Choreographer and dancer Mui Cheuk-yin gets into politics

One of the city's leading dance figures tells Kevin Kwong and Bernice Chan why it's time to stand up and be counted

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 October, 2013, 6:30pm

Choreographer and dancer Mui Cheuk-yin used to think that the role of an artist was simply to create. But after decades focused on expressing herself through movement, Mui has had something of a political awakening.

That's why the 53-year-old is competing in polls on Sunday and Monday to nominate sectoral representatives to the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (ADC).

Local dance professionals have long been indifferent to politics, Mui says. Most dancers see matters of governance and policy-making as peripheral to their lives. "It has nothing to do with us … we just do our best in our work and that's it - that is our job," she says.

But stints on several government advisory bodies, including the Advisory Committee on Arts Development (2010-12), have made Mui realise that "it doesn't work that way".

She adds that artists, particularly established ones, have a responsibility to help build an ecology that can enable the various art forms to thrive and develop.

"Over the past couple of years I was forced to think about the Hong Kong situation; I've had many discussions with fellow professionals in the arts and have become more aware of the problems we face," says Mui, an associate choreographer at the City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC).

The lack of a collective voice among dance professionals has meant they have largely been marginalised - a problem that is, she admits, also of their own making. So it's time for her to speak up.

The role of the council has been narrowed substantially since 2010, when oversight and financing of Hong Kong's then 10 major performing arts groups - from the Hong Kong Sinfonietta to the CCDC and Zuni Icosahedron - was placed under the Home Affairs Bureau's (HAB) newly created (and wholly government-appointed) advisory committee.

The ADC's job is now primarily to allocate funding for individual artists and small arts groups through an array of project grants, typically for periods of one or two years.

About HK$98 million has been earmarked for the ADC in the coming year, up from HK$87 million for 2012/13. That's not a sum to be sneezed at, although it is less than a third of the budget for the HAB advisory committee.

The council is marginally more egalitarian. Of its 27 members, 10 are nominated to the council by specific interest sectors - arts criticism, arts education, literary arts, film art, visual art, arts administration, dance, drama, music and Chinese opera. Each conducts polls to select representatives whose nomination must be approved by the Chief Executive before they take their seat on the council.

As convoluted as it is, next week's exercise is proving to be one of the most hotly contested in years, with 29 people vying for the 10 sectoral seats.

This includes a four-way showdown for the music representative's seat and a similar slugfest for the drama sector between incumbent, stage director Ko Tin-lung of Chung Ying Theatre, A-list actor Anthony Wong Chau-sang, and two others.

In dance, Mui admits the odds are against her beating her two rivals - ballroom dance instructor Yiu Sau-mui, and Law Yiu-wai, a community dance organiser.

Mui has strong credentials to take the dance scene forward. Trained in Chinese classical and ethnic dance, she is a former principal dancer of the Hong Kong Dance Company, a four-time winner of the Hong Kong Dance Award, and has performed and collaborated internationally, notably with choreographer Pina Bausch.

But a lack of coherence in the ranks of professional dancers, and their failure to get organised, means Mui's first foray into art politics may be a brief one.

Ballots are cast by individual arts workers who have registered as voters, and from employees or members of recognised arts interest groups who have registered to vote. By the time the ADC voter registration for this year's exercise ended on July 22, the professional dance sector, which includes the three government funded dance companies, the Hong Kong Dance Company, the Hong Kong Ballet and CCDC, enlisted only about 300 voters.

That's far fewer than the close to 1,000 votes that Yiu can expect to receive thanks to backing from members of the Hong Kong Ballroom Dancing Council and Perfect Dancing Studio.

Speaking at a recent open forum, Yiu said dance is an art form she truly loves: "I can express what I am feeling inside and bring out my artistic side. Dance is an exercise like swimming.

"I have taught ballroom dance for many years, and have seen that young people are too anxious about their homework. We should give dance lessons to children so that they can release their emotions and develop their artistic side. Many students are affected financially when it comes to dance as a priority, so they cannot develop in this area."

Law can also count on strong support from the Association of Hong Kong Dance Organisations, which focuses on promoting dance at a community level.

The dance teacher believes that too much public money has been allocated to a small number of professional dance groups, while there are many amateur dance enthusiasts who stage performances with little official support.

He hopes to devote more resources to community-based dance while helping to raise the overall level of the art: "Hong Kong is an international city so we should be developing the standard of dance as well," he says.

An ally of Ho Ho-chuen, the dance representative in the ADC for the past six years, Law expects to receive about 600 votes - twice as many as Mui.

Tom Brown, acting chairman of the Hong Kong Dance Alliance, which groups the three major professional dance companies, says he is disappointed by the low turnout of members for the voter registration exercise - the CCDC has 26 registered voters, the Hong Kong Dance Company has 12 and there were none from the Hong Kong Ballet.

Brown attributes the poor response partly to confusion over registration guidelines. Some performers thought, incorrectly, that if they had registered as functional constituency voters in last year's Legislative Council elections, they would also be registered for the ADC nomination exercise. But it could just as easily be blamed on the dance veterans' failure educate members about the nomination process and its importance.

Still, as Mui gets down to the electioneering basics of drawing up a manifesto and recruiting volunteers to stuff envelopes, she is also quickly learning about deal-making. As each person involved in the ADC nomination exercise can cast 10 votes (one for every art sector), she is able to lobby for support from other interest groups.

That's why she has formed an "arts3+1" alliance with like-minded candidates - Ribble Chung Siu-mui from arts administration, Lo Wai-luk for arts criticism, and Ng Mei-kwan for literary arts. By adopting this cross-voting strategy, she hopes to boost her chances of success.

"I'll continue to lobby all the independent dance companies as well as potential supporters from different art forms. If I don't win, then let that be a lesson to us all, and we'll try again in three years," Mui says.

"But if you look at the situation in Hong Kong now, we really can't wait for another three years. If we are to move the local dance scene forward, and include every dance form, we must start working on making changes now and ADC is the best vehicle we have."

Mui says the ADC must be more than just a funding body, and the 10 nominated representatives should serve as its brains trust, advising the other council members, who are mainly government bureaucrats, on the direction to take, and introducing practical initiatives for their respective sectors.

One of the things that bothers her is the lack of opportunity for professional dancers to fine-tune a work through reruns - a process that fosters artistic and personal growth.

In Europe, she says, it's common practice for troupes to continue developing and perfecting a piece while rerunning or touring it over a period of time.

"Here, although new dance productions are staged every year, they run for two or three days, and that's the end of it. Nothing gets an extended run, due to a lack of a venue [and a local audience]. Artists often have to wait for a couple of years before they can restage a good piece," she says.

"There is very little chance for them to tour their work overseas either because there is no system here to help them to do that. This is very discouraging for artists who put a lot of effort into one work that gets shelved after three days. So many get frustrated and leave.

"The set up is there, the ADC is a well-oiled machine. All we need, within each sector of the arts, is someone to take the lead," Mui says.