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The First Lady of Hong Kong Dance

David Mead talks to acclaimed Hong Kong choreographer Helen Lai about her work and dance in the city

Published February, 2010

Hong Kong-based Helen Lai might not be that well-known to dance-goers in the West, but she has been creating outstanding dances for over 30 years and remains one of East Asia’s foremost dance-makers.  She is remarkably self-effacing about her choreography, but her works for City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC), where she was a founding member, the former Artistic Director, and the present Resident Choreographer. Her work for Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, Guangdong Modern Dance Company and Singapore Dance Theatre, to name but a few, has earned widespread admiration and numerous awards.

Like many young girls, Lai explained that she became interested in dance after seeing one of the classics, in her case Galina Ulanova in a film of “Giselle.”  After studying ballet with noted local teachers Stephen Kwok, Christine Liao and Jean Wong, and working for a while with Hong Kong Ballet for All, her desire to explore modern dance led her to the London Contemporary Dance School.  Besides remembering “doing an awful lot of Graham,” it was here, she said, that she realised her true passion lay in choreography.

While she is concerned about issues in society, and concedes they must influence her work, Lai prefers to avoid deliberately infusing her dance with political comment.  There are, for example, no grand narratives on Hong Kong or Chinese identity.  Her choreography tends instead to be based in personal reflections, often rooted in literature and music.  She is an avid reader with tastes stretching from contemporary fiction to philosophy.  She particularly enjoys murder mysteries.  She also loves music and is no mean musician.  She previously learned the piano, and is presently studying the cello, which she describes as “a most emotive instrument.”

Lai believes her love of the arts probably comes from her parents.  Her mother was editor of the Arts and Culture section of a leading newspaper, and her father was a composer, most notably of scores for classic Chinese films.  “He was always giving me books and taking me to performances,” she said, adding that music in particular is “very much a family thing,” and was “a natural part of growing up.”

Watching Lai’s dynamic choreography is always entertaining, but what makes it especially fascinating is the way she frequently appears to imbue it with a meaning or a message.  This is sometimes left for the audience to decipher, as in the often surreal “The Comedy of K”, with its strange bowler-hatted robotic characters. This work formed part of the retrospective work “The City of K” performed outdoors in 2009.  Even after talking to her I don’t pretend to understand everything that was going on in this complex work based on the writings of Franz Kafka, his relationship with his parents, and his issues of frustration.

Lai confesses to liking German tanztheater and cites the late Pina Bausch as an influence.  She said, “I like the fact her work is not pure dance.  It is strong and full of expression and emotion.”  Lai’s style may be influenced by her ballet and modern dance training, but she is always looking to incorporate other elements.  Text and props are not uncommon.  In “Colour Fugue” she worked with multimedia artist Wong Yan Kwai, and in “Plaza X” she even had an ice rink on stage.  She said, “My work is completely different from much of that in America especially, where it often seems to be mainly about athleticism.”

With so many creations to her name, Lai finds it difficult to select favourites.  After a pause, she said among those she was most happy with is “In the Beginning”, which is about different creation myths; her version of “Rite of Spring”. ”In the Beginning” explores the relationship between choreographer, performer and audience, taking the audience reaction to the first performance of Nijinsky’s version as its starting point. Lai also cited “Loose Pages from a Woman’s Diary”, a personal work that draws on her own emotions and experiences.

Perhaps reflecting her focus on literature and music as inspiration, Lai considers that Hong Kong, at the crossroads of East and West, is a more stimulating place to work than anywhere else.  The most exciting time, she thinks, was around the time of the handover in 1997.  “At that time there was a feeling of unrest and uncertainty about what was going to happen, which produced energy everywhere about the place,” she said.

But she feels that the greatest impact on dance in Hong Kong today has been to release it from its insularity.  She explained that there has been a noticeable increase in the number of excellent dancers joining Hong Kong companies from China, which she believes has increased interest in the artform.  And it is now easier for us to go to the mainland, she added.  But elsewhere she sees few other changes, and certainly little evidence of censorship by the authorities or self-censorship by choreographers.

Perhaps that is all just part of the increasingly globalised world.  Lai sees similar changes in mainland China.  She explained that when she first went there to work in the 1980s dancers had a very different mindset, liked to be told what to do all the time, and were quite unwilling to experiment with ideas on their own, which all made creating work quite difficult.  But, she continued, over time that has changed, and now she feels they are just as active and creative as modern dancers in any other part of the world.  “Now they are absolutely wonderful,” she said, “and they always seem to have such great technique.”

Returning to Hong Kong, there remain many challenges for dance.  Lai said, “Many people prefer to watch television, go to pop concerts or other very commercial shows, rather than support local dance.  That is our biggest problem: ‘How to generate new and larger audiences’.”  CCDC tries to attract people by presenting occasional free outdoor performances.  “The idea is that people walk by, maybe stop to see what is happening, and maybe next time they will come to an in-theatre performance,” Lai explained.  Speaking passionately, she continued, “I wish more people would feel dance was part of their life.  It should not be an art form that is sort of up there somewhere and that people feel is inaccessible.  Even if people don’t want to become professional dancers they should feel they can go and take dance classes or go to performances.  I don’t know whether it is a Chinese thing, but sometimes I feel people think dance is difficult to understand.  Maybe it is because they want to understand dance as stories.  Contemporary dance can certainly be difficult to sell here.”

And, of course, there is the problem that Hong Kong is relatively small.  Lai said, “You are very limited with how many performances you can do here.  Very quickly you find that everyone who wants to see something will have seen it.  Yes, we can go to China, but even there you are pretty much limited to the few big cities where there is a modern dance audience.”  

“You know, I am lucky,” Lai sighed.  “I have a steady, stable environment and somewhere for me to create.  But for young choreographers it is not so easy.”  She feels that visits by major international companies are important since they raise the profile of dance.  “And, of course, it is important for the students, as well as local artists and choreographers, to see these companies,” she said. "I would like to see more performances by local smaller companies and individual artists but money and space is a big problem.  It is difficult for them.”

But Lai remains upbeat.  She believes the region has many excellent dancers and choreographers, and that contemporary dance will continue to grow and thrive.  Her message to them is to make work and persevere.  She certainly has no intention of taking a final bow just yet.

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