Choreographed by Yuri Ng
Damansara Performing Arts Centre
1-3 September 2017
Review by Grey Yeoh
From 1–3 September 2017, the Chinese Malaysian dance community in Kuala Lumpur witnessed a historic event at Damansara Performing Arts Centre: the Malaysian premiere of ‘Boy Story’. Dancers Loo Jay Jen, Ong Yong Lock, Aman Yap Choong Boon, Ix Wong Thien Pau, Goh Boon Ann and Chou Shu Yi performed the work choreographed by Yuri Ng from Hong Kong. Of the six performers, all but one are Malaysian and have performed in this iconic dance before, in various incarnations across its twenty-one year history. The odd one out is Chou Shu Yi, who is more than a decade younger than his fellow dancers, and also Taiwanese by nationality.
The live performance on stage was the second half of a two-part tribute to ‘Boy Story’. Each show started with a film documentary about the history of the dance, featuring archive footage of performances, interviews with people involved in shaping the piece, bringing it around the world and subsequently receiving its many accolades. This well-paced and searching documentary was produced, directed and edited by Maurice Lai. By starting the night with the screening of the documentary, audiences who aren’t part of the Chinese Malaysian dance community were given an entry point into the dance, which they watched after intermission.
‘Boy Story’ was first created for City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC) in Hong Kong in the run up to the historic 1997 Hong Kong handover from the United Kingdom to China, after its 99 year ‘lease’, an event that was met with overwhelming uncertainty and deep-rooted anxiety by the people of Hong Kong. Questions were asked about the future of Hong Kong, what ‘Big Brother’ would do, how Hong Kongers would be able to integrate back into Chinese society, and whether the one-country-two-systems principle would work.
It was against this politically-charged backdrop that Yuri Ng created his award-winning dance piece, putting these questions into his choreography, onto his dancers’ bodies. Without a doubt, the narrative of a confused nation searching for its own identity was presented on stage in all its glory and personified by the six male dancers. The start of the show saw a dancer in traditional Chinese bridal costume walking slowly across the stage. She was followed by a seemingly confused figure who then moved onto the stage, to discover the void and the freedom to fill the void with his own ideas.
Throughout the show, Yuri used melodies from various eras to signify the influence of different cultural powers over the dancers, and over Hong Kong, including a mix of American, Japanese, and Spanish songs. A particularly memorable part featured a solo dancer doing powerful ballet movements to the theme song of Once Upon a Time in China III, more commonly known as the Wong Fei-Hung song, rendered in Mandarin. The subtext of the choice to play the Mandarin version over the Cantonese (in my opinion the better version, sung by George Lam) should have been obvious to anyone watching the dance.
Unspoken truths in between moves
At this juncture I want to talk more about the politics of the choreography rather than focus on the aesthetics or the history of the dance itself. I want to ask questions about the political reactions to this work when it was first staged twenty-one years ago, about the lack of political reactions offered by the choreographer himself (both in the film documentary and during the post-show Q&A), about using dancers from another country to depict a quintessentially local issue, about how this work sits in the current political climate in 21st century Hong Kong SAR, and how it sits politically in Malaysia. I felt very unsettled when I left the Malaysian premiere of ‘Boy Story’ on that first night.
Yuri Ng wrote in the programme booklet, and explained in the documentary, that he was commissioned to choreograph ‘Boy Story’ to work with an all-male show. He highlighted this interesting challenge enthusiastically. He worked with the Malaysians to improvise dance movements which he strung together to form the full choreography. But what was missing in his boyish enthusiasm was how he developed the narrative of the dance piece, of the journey of a nation at the brink of uncertainty.
There was a moment halfway through the show when the Chinese bride returned to the stage while the other dancers were busy ‘finding their own identity’. In discovering the presence of the bride, the boys quickly formed a lifted throne with their arms, on which one of the dancers sat like an emperor, successfully scaring the bride away by working together. These actions and narratives do not happen by chance or through improvisation. Did Yuri, as a Hong Konger, include these elements to show his fellow countrymen that it was okay to be confused in 1996? Did he chose to put his own political stance into his choreography knowing that it might one day be performed as a commemorative piece? Was he afraid of being more vocal? Might he have been arrested? Perhaps these are questions which no longer needed answering. Or perhaps the answers to these questions aren’t relevant anymore. Hong Kong is at a different place now. Or is it?
In 2014, the show was performed by dancers from Hong Kong Ballet at the New National Theatre, Tokyo. 2014 also saw one of Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy demonstrations, reportedly attended by 510,000 protesters at Victoria Park. How was ‘Boy Story’ received during this time by audiences back home? I wonder if it received any attention from the Hong Kong government and reactions from the Hong Kong Legislative Council. Or was it brushed aside, filed away discreetly as merely ‘art’?
Another question that ought to be asked is whether the show’s loaded political messages resonate in a country like Malaysia. Does our Chinese Malaysian community, whose ancestors left the Middle Kingdom decades or centuries ago, experience similar identify-searching journeys today? What are their reactions to the looming shadow of big brother China? What did the Malaysian audiences see in a show like ‘Boy Story’?
Politics of the aging body
Retrospective performance shows are not uncommon. In recent years, the popularity of such shows, restaged with original casts, have been aplenty. Marina Abramovic did a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 2010, hiring a number of younger artists to re-mount some of her most iconic performances. In 2013, to mark the 30th anniversary of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s seminal dance piece Rosas danst rosas, she called for an international crowd-sourcing of dancers doing simplified versions of the choreography. Not to leave out Malaysia, in 2009 dancer-choreographer Marion D’Cruz also staged a performance lecture called Gostan Forward, charting her 35-year career. In it, the then 60-year old choreographer performed excerpts from at least six dance and performance art pieces. She went on to re-mount her iconic 1988 ‘Urn Piece’ in Singapore, re-titled Dream Country in 2012, some 24 years after it first premiered.
Such retrospectives have undeniable potential. One touching scene in Lai’s documentary about ‘Boy Story’ showed a visibly older and rounder dancer, Chan Yi Jing, who has since stopped dancing, demonstrating his old routine to the young understudy Chou Shu Yi, carefully watched by comrade and choreographer Yuri. In the heat of the demonstration, Chan’s kinaesthetic memory took over and he completed the whole sequence without breaking concentration or sweat! At the end of the sequence, the documentary showed Yuri, overwhelmed by memories of the past, hugging Chan tightly and sobbing uncontrollably.
It was difficult not to feel affected by the sense of how the fragile human body stands up to the waves of time. We also witnessed the strength of the human spirit, the ties of passion that bind people over decades. This feeling was repeated when all five of the original dancers took the stage. While their bodies may have changed – a little more flab here, a large tattoo there – the exhilarating feeling of bodies dancing in the liminal space remained the same.
It’s always interesting to watch how a piece of live work – whether dance, theatre or performance art – ages with time. The opportunity to experience and juxtapose the old and the current in one night was a privilege indeed. Unlike visual art, literature, film or music, live art ages with the body and the mind of the creator and its performers. The most profound live work, like the ones mentioned above, stand the test of time. Some bodies and art may age like fine wine, but a question that needs to be asked is whether the politics of the work ages in the same way.
*Disclosure: I worked on Gostan Forward with D’Cruz. I also produced and directed a contribution to De Keersmaeker’s crowd-sourcing project.
GREY YEOH is an arts manager and producer based in Kuala Lumpur. He is a member of independent producer group ProPAU, and currently the Head of Arts at the British Council in Malaysia, as well as its Southeast Asia Arts Lead.
All photos in this review by Anjoey Chong of Joe Photography, courtesy of Damansara Performing Arts Centre.