Performing arts in Hong Kong

Chinese dancer, 54, to defy her age with daunting 70-minute solo show

  • Qiao Yang will perform “Almost 55”, the story of her life and most challenging performance of her long career, at the Hong Kong Arts Centre this month
  • Choreographed by Chou Shu-yi from Taiwan, the piece also traces the development of modern dance history in China.
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 January, 2019, 1:46pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 January, 2019, 7:43pm

A star was born 54 years ago, but it would take a while for the world to notice. After all, an underfunded dance troupe in a small Chinese city was perhaps not the best place to launch an international career – especially during the Cultural Revolution.

Now, Qiao Yang is about to stake her claim as one of Asia’s top contemporary dancers. The decision also amounts to the biggest wager of her career: to perform a gruelling 70-minute solo autobiographical piece.

The piece traces how she joined the Baoji City public arts troupe as a 12-year-old apprentice; ended up in Guangzhou studying contemporary dance under Willy Tsao Sing-yuen; and later, moved to Hong Kong a year before the handover to China and became a full-time dancer at Tsao’s City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC).

Qiao has always loved to dance. The little she learned from school helped her catch the eyes of the so-called wengongtuan (cultural work troupe) recruiters in her hometown in central China’s Shaanxi province in the early 1970s. That spelt the end of a normal childhood and schooling, and the start of years of harsh, regimented classical Chinese and ballet training that would turn her into a professional performer for the workers.

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Her mother agreed to it because she feared Qiao would otherwise be “sent down” to hard labour in the countryside like so many young people then.

“As dancers we were paid so little we had to make extras by dancing at nightclubs for a fee, and we were all exhausted in the morning,” Qiao says. “It was a tough life, but the 12 years I spent with the troupe certainly taught me discipline.”

Qiao could have languished in obscurity or simply given up out of boredom. Fortunately, an instructor recognised her talent and encouraged her to break away.

At the not-so-tender age of 24 she made a life-changing leap into contemporary dance. In 1987, she joined the Guangdong Dance School and later become a founding member of the Guangdong Modern Dance Company in 1992. In 1996 she married Chow Yung-ping, who would later become the CEO of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, and moved to Hong Kong to join Tsao’s CCDC as a full-time dancer.

She has never looked back – until now.

Almost 55, which debuts on January 25, is choreographed by 35-year-old Chou Shu-yi from Taiwan, an accomplished dancer himself who says he became aware of Qiao’s star quality during a visit to Hong Kong about two years ago.

“When I saw Qiao and the confident way that she moved, I felt in awe of all this power from a 50-something-year-old dancer and was moved to work on a solo piece just for her,” he says during rehearsal last month.

I have never taught. I do not choreograph. These are not my paths. I have only ever been a full-time dancer and I intend to do it for as long as I can
Qiao Yang

The team includes Lin Ching-ju, a costume consultant who has dressed dancers for some of the most poetic creations shown by Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre. Lin sits watching from the side as Qiao improvises, with Chou’s prompting, a feverish sequence following a quiet rumination about restlessness and the peripatetic nature of her home.

The physical demands of dancing and the high rate of injuries often mean a short, sportsmanlike career. There have been notable exceptions: English ballerina Margot Fonteyn and American dancers Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham all danced beyond what most people would think of as their prime. More recently, Italian ballerina Alessandra Ferri has continued to pick up roles in her 50s, and the 51-year-old American dancer Wendy Whelan, post-hip surgeries, has followed Mikhail Baryshnikov in switching from ballet to contemporary dance.

But these examples remain rare, especially when you exclude dancers who have transitioned into teaching or choreographers as they get older and no longer dance full time.

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Almost 55 is a nod to Cunningham’s Nearly Ninety piece that he premiered in 2009. But while the late choreographer was wheelchair-bound and unable to dance in his final work, CCDC’s new commission is a test of Qiao’s limits while she is still at her peak.

The years have barely left a mark on Qiao’s face. What they have added to the dancer, who sports a stylish, pixie cut, is a confidence in her stage presence that have led reviewers to say that she is dancing better than ever before.

“I am not as strong as before, naturally, but I live healthily and I am still very fit,” she says. “Who knows how long this will last. I guess that’s why I agreed to do this.”

Her daily schedule is as orderly as when she was in Baoji: a piece of bread and porridge for breakfast, a full day of dance with a few pieces of fruit at midday, vegetables that she cooks herself as a light dinner followed by a massage or stretching, and in bed by 10pm.

“I have never taught. I do not choreograph. These are not my paths. I have only ever been a full-time dancer and I intend to do it for as long as I can,” says Qiao quietly, sitting with her back ramrod straight in the dancers’ lounge.

It took a while for her to come around to the idea of a full solo performance. She has shone in solo parts of full-scale productions, such as Tales of Two Cities in 2011 and Soledad in 2016, winning a place in the “Hong Kong Dance Hall of Fame” and numerous dance awards in the process. But she has does nothing like this before.

A lengthy solo piece is not just daunting, but also inimical to the way she has always worked – as part of a team. But Chou and CCDC’s managing director Raymond Wong Kwok-wai convinced her that this is a now-or-never opportunity to explore how and why Asian dancers do what they do and, through her life story, trace the development of modern dance history in China.

It is to be her story, but many Hong Kong families will see shadows of their lives in hers.

Chou’s research was thorough. He asked Qiao to take him to Baoji, and spent time talking to people who used to dance with her. They then spent over a year working out the performance together. It is a dance piece for one but in reality, it is a dialogue between two dancers a generation and a 180km strait apart.

Qiao says she has made CCDC promise it won’t add performances for fear of exhaustion. She will only pause for breath during a show when she stops to read, in Mandarin, her musings about past experiences and the concept of home.

She understands Cantonese and can speak it a little, but is aware of how her inability to speak the native dialect fluently makes her identity as a Hongkonger suspect to some.

“I ask in the piece where ‘home’ is. I don’t really know. I like to think that it is a place I take with me wherever I go, and that my adventurous spirit may again take me up mountains and across seas literally or symbolically,” she says.

Almost 55, a solo performance by Qiao Yang, Shouson Theatre, Hong Kong Arts Centre, 2 Harbour Road, Wan Chai, Jan 25-27.