YOU MAY NOT think Helen Lai Hoi-ling has a lot to smile about. The modern dance choreographer is trying to compress more than two hours of material into a slick, 80-minute performance featuring 16 dancers aged between 30 and 70, all of whom have prepared their pieces independently of one another.
Asked how she's managing to create the show My Life as a Dancer, which is part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival programme, she laughs.
'It's very difficult. I'm just trying to put the pieces in order. We've been showing each other what we came up with for the past month, then the other day we had the first tentative run-through.
'It's difficult to edit and make fluid transitions. Before, everyone had complete freedom to do what they wanted.'
And if that's not enough of a headache, with just over a week until the curtain rises, there's no overall story and some pieces haven't even been finished. But Lai is no novice - she knows it will all be right on the night.
The Hong Kong Arts Festival Society came up with the concept for Dancer and asked Lai to co-ordinate it. They wanted a performance to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the festival and also to illustrate the development of contemporary dance in the city during that time.
The idea of one full-length piece was eventually abandoned, Lai says, 'because there are so many of us'.
When Lai began dancing professionally in the early 1970s, there wasn't much choice apart from traditional ballet. After a few years dancing on local television, she enrolled at the London School of Contemporary Dance. Back in Hong Kong Lai joined the City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC) in 1979 and is now resident choreographer.
'I've seen more and more dancers with really good training coming out of Hong Kong, and there are more opportunities to stage work,' Lai says. 'A long time ago it was difficult to find someone who could do contemporary dance. Now, it's different.' Lai says she used to have to explain to people what contemporary dance was. Not any more.
The Dancer project team includes established local dancers, each with a different perspective and a different story to tell. Drawing on their experiences, each presents a snapshot of contemporary dance, from the early 1960s through to the present day. Lai's job is to create a sort of performance album from the snapshots.
Among the cast is actor-dancer Lau Siu-ming, the first modern dancer in Hong Kong to study abroad. He choreographed works for Lai at television station Rediffusion in the 1970s.
Willy Tsao fell in love with modern dance as a teenager and, after studying business management in the US, launched the CCDC in 1979 with US$500,000 from his mother.
Then there's the next generation, which includes Mandy Yim Ming-yin, Victor Ma Choi-wo, Xiang Liang, Ong Yong Lock, Abby Chan Man-yee, Yeung Wai-mei, Daniel Yeung Chun-kwong, Yuri Ng Yue-lit and Mui Cheuk-yin.
Lai says it wasn't difficult to coax the likes of Lau and Tsao back on stage - even if their performances won't necessarily involve dance routines. 'Lau is going to dance, but he's always been a performer,' she says. 'He's always enthusiastic about appearing on stage, so clearly he's very happy.'
Lai's contribution will focus on the source of much of her inspiration during the past 30 years: books. Her important works to date include Winterreise, Exits and Entrances, Insomnia, Nine Songs, The Rite of Spring, Revolutionary Pekinese Opera (Millennium Mix), In the Beginning, The Tragedy of Mr O, and The Comedy of K. Earlier this year, she won a Hong Kong Dance Award for her choreography last December of the CCDC's Testimony, about the life of Dmitri Shostakovich.
Lai says she's now happier behind the scenes than performing.
'I'm not dancing because I haven't danced for a long time, but I will be performing,' she says. 'I much prefer to be the choreographer.'
My Life As a Dancer, Fri-Sun, 8pm, Auditorium, Kwai Tsing Theatre, 12 Hing Ning Road, Kwai Chung, HK$100-HK$250