Hong Kong lion dance gets a modern twist in Daniel Yeung’s opening show at new ArtisTree

With its acrobats and aerialists, ContempoLion reimagines the traditional dance usually associated with Lunar New Year festivities, but Yeung says the art form is a hybrid that lends itself well to new interpretations

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 June, 2017, 1:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 June, 2017, 1:51pm

Contemporary dancer and choreographer Daniel Yeung Chun-kong’s latest work, ContempoLion, is a fresh take on what’s been around in China, and the rest of Asia, for centuries: lion dance. The award-winning Hong Kong artist says it may not seem obvious at first but the ancient art form actually lends itself very well to new interpretations.

“While people tend to regard cross-media as a modern [concept], many ancient art forms are, in fact, cross-media,” Yeung says. “Lion dance is a fusion of dance, acrobats, percussion and music. You can even see it as a gigantic puppet show.”

To prove his point, he has invited acrobats, aerial silk and aerial hoop performers, and pole dancers from around the world to take part in his upcoming show, which marks the opening of the new location of ArtisTree, an art space in Taikoo Place.

ContempoLion is an apt choice of name, adds Yeung, given the festive and auspicious nature of lion dance, traditionally reserved for ushering in Lunar New Year .

His new piece is all about reimagining through fresh eyes something that most of us grew up watching.

“Different performers use their expertise as a tool to showcase their imagination of lions,” says Yeung. “Because lions are not native to many Asian countries, this leaves a huge space for imagination and creativity.”

Traditional lion dances vary in appearance and presentation. In Korea, where lion dance originates as an exorcism ritual, the costumes look nothing like the lions known in Hong Kong. Instead, they have huge nostrils, fiery eyes and round faces, meant to scare away evil spirits.

In Tibet, the lions are white with green eyebrows to represent the snow lion, a mystical animal worshipped by Tibetans.

However, these traditional forms are not presented in ContempoLion. Instead, Yeung has invited artists from different cultural backgrounds to come up with their interpretation of the king of the beasts.

The aerial hoop artist’s take, for instance, is partly inspired by Catwoman. She will be wearing a headpiece, created by costume designer Dora Ng Li-lo, that is similar to the superhero’s face mask, only more splendid and glittery.

Why lion dancing in Baizhifang is a dying art

But ContempoLion is not about turning tradition on its head just for the sake of it, as the show will also pay tribute to those who are practising the art and keeping it alive. Eight lion dance sifu (masters) from Kwok’s Kung Fu & Dragon Lion Dance Team will form the core of the performance. They are chosen not only for their strong skills but also willingness to experiment.

Yeung worked with these masters last November in a free performance called The Lion Rocks!, which was part of the New Vision Arts Festival organised by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.

The following month, he further explored the relationship between lion dance and other forms of movement in a Hong Kong Dance Company programme, A Decade of Creativity, which was described on the programme’s website as “a crossover of dance and martial arts”.

For ContempoLion, the choreographer hopes there will be more integration between the two art forms. As part of the research and preparation, Yeung sent four contemporary dancers to workshops in which they learnt the movements of traditional lion dance – techniques they cannot learn even at the best performing arts schools, Yeung stresses.

And to highlight these skills in the show, the lion head is designed to be transparent so the audience can see exactly how the prop is being manoeuvred.

Yeung’s new work also brings back the character of the Dai Tao Fut, Big-headed Buddha, a highly challenging role usually reserved for experienced lion dance masters and one that’s rarely performed these days.

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“Dai Tao Fut needs to play a lot of tricks to lure the lion out. This will be played by a performer who does parkour and he will be leaping and flying on poles,” says Yeung.

The performance will also feature music by Taiwanese group Ka Dao Yin, aka Caught Up In, who will deconstruct the way the piano is played (by taking the instrument apart and fiddling with its internal structure).

Instead of producing musical notes, the reassembled piano will be performed like a percussion instrument. They will be joined by New York-based Japanese drummer, Keita Ogawa, who is part of the Grammy-winning group Snarky Puppy.

What’s the story behind lion dancing?

“I’m trying out a new category and a new art form [by building] on a treasure we have in Hong Kong culture and by exploring more possibilities of how it can be presented,” says Yeung, who hopes the experiment will not end with the 70-minute performance, but can invoke more curiosity about lion dancing.

“It shows that there is something Hong Kong can offer to the international art field that is unique to us.”

ContempoLion, June 9, 7.30pm, June 10, 3pm and 7.30pm, ArtisTree, 1/F, Cambridge House, Taikoo Place, Quarry Bay, Free admission. Register through ticketflap.com.