By Paul Kay
From the outside, it looks like any other weatherworn warehouse of the sort that abounds in Hong Kong’s New Territories, but the curious sounds drifting from the upper windows hint that strange things are afoot within. Creeping up the stairs, the rhythmic noises grow louder, leading the way to an expansive industrial space that is utterly unremarkable – save for the imposing black tented structure located at the far end, that is.
Inside the towering construction of cloth and metal, things get stranger still: a group dressed in skin-tight bodystockings dance around in a circle to the hypnotic beat of a drum as acrobats dressed head-to-toe in brilliant white rise up ethereally on a hydraulic platform before dangling from the rafters like human stalactites. In the far corner, a figure in a flowing red cloak and rooster-like headdress plays a half-skeletal piano crammed with cymbals while a pair of scarlet-clad dancers teeter on the edge of a bench balanced precariously on top of it.
Have we stumbled upon a shadowy occult ritual? A portal into some other dimension perhaps? Or has David Lynch chosen Hong Kong as a filming location for the new series of Twin Peaks? None of the above, as it transpires: as surreal as this spectacle may be, for the cast of genre-bending multimedia performance ContempoLion it’s just another day at rehearsals.
ContempoLion is a modern update to the Chinese performance art of lion dancing, combining traditional elements with contemporary dance, acrobatics, martial arts and avant garde music. The brainchild of veteran dancer and choreographer Daniel Yeung, the show brings together a diverse array of performers from a variety of disciplines to create a work that is as collaborative as it is groundbreaking.
“Our rehearsals are all about experimentation and often full of surprises,” explains Yeung during a break from conducting this outlandish tableau. “Traditional lion dance culture is already a multidimensional expression of art – it’s juggling, kung fu, dance and live music all merged into one – so it takes the whole team’s different talents to create a contemporary version.”
Among the local and international artists Yeung has assembled are Kwok’s Kung Fu & Dragon Lion Dance Team, dancers and choreographers Irene Lo and Nataliia Bikmullina, and aerial acrobatics artist Rosa-Marie Schmid. They are accompanied by experienced music director Ng Cheuk-yin and Grammy Award-winning drummer Keita Ogawa, while added visual flair is provided by acclaimed costume designer Dora Ng Li-lo and new media and video designer Adrian Yeung. What makes the show unique, says Yeung, is the interplay between these diverse talents and the innovative ways in which their particular specialties combine to create something fresh and original. “ContempoLion is about different elements interacting with and stimulating each other,” he says. “Most importantly it’s about finding a new form of performance art.”
This unconventional approach has clearly captured the imagination of the cast and crew; there is a palpable crackle of excitement in the air as the performers try different movements and combinations, while their passion for the project shines through in conversation. “For me, it’s about mixing different realities and sharing,” says aerial arts specialist Schmid. “From the beginning, we had the time to get to know each other and to learn from each other before actually going into the creation process, so we are building something together.”
Lion dance trainer Steven Chau, meanwhile, has been inspired by the cross-pollination that occurs between the various disciplines during the rehearsal process. Despite having more than 20 years’ experience in lion dancing, over 10 of those as a professional, Chau says he has seen the possibilities of his art expanded by experimenting with the other performers. “Every time we rehearse, it’s unique and inspiring,” he says. “Because I am working with different kinds of stage dancers, I get to try choreography I’ve never imagined before.”
This sense of discovery extends to the musical side of ContempoLion, too. As well as the piano, which has been modified so that certain keys strike percussion instruments instead of strings, the show will feature traditional lion dance drums and electronic sounds. “If I had to use just one word to describe this show, it would be ‘adventure’, because it has so many different components and unusual chemistry,” says music director Ng. “I think the most unique thing about this show is that there are so many collaborative elements based on improvisation. It makes the process very exciting because we don’t know how it will really be until the end.”
Ultimately, ContempoLion is an intriguing journey into the unknown – for the audience as well as the cast and crew. “I hope that audiences will appreciate not only the jaw-dropping skills, like the kung fu of traditional lion dance,” says Yeung, “but also the experience of seeing a new form of performance art in a new production, in a new theatre.”
ContempoLion premiered at the new ArtisTree on June 9 2017.