Agnes Lu previews a gaming-inspired HK-French co-production that might well leave the audience wondering if the dancers were improvising on stage or following a script.
Two classic games for children (to say nothing of the adults who sometimes play these too) have inspired a unique dance theater composition.
One of these is called Simon. It’s an electronic parlor game in which gamers are required to repeat after a device, or Simon, as it is called, a sequence of sounds and colors accurately. As the sequences get longer and harder, gamers have to remember more and react fast in order to stay in the game.
The other is Simon Says — a game which takes on somewhat different forms in France and Hong Kong but is informed by the same basic idea. Gamers follow commands issued by the game leader, but only when the instructions are prefaced with the phrase, “Simon says” (“Teacher says” in the Hong Kong version).
Most fittingly, a bunch of dancers from Hong Kong and a French choreographer have come together to create a show built around games at least one of which has roots in both cultures. The new dance production, Simon Says, which will make its Asia debut at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Studio Theatre on June 2 as part of the ongoing Le French May Arts Festival 2017, is co-produced by Unlock Dancing Plaza from Hong Kong, and Le Phare Centre Choregraphique National du Havre-Normandie from France. The seeds of artistic collaboration were planted when the French choreographer Emmanuelle Vo-Dinh met the four Hong Kong dancers — Joseph Lee, Carman Li, James Yau and Tracy Wong — at a workshop in Hong Kong in 2015.
The show begins with the four dancer/gamers playing games in an unspecified space. As the game intensifies, the space is charged with emotions of all hues. There is obedience and rebellion, ridicule and resistance. The audience is left wondering about the relationship between the four dancers and their invisible commander, how rules affect each participant, and eventually about the state of human beings in a society circumscribed by rules and constraints.
The Hong Kong dancers have been working closely with Vo-Dinh since they got together in Le Havre, France in March 2016 to get the project kick-started. Since then they have met a few times, in France or Hong Kong, trying to fine-tune a work in progress. The show debuting in Hong Kong on June 2 is the result of more than a year’s hard work.
The process of creating the piece has been extremely interactive and organic. The dancers chipped in with their own expressions of a certain theme, based on the choreographer’s suggestions, and the latter chose the elements that appealed best to her, according to Ong Yong-lock, artistic director of Unlock Dancing Plaza.
The Hong Kong dancers are particularly thrilled that they got to contribute to the choreography. In their previous work they would simply be embodying the choreographer’s artistic vision. During the workshops, Vo-Dinh would often begin by asking the dancers to improvise on a given idea or emotion and subsequently go on to incorporate the chosen moves and ideas from these in the piece she was developing.
“I used to suggest the first idea but the way the Hong Kong dancers dealt with this idea during improvisations was very important. It’s kind of back and forth, which allowed everybody to move forward to the next level,” she said.
The dancers were asked to come up with ideas to create seven frozen-in-action which would be repeated — in styles as varied as ballet and Nogaku, for instance — throughout the performance. Vo-Dinh gave the dancers full autonomy to choose their postures after showing them some material as likely sources of inspiration.
“She didn’t tell us how to pose or move. We came up with the postures for the frozen pictures ourselves,” says Carman Li. Photos of several frozen postures were taken to help decide what might work best on stage. The final seven chosen from this list would form the foundation of the dance piece.
They recur throughout the show, expressed through movements borrowed from diverse dance forms, including jazz. The use of the frozen frames leitmotif resonates with the game Simon which requires players to repeat colors and sounds.
Vo-Dinh drew inspiration from the Spanish artist Diego Velazquez’s 1656 painting Las Meninas. The painting has been re-interpreted many times by some of the giants of Western art — Picasso’s series of 58 paintings and a relatively-recent photographic work by Joel-Peter Witkin, for example. “In Simon Says we move from a Velazquez to a Miro to a Picasso and so on, metaphorically speaking,” says Vo-Dinh.
Vo-Dinh was impressed by the tenacity shown by the Hong Kong dancers — their “no limits” approach, as she called it. They seemed to be able to deal with every rule she had set for them. As a result she too had to think on her feet, react faster to the dancers’ responses. She said she found the dancers’ ability to explore different dancing styles and succeed quite brilliantly in all situations hugely inspiring.
French choreographer Emanuelle Vo-Dinh (left) worked closely with four Hong Kong dancers for over a year to develop Simon Says. (Photos provided to China Daily)
Also she was pleasantly surprised to find how flexible the dancers were about accepting others’ viewpoints. While this could have been because of the generally respectful, self-effacing approach of the Chinese, it was also because the dancers had entrusted their faith in the choreographer and her artistic judgment right from the outset.
The show stands out as it presents an ambiguous, intermediate state between improvisation and acting. The audiences are left wondering if the dancers are improvising on stage and responding spontaneously to situations or in fact following a script.
“It’s a great challenge to act like you are improvising, while actually improvising based on a script,” said dancer Joseph Lee.
Simon Says premiered at Festival Pharenheit at France last January. Most people in the audience probably did not get the few dialogues spoken in Cantonese as there was no subtitling. But this did not seem to come in the way of enjoying the show. Not speaking Cantonese herself, Vo-Dinh would mark the sound, pacing and metrical beats of the spoken words to interpret them in her own way.
On June 2 of course most people in the audience will follow the dialogue. Vo-Dinh is eager to find out the difference this is going to make in the way Hong Kong responds to what Simon Says.
IF YOU GO
Choreography, concept and set design by Emmanuelle Vo-Dinh
Dancers: Joseph Lee, Carman Li, James Yau and Tracy Wong
Time: June 2, 3 and 4
Venue: Studio Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, 10, Salisbury Avenue, Tsim Sha Tsui