Degrees of freedom
City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC) resident artist Xing Liang says the aim of his 2008 piece Out of the Box was 'to answer my own questions about dance'. In his latest work, Six Degrees, the dancer/choreographer goes a little further to ask: 'Why are we here? For what? What is life?'
The production, to be staged at Kwai Tsing Theatre this weekend, is his quest for self-discovery and so is influenced by Buddhist and Zen philosophical ideas, the 39-year-old says, although he's not a Buddhist. 'But I do follow Buddhist philosophy and yes, this has absolutely inspired Six Degrees. But there are a lot of ideas that are difficult to express,' the choreographer says, looking perplexed. 'How do you describe quiet? Silence? What is empty?' He pauses, thinking. Then suddenly, he laughs and throws up his hands in the air: 'I don't know! No one wants to see an empty stage!'
Xing is looking content today. Sitting comfortably in a chair at the company's Wong Tai Sin rehearsal studio, with a scarf looped around his neck, he doesn't look the self-absorbed, tortured soul his often challenging work might suggest.
As a choreographer, he deals with his dancers firmly and gracefully. 'He gives each pair of dancers a short choreography assignment and then watches what they come up with. So the dancers themselves get the opportunity and freedom to contribute,' says Alice Wong, the CCDC's assistant project manager.
'He works this way a lot and it's common practice here.'
Freedom - not a word synonymous with the mainland and creative expression - has been a theme throughout the Beijing-born Xing's life and finding this freedom in movement is very much part of the artistic process of his new work.
'I treat Six Degrees as a turning point,' he says. 'It's a number commonly found in different cycles [of life and growth in Buddhist philosophy].'
He mentions six degrees of separation - referring to the theory that anyone can be connected to any other person through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries - but more importantly, the number six is pervasive in Eastern philosophy. In the I-Ching, for instance, each of the eight trigrams is made up of six lines representing different states of consciousness.
'It's always six, not seven. If it was seven you change to another trigram and the whole phenomenon changes,' he explains. 'And the human body has several chakras. After the sixth chakra, one reaches enlightenment.'
Enlightenment is a translation of the Sanskrit word bodhi which means a state of freedom from suffering, desire, and ignorance. 'You will be at one with the universe. The Taoists call it the 'harmony of man with nature',' Xing says. It has been difficult for him to convey something in dance that, for the most part, cannot be expressed in words. He can only describe and portray a concept representative of these philosophies and let the 'mystery lie in the abstract body language'.
Simply put, just as the universe is made up of different elements, the stage is made up of elements such as speed, space, and movement. Dancers move 'from this point to that point, between this person and that person, the movement of this body and that body, and then a man and a woman', the choreographer says. 'When the lighting, music and energy come together, all kinds of associations can be triggered. What you see onstage is just the process, just the 'right now', not the end.'
Xing is quick to point out that it wasn't originally freedom that made him love dance. 'Honestly, the happiness it gave me was not real, it was surreal,' he says. 'First, I was one of the best 16 boys and 16 girls selected among all of the dance academies in China. And then, out of that group, I won the gold medal. I was only 17, and it was this fame that made me start to love it.'
But it wasn't until CCDC's founder and artistic director, Willy Tsao Sing-yuen, created a contemporary dance solo for him that Xing finally felt truly free. 'I was so used to performing Chinese dance, very structured movements, and in this solo, I was so comfortable. I felt so free.'
Joining Tsao's Guangdong Modern Dance Company in 1993, Xing was part of a burgeoning arts scene that grew out of the opening up of the mainland in the 1980s. 'People became more creative and they wanted to express themselves. Since then it is more open for this expression.' Asked about obstacles to creating work at the time, he shrugs, unconcerned: 'No nudity. And no complaining about government policy.'
And he doesn't seem to have let anything get in his way. An artist heavily decorated for his dancing and his choreography, Xing has been asked to teach, perform, and create work on the mainland and around the globe since the 1990s.
What inspires him? 'Music, art, books, movies ... life,' he says with a sly smile. 'Although my process is really what's happening in the moment and finding freedom in it. I don't force myself to put everything I know in a creation. I just look at it in this moment and it will develop automatically. It will evolve.'
Today, Xing is glad his father forced him into dance at the age of 12. 'Of course. This was common.'
A star in the international dance world, there is no other place he would rather be than with CCDC, he says. 'They give me a lot of freedom to create and this is the most important thing for an artist. Artists must forget their fears and face the feeling of living inside yourself.'
Has this been difficult against the backdrop of the mainland's political system? 'There has been a lot of change since the 1950s and the spirit and culture of the people is actually very rich. We can develop this culture, but we have to give the government time and the people time to evolve.'
Of recent Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, Xing thinks the imprisoned human rights activist believes in what he is doing and does not care about awards.
'This is great for the freedom of creative expression in China, but ... life is not about the freedom that others give you, it's about the freedom you feel inside.'
Six Degrees, Fri-Sat, 8pm, Kwai Tsing Theatre Auditorium, HK$140-HK$500 (VIP) Urbtix