDC, we spoke to Artistic Director Designate Yuri Ng (set to take over at 4th Artistic Director from 1st January 2021), Acting Artistic Director Dominic Wong, and Resident Choreographer Sang Jijia, to find out how the company has been coping, and their vision for 2021 and beyond.
Yuri Ng. Photo by Vivien LIU@Studio UNIT
“I believe CCDC was founded on the principles of courage and freedom, where ‘anything goes, anything is possible, nothing is impossible’,” says Yuri. “When it comes to how I’ll be leading the company, our biggest concern is about how we’ll make the most of our limited resources. As someone who is always interested in trying new things, I think I would have to speak to my colleagues and establish where they are in their work, what they hope for, and how we can proceed together. One of the biggest things I think about is how we have so many costumes and props from the past, and whether in future, they will still be able to resonate with various audiences in Hong Kong for our forthcoming productions, and who exactly we want to target with our work.”
Yuri in particular, is an artist of many talents, having been involved with ballet, contemporary dance, drama, classical music and a cappella, as well as stage and costume design. Returning to Hong Kong in 1993 after his stint with The National Ballet of Canada, Yuri collaborated on multiple productions with CCDC, and later on, took on leadership positions with the Yat Po Singers and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta.
“For me, it’s all about developing trust and a good working relationship between my colleagues and collaborators through effective communication of my vision,” says Yuri. “I have to consider both the legacy of the repertoire the company has developed, while also the company’s reputation for developing new contemporary dance, and how we can continue to find new meaning and ways to present that over the years, and the possibilities our team and the talent we scout has to make it happen.”
Yuri Ng’s award-winning Boy Story, now playing online
Commenting on the CCDC’s move to a new location in Tai Po in 2021, Yuri sees it as an opportunity to forge bonds with the community there. “It’s important to forge relationships with the arts groups and tenants in our building, and also the community that’s around us at large,” he says. “I hope to create an environment that allows for everyone who comes to CCDC to get something out of their experience, be it to discover something new or just somewhere to chill, where there’s enough sunlight, and enough space that they can concentrate and do the best work they can.”
“If anything, my role as artistic director really will be to facilitate communication between artists, especially between generations,” he adds. “I remember when I was younger, I always felt like I didn’t have enough opportunity to express myself, and want to avoid doing the same thing to the new generation now that I’m in this position. We have a lot of young talent, and I want to groom them and imbue them with the confidence to try new things, to allow them to fail, gather experiences, and keep moving forward, as a means of nurturing them and helping them discover their full potential.”
Dominic Wong. Photo by Vivien LIU@Studio UNIT
While Yuri has been busy planning for the future, Acting Artistic Director Dominic Wong has been at the reins for now, coping with the onslaught of changes Hong Kong has seen over the last year. But Dominic is capable and more than qualified to handle it all, having been with CCDC for more than 20 years, and having been promoted to Assistant Artistic Director in 2016. Not only has he been dancing for the company; he’s also been integral to creating full-length productions across seasons. “COVID-19 rendered us unable to proceed with our usual operations, and that made things quite difficult,” says Dominic. “As a company, our various departments have stuck together to face the difficulties the year has presented, and find new ways of reaching out and connecting with our audiences.”
“Our Digital Dance Season is one way that we’ve been experimenting with that.” he adds. “Not only has it broadened our viewership in Hong Kong; it’s also garnered international audience members. Of course, we do lose a lot by presenting it on screen, and we’re still trying to find new ways to replicate the live experience and connect with audiences. But it has really given us freedom to explore different kinds of things and try new directions. We hope that in future, we can work towards simultaneously live streaming the performances online as well as performing them in the theatre. It won’t be easy, especially with our limited resources, but we are always willing to try new things to become better.”
CCDC’s Project Next Wave, which streamed online in October
“Project NEXT Wave was the first show under our hybrid performance style, where audiences could watch it either in the theatres or online, and our friends and supporters told us they were just so happy they could see a show in the theatres, and those that had watched both felt that the digital version provided a fresh way of seeing dance,” says Dominic. “At the very beginning, motivation in the company was very low, but it was encouraging to see our dancers push past it, still rehearsing for full days, and their efforts eventually paying off as we worked through it together. The success of CCDC is dependent on all who love it and make it work.”
