All Theatre Art Association's latest offering Spiral of Life may have started out as a conceptual exploration into the themes of life and death, but when one of its cast members died suddenly early last month the multimedia stage production quickly became a concrete and sober reminder of the fragility of human life.
Nyoman Sura, a well-known traditional Balinese dancer and choreographer, died of pancreatic cancer on August 9 at the age of 37.
"We heard he was diagnosed with cancer in July but we held out hope," recalls Choy Kam-chiu, the creator and director of Spiral of Life and co-founder of All Theatre Art Association. The 38-year-old, better known as Hoi Chiu, flew to Bali in March to watch Sura perform, and was immediately taken by the beauty of his movements.
"We had a good time rehearsing for a week [in Hong Kong] in April," says Choy. "He was younger than me and fit. He was at the peak of his career and made a huge impact on me artistically."
The eight-member cast had grown close in the run-up to the show, so Sura's absence was all the more palpable. Oxana Banshikova, the Indian classical dancer from Kazakhstan, is still grappling with the reality of their loss. "He was very healthy, very happy and he was amazing and talented; it was a big shock," she says.
Banshikova says she was on holiday when the bad news reached her. "We were not together to discuss it. I had to suffer it by myself in Romania. The show has changed. It has become very emotional. We are talking about him more. We finished a lot of rehearsals crying."
Choy now hopes to use Spiral of Life to pay tribute to Sura, an award-winning dancer. "In this last work of his we want to pass on his thinking and philosophy to the audience. Coincidentally, he was to play Death in this show."
Sura showed them that the Balinese don't consider death to be something to fear, he says. His funeral was not a sad affair, for instance. "It was like a big party. He taught us a lot. Now it's time to think about how to deal with it," Choy says.
Spiral of Life was inspired by Choy's two-year-old daughter. "While watching my daughter grow during the past two years, she reminded me of some forgotten memories,"
A sand artist, Choy did not think that his feelings could easily be translated into words, so he has chosen to combine sand drawing, movement, dance, martial arts, video and masks to share his thoughts about life and death.
His wife, Canadian singer and actress Maggie Blue O'Hara, will be singing in Cantonese for the first time in the show. It is hoped that As Time Goes By, a popular Cantonese song by Anita Mui Yim-fong, will remind the audience what they may have forgotten.
Over the past six months the couple travelled to deserts, oceans, mountains and villages in different regions to seek inspiration. In Bali they found what they needed - rituals. Spiral of Life is different from a traditional dance performance, says Choy. There is no linear storyline or dramatic plot, and much of the 75-minute show is made up of solo performances.
The cast also includes Shaolin martial arts actor Li Peng, actress Sheena Cheung and Choy and O'Hara's daughter, Bella Star Choy.
"She is going to be the wild part for sure. But we are giving her scenes that she just needs to dance. You can't go wrong with dancing," says O'Hara of her daughter. "I want to give her a chance to be an actress, but if she doesn't like it after Spiral of Life I won't push it."
One important theme of the production is to look at life and death from different cultures, which will be accomplished by each (adult) performer giving their take on the themes. Choy says they have the freedom to design their movements and choreography as long as it conveys the message.
"There are no clear boundaries in the show to tell this is dance, this is singing, this is martial arts. It's all mixed together. We try to deliver a feeling, not just tell a story," says Li Peng, a former student at Shaolin temple in Henan province.
Sura's part in the show will now be performed by Choy. He originally wanted to end the show with a video about Sura, but changed his mind when he saw the pain on everyone's faces. He doesn't want it to be too downbeat. At the same time, he also wants the audience to grasp the reality of mortality.
"We forget small things in our life, and we don't want to think about death. But we should," Choy says.
firstname.lastname@example.org Spiral of Life, Sai Wan Ho Civic Centre, Sept 27 and 28, 8pm, Sept 29, 4pm. HK$140-HK$200. Inquiries: 2268 7323