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    Dancing to Hong Kong's tune

2005-01-20 06:20

Hong Kong is not known for patronizing the performing arts and artistes. It's not that the city lacks good performers - in fact, it has some topnotch artistes, and its choreography and production values can be compared to anything anywhere in the world. The city also has its share of budding Rudolf Nureyevs and Anna Pavlovas as well as Fred Astaires and Ginger Rogers. So what's plaguing the industry? The answer is simple: money, rather the lack of it.

But fortunately things seem to be changing. There's apparently an awakening of sorts. People have realized the potential benefits their city's arts and culture could offer. The recent push to develop the "creative industries" as a cornerstone of the city's economy, it seems, has had the desired effect. And Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's 2005 Policy Address, promising all-out support for such industries including the arts, has opened up new vistas.

But developing an arts culture is not just a matter of waving the proverbial wand. If that were the case, then every city in the world would have been the abode of Euterpe and Terpsichore, the muses of music and dance. Reality is a complex situation determined by factors such as funds, the level of government support, the education system and the general public perception. And to understand all of these, we need look no further than the state of dance in Hong Kong.

"Dance faces many challenges in Hong Kong," says Tom Brown, head of Modern Dance at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts (HKAPA). Brown is a veteran, with performances in New York and Philadelphia, and teaches at the Academy. His curriculum vitae is quite impressive - apart from performing with a host of professional dancers, he has choreographed, directed and performed for his own dance company and directed more than 100 dance productions for other troupes. As chairman of the Hong Kong Dance Alliance, Brown has intimate knowledge of what makes dance, as an art form, work in a major city.

The alliance, with the mission to be a voice and support group for dance in Hong Kong, is a non-profit making organization. It is this zeal that led it to establish Hong Kong Dance Awards. The names of the 2005 award winners were announced recently and they comprise individuals and groups that encompass a wide spectrum of dances - from ballet and traditional Chinese style to contemporary dance - and the supporting crew of lighting artistes and costume designers.

Now in its seventh year, the Hong Kong Dance Awards is an annual event. And this year's celebrations, scheduled for early next month, will not only honour artistes, but also have a gala performance featuring the city's big three dance companies - Hong Kong Dance Company (HKDC), Hong Kong Ballet and City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC) and the Academy's School of Dance.

Brown says that being a dancer in Hong Kong is a challenge in itself. With the entry level salary being somewhat below the city average and only a handful of "signature performers" getting relatively a high pay, dancers prefer to teach privately and pursue a slot in upcoming performances. A more stable source of income is a 52-week, full-time contract offered by the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, but not every dancer makes the cut. It's true that government funds are the main source of sustenance for dance troupes/artistes - distributed through the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), that also supports the academy and issues grants from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. But it's also true that "we can expect only so much from a field," says Brown, but instead of realizing that "everyone (here) wants more money".

A more promising avenue, he believes, is the support of the private sector. "This is an area for growth," he says. But at the moment, this support is minimal. Unlike other world cities such as New York and London, there is minimal corporate support for dance in Hong Kong. In those cities, there's a reason for companies to be drawn to dance (or the other performing arts). A city with an established culture of arts, literature, theatre and cinema adds to the prestige of a company, which can only get more exposure by being associated with an artiste from there. "We need to expand and improve the arts profile," says Brown.

Companies should come up with funds to support dancers' careers, Brown says. They can either sponsor an artiste or act as his/her patron. Companies can provide financial support to a dancer, promote his/her work and organize performances for small, select groups. This is how some sports and pop stars are patronized or sponsored.

The woeful state of dance in the city can be partly attributed to the public's general lack of exposure to the arts. Arts education is an issue which needs to be addressed, and addressed properly, he asserts. "We need the right education system in order to develop an arts culture here. Without introducing children to the arts and their value in life and society we can't build an environment which could nurture the stars of tomorrow. To make matters worse, most people lack an understanding of the arts.

"It's like looking at a piece of art," Brown says. "People need to know about art to appreciate what they are looking at... If we want to nurture our creative industries," says Brown, "we need to nurture our young people's minds first."

The creation of more performance venues could also benefit the culture industry. Large auditoriums such as the Hong Kong Cultural Centre are a good thing but the city needs smaller halls, where different kinds of dance performances can be held. The wider the variety of performances the more the people, and equally more the chances for them to see and learn, he says. At the moment "such venues are just not there in Hong Kong".

What about the possibilities offered by the proposed West Kowloon Cultural District? Brown is non-plussed. Reluctant to comment on the specifics of the short-listed proposals, he believes the right "depth" in thinking is lacking when it comes to what's going into the hub, or how it'll work. The problem is people who have an understanding of what is needed only serve at an advisory level. And "there aren't enough people with an arts and culture background at the policy-making level".

The proposals for the hub include theatres and performance stages as well as museums for Chinese opera, modern art and children and lecture halls for teaching design but, apparently, no facilities dedicated to dance. "The hardware, the development, looks beautiful. The buildings are there, but there needs to be the right kind of facilities," he says.

Would he mind coming up with an example? Brown's response is immediate. "What it needs is a specialist school for dance. Much like in the movie 'Fame'," he says, referring to the 1980 film about the trials and tribulations of students of New York City High School for the Performing Arts. "At such a place, students would go to study full time. Half their time would be spent on dance, the other half on academic subjects."

But unfortunately, "at the moment, we are the only school in Hong Kong teaching dance," he complains. "Dancers need to be identified and nurtured at an early age. For talent to blossom at the right time, children ought to begin training at 11. But the students who come here now are 18- and 19-year-olds. This is very late by any standards.

"But it's not just the hardware. It (dance) is also about the software, the people, as well," he says. "It is not enough just to have the facilities, there needs to be an understanding of what it means to have an arts culture in the city."

Brown believes the performing arts, such as music and dance, can add value to the grandeur of a city. "Cities like New York and London have a strong culture of the arts. They are well supported by the public. Performers there will include local artistes as well as international stars. These cities attract not only its residents, but also tourists to their shows and festivals."

On the other hand, "if international artistes realize a (particular) show will only run for two days because there isn't enough support, they'd be less inclined to come. More venues and a bigger following means more activity in this field. And we will attract bigger stars. The local media could also play its part by giving more coverage to art events," he says.

Can the mainland help Hong Kong? There's "already a significant amount of interaction and collaboration between the two (the mainland and Hong Kong)," says Brown. "We share choreographers and performers with the mainland regularly, and Hong Kong artistes often go to Beijing and Shanghai to perform." Indeed. A look at the credits' list of HKDC's and CCDC's recent productions shows a healthy mix of local and mainland participants. The dance veteran believes Hong Kong can take a leaf out of the mainland's book in terms of promoting art and culture. "Every (mainland) city has a dance academy or dance centre," says Brown. "They are handling the situation very well."

Hong Kong Dance Awards 2005 will be held on February 1, 2005. For further information, log onto the alliance website -

(HK Edition 01/20/2005 page10)


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