Hong Kong choreographer Sang Jijia's long and lonely road

Sometimes I feel I belong nowhere, says Germany-trained, Hong Kong-based ethnic Tibetan as he prepares to take City Contemporary Dance Company production to Taiwan

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2015, 9:06pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 September, 2015, 10:03am

Life would have turned out quite differently for Sang Jijia  had he stayed in his hometown in Gansu province, northwestern China, instead of going to Beijing to study dance when he was 12. The  ethnic Tibetan  would probably have become a monk and spent his life at the Labrang Buddhist Monastery  not far from his home.

“I am the eldest son in the family. The tradition is that families send one of their sons to the monastery as a way to collect karma. My parents were thinking about this when I was picked  to study dance in Beijing and this changed my life forever,” the 41-year-old recalls.

 I have been to many museums and gardens in Europe. And each time I stood before a statue or sculpture, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of loneliness.
Sang Jijia

Having attended the young dancers’ class at the Central Ethnic Minorities University in the Chinese capital, Sang has gone on to become one of China’s most successful choreographers.

This weekend he will be taking his work As If To Nothing  to Taipei as part of Hong Kong Week in Taiwan. The piece was created to mark the 30th anniversary of the Hong Kong-based City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC) in 2009 and has since been performed in Beijing, Guangzhou, Singapore, Florence, and most recently Niigata  in Japan.

It is a technically challenging piece that not only travels well but also showcases the artistry of the troupe’s dancers. Sang says each time his work goes on the road, the audience will find something new in the live performance.

“Dancers come and go,” he explains. “Dance steps that were tailor-made for the original cast are sometimes too hard for the new dancers to emulate. So some adjustments are essential.”

Sang joined the CCDC as a dancer in 1999.  The turning point in his career came in 2002 when he was selected for The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative,  which placed him under the creative wings of renowned choreographer William Forsythe.  He  stayed to work with Forsythe in Germany as an assistant choreographer and dancer before returning to Asia in 2006 to work with Beijing Dance LDTX,  the CCDC, and the Guangdong Modern Dance Company.  

While dance has taken him to different parts of the world, from New York to Paris and around Asia, Sang says he remains shy and quiet. “Sometimes during work or in the middle of a noisy place, I would recite Buddhist verses to quiet myself down,” he says.

Standing 1.8 metres tall and wearing his grey hair in a ponytail, he is a far cry from the stereotypical image of a Tibetan. He wears a white linen shirt and  blue jeans. On his right wrist  are Buddhist prayer beads. And while he speaks in Putonghua, the dancer also likes to use English words from time to time with a strong American accent.

Sang says his cultural roots and religious beliefs are always with him when he creates, but he shuns  Tibetan cultural symbols such as  Tibetan dress or traditional  song and dance in his productions.

“It is easy to create a superficial and shallow work like that. We have already seen too many of them,” he says.

He believes the essence of modern dance is freedom and creativity.

“You cannot copy others. You need to be unique and do the things that you believe are the best,” he says. “My cultural and religious backgrounds are in my blood and I don’t need those symbols in my work to  emphasise that I’m from Tibet.”

Sang’s latest work, Pa|Ethos,  made its debut at Teatro Era di Pontedera  in Italy in May. The title comes from two words, pathos and ethos. The 60-minute work is divided into two parts. The first part is about ethos, when, as if following rigid rules in social life, dancers in a group execute each step with precision and a stiff body; the second part is about pathos, when individual dancers move freely on the stage with vigour and passion.

“This work is about melancholy or loneliness,” Sang says. “Over the years, I have been to many museums and gardens in Europe. And each time I stood before a statue or sculpture, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of loneliness. Italian dancers with their classic sculptural looks suit the theme of the work.” To resemble white statues, dancers on the stage are powdered white all over.

“The feeling of loneliness also comes from my work,” he adds. “I am always on the road, flying from one place to another, one production to another production and one group of collaborators to another group of collaborators. Sometimes I feel I have no friends and I belong nowhere.”

As If To Nothing: October 2 - 4, at the Taipei National University of the Arts Dance Theatre, Taiwan