To create a successful team, the chemistry between its members is of course, important, and Dominic shares what makes a dancer suitable for the company. “A lot of our selection process boils down to seeing how their bodies and style and ‘feeling’ meld with the company’s, alongside their character and personality of course,” says Dominic. “One thing I wanted to do was to bring more youths into the company, and I feel that the current generation is so talented. Similar to Yuri, I want to give them space and resources to do everything they need to express their ideas and develop their work they can be proud of.”
“Much like Yuri, I think it’s important to have open communication, and raise both the problems and direction of the company with our colleagues,” says Dominic. “I will stand by him to support him, and continue the work we’ve done adding to our repertoire and contributing to the Hong Kong arts scene. Even between the public, it’s important to communicate with them. We’ve been busy promoting contemporary dance to primary and secondary schools, and other institutions, as a means of generating more interest and educating the general public about it.”
Sang Jijia. Photo by Vivien LIU@Studio UNIT
If we’re talking about someone who knows the company’s dancers best, it would be Resident Choreographer Sang Jijia, who has been with the company for the last five years or so, creating new work for CCDC every year. Not only does he have to consider the theme of the piece; he also has to be acutely aware of each dancer, the limits they can be pushed to, and how the work can bring out the best in them in the work he choreographs each year.
“I was a dancer with CCDC from 1999 to 2002, and back when I was a dancer in Guangdong Modern Dance Company, CCDC Founder Willy Tsao was also involved with them, and that led to me having opportunities to work with them,” says Jijia. “Things have changed a lot since then; these days, with access to the Internet, young dancers have a lot more options, as opposed to how we learnt through tapes, with much easier choreography.”
“As a Resident Choreographer, my role really is about helping the dancers grow, and consider how they can inspire me,” says Jijia. “Sometimes, I’d need to bring it out by conducting exercises and workshops with them to figure out how they can enter their roles onstage. At the same time, CCDC has given me a degree of freedom to continue learning on my own, and continue growing by working with different dance groups and environments. From there, I return to CCDC to pass on what I’ve learnt to them.”
In response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Jijia accepts the restrictions in place for health, but mourns what is lost in lieu of live-ness. “You can’t feel the dancers’ presence in front of you because you’re separated by a screen. It’s especially hard for me because a lot of my work relies on improv, which is lost when it’s recorded for streaming,” he muses. “In China, things are going quite well, where a musical in Beijing I helped out with saw full houses for three shows. Once this is all over, I’ll have a backlog of work, because things that were cancelled in 2020 are now pushed to 2021 and 2022, and hope that my dancers will have a chance to return to the stage again soon.”
CCDC is set to move to Tai Po in 2021. More information here
Commenting on the difficulty of producing an online work, Jijia considers how expensive venue rental can be, even for recording a performance, along with how little revenue online performances actually bring in. “While I’m familiar enough with video work, whether music videos or dance films, what’s important is to emphasise that what you see onscreen is not the same as experiencing a performance in a theatre,” says Jijia. “And what’s even more difficult is how unpredictable everything is at the moment, because you don’t know if at the last minute, you won’t be allowed to open your doors.”
“But whether video or online, ultimately, when it comes to dance, you can’t judge whether contemporary work is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, just whether you like it or not. It’s about having that freedom of expression, beyond actions, to introduce works that are cross-cultural and multi-medium, so long as it remains centred on the body being used to express something, to bring out the poetry of the human body,” says Jijia. “When I create, it’s important to work with people who have ideas, and I always hope my dancers contribute their own thoughts to the process, helping expand the work and add multiple layers to it. It’s so important to create that atmosphere where they can relax and be free, while of course, being serious when the time calls for it.”
As of now though, in spite of all the difficulties and all the restrictions, CCDC is determined to carry on in some way, and pave the way forward for contemporary dance and the arts scene, no matter how tough it gets, holding on steadfast to the belief that things will get better. “Our managing director Raymond Wong mentioned recently that theatres have been around for thousands of years,” says Dominic. In my opinion, the struggles that the arts scene are now facing are all to make us upgrade ourselves and reach a higher level. I’m still keeping a positive outlook on the art scene, and that it will only serve to enhance people’s quality of life.”
“We need dance to carry on even in these times, and it’s about being able to express the themes and concerns of our current times through the body, and represent the concerns of the city,” concludes Yuri. “For each of these dancers, their movements, their speech and their thinking are so different from one another. What’s important now is to create some kind of support system in my time as Artistic Director, and have formed a community by the time I leave. Please check back in three years, and I’ll let you know if I’ve been successful in my efforts at creating such a system.”