Time for reflection
Returning to a 'lab' of mirrors, Zuni Icosahedron founder Danny Yung hopes to inspire new ways of thinking
Curiosity is at the heart of creativity for Danny Yung Ning-tsun, founder of avant-garde group Zuni Icosahedron. His goal has been to create a "lab" and stepping into that experimental space with his performers to see what happens.
Since the late 1970s, Yung has been asking questions and pushing boundaries in the Hong Kong art scene - and he shows no signs of slowing. His upcoming production of The Trial - three back-to-back shows at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre - is a carefully crafted piece of theatre designed to squeeze the most from the performers.
This will be no ordinary theatre experience. Four large walls made entirely of mirrors will box in the stage and the audience will sit above the mirrors, looking down into the performance space.
"The performers don't see the audience, they only see themselves and the others on stage and an infinite number of reflections because of all the mirrors," Yung says. "So it's a total re-examination of self and your relationship with others."
This isn't the first time he's working with a mirrored space, which he refers to as his "lab". Yung first used the concept in 1994 and, although initially hesitant about covering the same ground, Zuni staff and executives persuaded him to return to it and see what could be explored 20 years on.
What Yung best remembers about the 1994 production is the cost: four massive mirrors don't come cheap. The original set cost HK$200,000, by far the most he'd ever spent on production.
"I always regretted that and thought it was a waste. It's better to spend money on the people, the performers, instead of the production. But some people say if you don't have this kind of 'lab' and break the conventional theatre form, then you will never really know the alternatives," he says.
Technology has moved on and the mirrors for next month's shows are of much better quality than the first set - but Yung is still not comfortable about the production costs. To justify the expense, he's putting on three shows under the umbrella title of The Trial, which takes its name - and mirror concept - from Franz Kafka's novel. "It means a lot more work for me. But it's also a challenge to use the mirrors in a different way," he says.
Each of the three performances involves different actors and it's the first one that he seems most excited about, working with five Kun opera performers. His association with Kun artists started two years ago with Stage Sisters and he's been entranced with the ancient art form since then.
"There are only 800 of them in China. They start their training aged 10 and they only recruit every 16 years, so if you miss the 16th year then you can't get into the trade. They are like a living history of Chinese culture," he says.
"I am very curious and I really like to work with artists who come from different generations. And I always want to know about the relationship between the master and the disciples."
Yung likes to stretch his performers by getting a good cultural mix on stage too: Cool Wind Whispers, the second piece in The Trial, brings together performers from Thailand, Japan and the mainland. "When you look in the mirror you see yourself, but when you look at another artist from another continent you also see yourself but you see something in addition," he says.
He hopes that the experience will trigger a new way of thinking - on and off the stage. It's all part of his big-picture plan to encourage artists from Asian countries to talk to each other and network.
He's especially concerned about the way the art scene is evolving on the mainland: the crux of the issue is funding. Artists need a platform in order to be seen, to articulate themselves and exchange ideas, but more often than not that platform comes at a high price. He sees artists either conforming to the system or else becoming ghettoised and filled with anger.
"Chinese artists, because of economic development, are now in the mainstream flow, so they react to the market rather than say this is what they want to do. That's not to say the market is not part of reality but how do you deal with it?"
Coming back to the mirror he says it offers artists the chance to examine themselves and their environment. Only by being alert and thinking critically, can an artist be truly creative. And if you're not curious? You may as well be dead.
"There are a lot of people who look like they are alive, but they are actually dead, like the living dead, and you feel so sorry for them," Yung says.
During a recent workshop in Japan, Yung asked the performers to speak to a camera as though they were addressing their "future selves". He wrote the first few lines for them, encouraging them to project into the future: "I cannot see you but you can see me. When you look at me, do you have any regrets? Do you think you are better? Do you think you are more intelligent?"
So what does Yung - 70 this year - say to his future self? "I know my energy level is declining, so if I could speak to my future self - 72, or 80 or 90 - I would say that I hoped I could keep my alertness."
To celebrate Yung's more than 30 years in experimental theatre, an exhibition of his hand-drawn graphics, stage sketches and photographs of past theatre works will be on display in the foyer of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre from November 8-27.
The Trial: Awakening , Nov 15-17, Cool Wind Whispers , Nov 22-24, Contempt , Nov 29-30, Studio Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, 10 Salisbury Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui, HK$140, HK$280 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2566 9696