Foothold on life

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 October, 2004, 12:00am

MATTHEW RUSHING starts off nice. The dancer from New York City's Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre chats with 33 nervous students from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (APA) before his guest masterclass. 'You have any questions, you ask me. I love questions,' he says, as he puts them through a series of gentle stretches.

In 10 minutes, however, he's running them through complicated routines developed at one of the world's most popular modern dance companies. 'Force the arch! Releve! Lift up each time you plie! Right! Left! Five, six, seven, eight!' There's no time for questions as Rushing snaps his fingers to the R&B in the background and teaches a step called the mess-around. 'Stomp, then swivel your hips. Ba-ba-boom!' There are giggles and applause as a skinny Chinese boy with spiky hair and hot pants does his best with a move that, frankly, looks a lot better on a muscular black man - such as their instructor. 'You got it,' Rushing says encouragingly. 'You got rhythm. Your body is free.'

Rushing divides the students into smaller groups, while Judith Jamison, the company's exacting artistic director, sits with representatives from Citigroup and the Asian Cultural Council. Little do the students know, but they're probably being checked out for a fellowship that's only announced after the masterclass finishes. Citigroup and the ACC will sponsor two students to spend the summer at the Ailey School, which trains 3,500 new dancers a year. They'll also be some of the first students to study at the school's new building which, when completed later this year, will become the biggest facility in the US dedicated to dance.

The students, excited after their workout, seem unfazed by the competition. 'The masterclass was very good,' says tiny 20-year-old Sylvia Lee Ting-yan, who's been studying dance at the APA for four years. 'I really enjoyed it. I've only studied classical ballet, so I never knew I could dance like that, with such free movements. He made us feel relaxed and I didn't even feel scared.'

This is the kind of educational activity - informal, interactive and international - that's seen too rarely in Hong Kong's local schools, which are known for their emphasis on test-taking, rote learning and overbearing work loads. The system has discouraged students from speaking out, expressing themselves or asking questions. In addition, parents tend to push their children away from fields such as the arts, which is reflected in a curriculum light on music, theatre, dance and other creative disciplines. It's a mentality the APA's new principal, Kevin Thompson, hopes to change.

One of the first things he noticed when he moved here two months ago was the ubiquitous Hong Kong schoolbag. 'I was taking the lift down from my new flat and I saw a mother and her two tots, very young, with these huge backpacks. I thought, 'Dear God, how many books do they have in there?'' Thompson, a veteran arts educator from Britain, says a different approach should be taken in educating Hong Kong's youth - even if they end up as bankers and businesspeople. 'Even if our students don't choose to work in the arts, the APA should teach them the essence of creativity - something they can use in any field,' he says. 'We have to understand that we're not just in the art training business, but in the lifestyle business. We also have to teach people how to live and to think.'

In Thompson's opinion, a dance masterclass or jazz jamming session can be more instructive than a textbook. 'Improvisation is very important,' he says. 'It teaches students to acknowledge others, to react to other people's ideas and to think on their feet. They'll need that in the real world. It's learning through play. Sitting in a classroom, listening to a lecture and taking notes isn't the only way to learn.'

Thompson might be an academic at heart, but he's not a purist when it comes to arts education. 'They need survival skills,' he says. 'Most of our students will end up working for fledgling theatre companies or small film crews. In this day and age, and in this city, you can't just be a 'lead actor' or 'string quartet violinist'. You also have to know how to book a stage, organise publicity, sell tickets, do the lighting and file your tax return. What we must do is empower our students to anticipate the needs of a rapidly changing world.'

Hong Kong's art schools are still relatively small, young and marginalised compared with their western counterparts. However, they may well be the institutions that give the Hong Kong education system the reform it needs. They provide the sort of free-thinking, open-minded teaching usually seen only in the city's pricey international schools.

They're also growing and expanding to meet growing demand for arts education. Earlier this month, the City University of Hong Kong announced plans for a $550 million Creative Media Centre that will include a theatre and educational facilities for filmmaking and animation. The Hong Kong Art Centre's Art School is also making strides. It launched its Masters in Fine Art programme earlier this year; has just invited six senior staff from New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to guest lecture this winter; and plans to start an outreach exchange programme with local secondary schools.

Meanwhile, Thompson is working on revamping the 20-year-old APA to make it more in touch with what's happening outside academia. He lists three key things that he feels every art school should have: a curriculum that's constantly changing to reflect the real world; a push to have more graduates win awards, competitions and scholarships outside the school; and teachers who are engaged in their own events and performances.

Thompson himself is a musician - a trumpeter, composer and conductor who did postgraduate studies at the Juilliard School in New York. Rail thin and quietly intense, he's prone to using terms such as 'redefining post-modern academia' in a posh, British accent. He's the opposite of his predecessor, Lo King-man, a bulldoggish Hongkonger known for his snappy personality, outspokenness and flamboyant productions, such as the recent fully staged opera Faust. For the past 11 years, Lo steered and shaped the fledgling art school into the world-class institution it is today. It's now Thompson's job to take the APA a step further.

'It's a bit like wearing someone else's clothes,' says Thompson, sitting in an office that's still empty except for a laptop, a Cantonese guide and two Louis Vuitton carrying cases.

Like any careful manager, Thompson is taking his time to come up with an exact blueprint of what he hopes to achieve. First, he wants to meet the APA's 200 staff and 750 full-time students. 'It would be a bit presumptuous for me to come with a fully articulated plan,' he says.He's also taking in as much of the Hong Kong performing arts scene as he can. 'It's a city that never sleeps - like me. Hong Kong and I are temperamentally suited,' he says. 'I've been surprisingly impressed.'

In the past month, he's seen the Hong Kong Ballet's Turandot ('a great performance'), his predecessor's Faust ('full of youthful ardour') and Wong Kar-wai's 2046 ('stylishly, beautifully shot').

Thompson might not be a Hongkonger, but he's visited more than 15 times in the past few years and has seen a major change in the way arts and culture fit into people's daily lives. 'There's something about post-Sars Hong Kong, post-economic downturn Hong Kong,' he says. 'I think the city has gone through some soul-searching. People are more interested in having a fully rounded cultural life - one that includes the arts.

'There are so many banners around the city proclaiming us 'Asia's World City'. If we really want to be a world city, we need an academy as strong and well known as Juilliard,' he says. 'Building a school to train the next generation of artists and performers is just as important as building an international airport.'

Still, there's the understanding that lots of shiny new hardware isn't all it takes. When Jamison addresses the APA students, she reminds them that her dance company was started by a group of young blacks in New York with little money and resources. 'What a great school you have,' she says. 'You should be proud. You have this great building. We've been working for 26 years - and we still don't have our own building. Part of loving dance is hard work and having a passion for what you do.'

Dancers wanting to apply for the Citigroup/Asian Cultural Council Dance Fellowship at the Ailey school should call 2895 0407 or e-mail enqacchk@net Deadline for applications is Dec 1.