Rebel with a cause

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 January, 2007, 12:00am

MOST CHINESE PARENTS wish their children to do well at school and to attend a decent university. Huang Lei's were no exception. But when the teenager showed no aptitude for study but plenty for rebelling, his father made an unusual but practical decision: he sent his unruly son to a dance school.

'It was my parents who wanted me to learn dancing,' says Huang, of the Hong Kong Dance Company (HKDC). 'I wanted to be a policeman, a fireman or sportsman because these are considered manly careers. I wanted to be a soldier too because my father, whom I really admire, was in the army.

'But because I was quite a rebel when I was growing up, my parents decided, when I was 15, to send me to a dance school for training and disciplining. And because I was short, my father had this bizarre notion that all the stretching exercises would make me grow taller.'

Thinking he was going to a wushu college - which was what his parents told him - Huang was shocked to find himself at a dance school. 'But the training was OK,' he says. Within a year, the boy shot up from 1.44 metres to 1.67 metres (to his father's delight) and by the time he graduated he had found his vocation.

Huang, 28, has just won a Hong Kong Dance Alliance award for his performance in last year's HKDC production of Dream Dances. Other award-winning dancers include: Liu Yinghong, also of HKDC, for his roles in the company's Red Poppies and The Smiling, Proud Wanderer; Chan Yi-jing in City Contemporary Dance Company's Nijinsky and Testimony; and Hong Kong Ballet's Jin Yao for her performances in Giselle and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. The presentation ceremony will be held on February 6.

Huang joined the HKDC in 2001 and caught the attention of critics when the company introduced its experimental series 8/F Platform two years ago. In last year's programme, Dancers' Creation, he teamed up with Tina Hua for a comical look at modern-day relationships that was the show's highlight. His bigger roles in the troupe's season opener, Red Poppies, and then Dream Dances demonstrated not only his technical prowess (which many HKDC dancers possess) but a strong stage presence.

Huang says technical excellence, though important, isn't what he strives for when performing. 'Dance, for me, is not about techniques. If a piece focuses too much on techniques, as in acrobatics or gymnastics, that doesn't appeal to me. When I watch a dance performance, I want to understand how the dancers communicate with the audience and that's what fascinates me.

'Techniques are good for training and keeping dancers in shape. Regular training is the only way to slow down the toll ageing has on our bodies. So techniques are for maintenance. My interest lies with getting what's inside me - be it a mood or emotion - across to the audience.'

What he loves about dance is the sense of 'being needed' - to be able to satisfy the artistic director and audience, which he says has nothing to do with vanity. 'Some people think dancers love the attention and the applause they receive on stage, but that isn't what drives me. I can't even watch myself performing on tape because I can always see flaws in my performances, but I want to be able to perform what's required of me. That's very important.'

He says that, like most HKDC dancers, his training in Chinese dance helps him to meet different artistic needs. 'I think Chinese dance is less rigid and more varied, so we can switch more readily from classical to contemporary than, say, ballet.'

Born on Hainan Island to a humble family, Huang graduated from the Beijing Dance Academy before joining the HKDC six years ago. 'I never thought I'd end up in Hong Kong,' says Huang, who has long abandoned his wildness and prefers spending his time reading Chinese classics these days. 'There are many great dancers on the mainland, but there aren't that many opportunities for them. I had a chance of staying and working in Beijing, but I felt I'd lived there long enough to want to move on to something and somewhere different.'

As it turned out, one of his teachers used to work at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and he knew the then HKDC artistic director Jiang Huaxuan, who was auditioning for new dancers. 'I arrived at the audition with my suitcase in tow and had no time to warm up. I just got changed and auditioned and that was it,' he says, adding that Hong Kong offers dancers more opportunities and variety than the mainland.

Since he joined, Huang has performed in numerous big productions as lead, including The Butterfly Lovers and Water Margin. He will appear this week in the restaging of the 2004 musical The Border Town (a joint production with the Actors' Family), which won numerous awards, including best full-length performance.

Huang won't reprise his singing role because of a vocal cord problem. The dancer hopes this year will bring more chances for him to choreograph for the forthcoming 8/F Platform series - he has an idea that revolves around a kitchen, a show that he'd like to perform with Keat Lim - and some charity work for the disabled. In March, he'll take part in a programme organised by the HKDC and the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust that aims to explore the artistic potential of hearing-impaired children. Huang will be one of the workshop tutors.

'I'm someone who leads a very simple life,' he says. 'Dance isn't all my life - it's only part of it. I also enjoy reading, watching documentaries and other non-dance related activities. The workshops in March aren't so much teaching children how to dance as how we interact and communicate with each other. And I'm really looking forward to that.'

The Border Town, Feb 2-4, 7.45pm; Feb 2, 4, 2.45pm also; Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, HK$120, HK$180, HK$260. Inquiries: 3103 1806.

Hong Kong Dance Awards, Feb 6, 8pm, Kwai Tsing Theatre, HK$80, HK$100

Urbtix. Inquiries: 2584 8753