An E-Side story
Ngau Chi Wan Civic Centre, a nondescript block on the fringe of a cluster of public housing estates in Choi Hung, may be a little off the local cultural map but that is exactly why choreographer/dancer Jacky Yu Yan-wah thinks the far-flung venue is perfect to promote contemporary dance. 'I want to bring the genre to people living on Kowloon side and in the New Territories,' he says.
But it's not so much his idealistic intention as his artistic vision that is now giving the civic centre the buzz as this city's mecca for modern dance. The two major productions Yu's dance company E-Side presented this year - Wonderful Dance in January and Contemporary Dance Showcase - Asian-Male Episode 2 in July - were lauded not only for their high standards but also for their relevance as they brought together some of the finest and most promising choreographers and dancers in Hong Kong and from around the region.
Converging Beams, to be staged later this month, will feature six up-and-coming homegrown talents while Crazy will round off the year with challenging works from five accomplished dancers, including Wong Tan-ki and Dick Wong Tai-fai.
It has always been clear to Yu, a graduate of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (APA) who founded E-Side Dance Company in 1988, that whatever he stages, it would have to be of range and quality. It's the only way to attract an audience, he says, especially when dance is still a niche art form in this city.
And thanks to the Venue Partnership Scheme, an initiative launched by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) in 2008 to give resident artists and arts companies the priority in booking facilities such as rehearsal rooms and auditoriums, Yu has been able to realise his vision more effectively.
E-Side presents four major productions and hosts a series of educational workshops/classes each year. Through these events, Yu wants to achieve a number of goals: to bring overseas artists to Hong Kong; to provide a platform for both fresh and experienced talent; to present his own work; and to promote dance in the community.
More than 100 children, teenagers and adults signed up for its 'Jump! Shaky-Dance & See' dance course this summer, 'which is really not bad', says Yu, who is in his 40s. But it's the big shows - including This Side. That Side (2009), Beyond Boundaries (2009) and Stillness in Motion (2011) - that have been giving his company, as well as the venue, an edge.
Yu says he likes to put performers using different dance movements and vocabulary into the same programme to highlight their uniqueness. The Asian-Male Episode series is a good example of that as the audience gets a chance to see how contemporary dance has developed in mainland China, South Korea and Japan as well as Southeast Asia and Hong Kong.
Yu's own repertoire, which includes Light Up (2006) and Toppling the World, has also caught critics' attention. Converging Beams is his latest offering, which the choreographer says has taken him almost a year to create. It continues his exploration of the relationship between lighting, stage props and movement. 'It best expresses my imagination and thoughts,' Yu says. 'It may have something to do with my age but I am over narratives. What interests me most today is to look at movement as a pure [art] form free of sentiment. Through my choreography I want to study the structure of dance, whether it's a solo or group performance.'
As well as a subsidy from the LCSD, E-Side also receives a HK$100,000 grant from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council for its cultural exchange programmes. But the bulk of its income comes from ticket sales which, according to Yu, average between 70 to 80 per cent per show. Operating out of an 'office' that doubles as a storeroom, which he shares with another small theatre company, he is used to working with the basics.
Yu set up his own dance company soon after he left the APA 'because all I wanted was to perform'. He danced for the City Contemporary Dance Company between 1990 and 1991 before being awarded a scholarship by the Asian Cultural Council to further his studies in the US.
'It was a turning point in my life and career,' Yu says. 'I had time to watch shows, take classes and soak in what I was learning; the experience broadened my artistic palette. I felt very inspired after that programme as I learnt how to be original and began to create works that are multi-layered.'
Yu says while the local audience for contemporary dance has grown in recent years it is still relatively small. That gives him all the more reason to turn Ngau Chi Wan Civic Centre into a platform for talented independent choreographers and dancers to perform, and the public to learn about the art form. 'Audience building is a very long process but as long as we continue to produce quality shows, more and more people will come to us.'
Converging Beams, Oct 21-22, 8pm; Oct 22, 4pm, Ngau Chi Wan Civic Centre, Theatre, HK$100. Inquiries: 2372 9351