For more than three decades, the Hong Kong Dance Company has been synonymous with Chinese dance, especially traditional folk and ethnic disciplines.
But with Yang Yuntao now at its helm, this focus is likely to shift. Aged 39, the dancer and choreographer is the youngest artistic head of a publicly funded flagship performing arts company in the city.
Having choreographed works for the HKDC that challenge boundaries while keeping with tradition, such as the award-winning Spring Ritual - Eulogy (2012) and The Legend of Mulan (2013), Yang is expected to move the 33-year-old troupe into broader and bolder territory.
Some may already feel a gentle wind of change is sweeping across the eighth floor of the Sheung Wan Municipal Services Building where the company is based. Its last production, a small site-specific and experimental dance piece called Beans, was raw, contemporary and devoid of any traditional Chinese dance vocabulary. But if that was a small sign of things to come, Yang isn't about to divulge.
"It's my responsibility as artistic director to follow its direction and move the company forward," he says when asked about his artistic vision. "The company has a long history and it's not up to me to change that."
If anyone is to look for the troupe's direction, Yang adds, they need not look further than its name: "It's 'Hong Kong' ... we are to experiment, understand and establish what it means to be 'Hong Kong' in dance. We already have ballet and contemporary dance in the city, so what is there left for us to create and explore?"
His predecessor, Leung Kwok-shing (2009-2013), and former executive director Gerard Tsang Chu-chiu, a historian and playwright, went down the traditional route and staged a series of productions that were based on either historical figures, events, artworks or legends in China such as Qingming Riverside (2007), Snow Fox (2008), Poet Dongpo (2010), and Two Swallows - Ode to Wu Guanzhong (2011). A graduate of the Guangdong Dance School, Leung's choreographic language is rooted in Chinese folk dance and his colourful, large-scale works had helped the company steadily build an audience.
When Yang, who first joined HKDC as a principal dancer in 2002, returned as assistant artistic director in 2007 after a two-year stint with the City Contemporary Dance Company, he injected a different kind of energy into the troupe with works that critics saw as imaginative and challenging.
"I don't want it to be boxed and labelled," says Yang about how he wants to shape the company's artistic style. "I don't want it to be rigid and say what it can or cannot be. Art is about being original, creative and new. And this should apply to all arts companies."
HKDC receives an annual subvention of HK$34.5 million from the Home Affairs Bureau, which finances the nine major performing arts companies in the city. Yang says that, as a publicly funded group, it is important to stage works that appeal to a large audience without pandering to popular taste.
"If you just stage pieces that people like, you'd soon begin to lose them," he says, likening that to cooking the same dish for customers over and over again. "After they've tasted it, they'd get bored eventually. So you have to give them something new and fresh. It's only with good quality productions that we can retain, and grow, our audience."
By "quality", he means the work has to be professional and of high artistic standard. "As an artist, it's the attitude towards creating a work that is important, not the style."
Since Yang took over from Leung as the HKDC's artistic director in November, there has been movement among dancers in the company. Both senior dancers Pan Lingjuan and Huang Lei were promoted to principals, Chen Rong is now a senior dancer while former principal Xie Yin has taken on the role of dance master. Principal Liu Yinghong has left the troupe to pursue a freelance career in Macau. "I want the dancers to continue to develop and show off their best. That's the artistic director's job."
A member of the Bai ethnic minority, Yang started his dance training at the age of 12 after his school spotted his good looks and potential. In 1992, he graduated from Beijing's Central Ethnic University before joining the Guangdong Modern Dance Company then Beijing Modern Dance Company as a soloist. Having won many dance competitions on the mainland he joined HKDC in 2002. He began choreographing full length works in 2008 and, three years later, spent four months in New York in a residency programme with Shen Wei Dance Arts after receiving an Asian Cultural Council fellowship grant.
His latest offering, The Butterfly Lovers, which will be staged from June 13 to 15, is a "dance poem" that looks into the concept of love through four Chinese legends. The title work celebrates the 55th anniversary of the popular The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto by Chinese composers Chen Gang and He Zhanhao and will feature guest violinist Jue Yao.
Yang says the show focuses more on the different kinds of love than the stories. "Love to me is an emotion and feeling that is best expressed through dance … it cannot be said but it can be danced, sung and expressed through music," he says, adding that the four-act piece will be entertaining, but not necessarily uplifting.
The past couple of years have been busy for Yang both professionally and personally - he became a father for the first time a year ago, although he says his paternal instincts have yet to kick in. "I still feel like my father's son, rather than my son's father."
He says when he was a dancer, he wanted to be in the most prominent spot on the stage; and when he was made HKDC's assistant artistic director seven years ago, he thought about heading the company - before dismissing it as a dream. Today, he says his role is not about realising a personal ambition but is an opportunity to work collectively with his colleagues.
"Art is very personal," says Yang. "But being an artistic director is not ... whatever decision you make affects the entire company. So it's different being an artist and an artistic director. Having said that, deep down, an artistic director should always be an artist."
The choreographer says dance defines his existence and he will continue to experiment with the art form. "One of my fears is losing the courage to change ... but I still have that courage," says Yang.
email@example.comThe Butterfly Lovers, Jun 13-15, 7.45pm; Jun 14 and 15, 3pm, HK Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, HK$180, HK$260 and HK$330. Inquiries: 3103 1806