Helen Lai knows a thing or two about solitude. Despite growing up in Hong Kong and working in dance for over three decades, she’d prefer to live somewhere calm. “It’s too busy, too crowded, too noisy,” she says. “I’m sort of a quiet person.”
Lai, an award-winning choreographer, seeks out pockets of quiet away from the malls and the chatter. She has created a sort of refuge at her home in a village by the mountains of Sha Tin. These days, though, Lai is plunging even more deeply into the question of solitude: her latest dance project, Soledad, is inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s immense book 100 Years of Solitude.
After a day’s rehearsal for Soledad, Lai returns from a cigarette break in a black cotton sweater and pants. We sit by the set model for the piece, which depicts a stage with swirls of sand. “Ai! We lost the ship,” Lai says, peering behind the model for a small-scale replica of a galleon that her collaborator, the British artist Peter Suart, who is designing sets and music, made for the show. Suart is as absent as his ship, disappearing quickly after rehearsals, preferring not to be interviewed. The rehearsal process can be tough, a girl from the CCDC explains. Or perhaps he is indulging in his solitude.
Lai sighs. It’s been another exhausting day in a very exhausting project. What has been the greatest challenge? She shrugs and rolls her eyes. “Well, everything,” she says. Then she smiles.
After three decades as a leading figure in Hong Kong’s dance world, Lai is used to the uncertainty and bouts of chaos that are part of putting together a production. She likes to shake up anything linear and give it a spin. It may be the production is a lot of work for just two performances, a normal run in Hong Kong, but it shows her remarkable resilience — a notably Hong Kong trait — and passion. She remains ambitious. At first, she says, she investigated creating Soledad’s set from ice. “Well, that proved impossible,” she says.
She has always wanted to work with Suart, a performer, painter and musician who was raised in Hong Kong but who now lives most of the year in the UK. He is known here for his daring, often solemn, one-man multimedia epics. It was this desire that brought the piece into being.
After meeting Suart in a bar and proposing they work together, the two began a discourse on shared interests that ended with books. Lai is a keen reader with a secret love of detective novels and a not-so-secret love of stories set in Latin America. Together they arrived at, 100 Years of Solitude, which they had both read and enjoyed. Both of them are clearly used to dealing with large topics – Lai has tackled everything from Franz Kafka to Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovic in her work, while Suart’s Eternity Cabaret series dealt with history’s plagues and the Holocaust. 100 Years seemed like nothing they couldn’t handle.
The work had scope to build emotion and colour, but Lai felt a sense of trepidation due to the scale of its sprawling, multi-generational storyline. Deciding on Soledad‘s direction was the first hurdle.“It’s a very difficult project,” Lai explains. “There are so many characters, so many layers.” Another hurdle came from changes at the acclaimed City Contemporary Dance Company, which is staging the production and of which Lai has been a principal member since 1979. Over the last few years the CCDC has introduced a number of new dancers to the company; half of the 16 dancers appearing in Soledad were new to Lai.
“It’s very different, because I don’t know them so well and it takes time to get to know each other,” she admits. “And to know what they are best at. It’s different, but it’s fun. Two of the young dancers are really good.”
Suart added another dimension by acting in the piece – Lai’s idea. “I wanted him to perform and he chose the character of Melquíades, the gypsy scholar,” she says. The texts he created to perform as the character have added a poetic dimension to the piece that she enjoys.
Lai tries not to go into production with rigid intentions. Rehearsals are collaborative, focused on searching, experimenting and feeling out how a piece should take shape. Perhaps this is why she is fiercely protective of the rehearsal space and doesn’t like outside eyes peering in. Her free style is a marked change from what was expected when she started out teaching routines to dancers for TV.
“In those days it was different. You did the choreography and the dancers followed it,” says Lai. “There wasn’t the creative input we have now.”
Lai’s route into dance was ballet, and she studied under renowned teacher Jean Wong here before heading to London’s Contemporary Dance School. It was while she lived in London and appeared in colleagues’ performances that she realised she didn’t enjoy the limelight. Her first love was always choreography, she says. “I like to create things, not follow orders,” she says, with an impish giggle.
It was that quest that urged her back to Hong Kong. She wasn’t homesick, and she felt no sense of duty to return. What she did sense was opportunity. In the 1970s, the dance world here was minuscule, with only a few semi-professional stage companies, but Lai knew that TV shows needed choreographers. She seized that opportunity. Returning here meant she sidestepped years of having to earn her performance chops, as was custom in the West, and she landed straight into her coveted role of choreographer.
The decision clearly paid off. By 1979, Lai was a founding member of the Hong Kong Ballet for All as well as the CCDC, which formed after founder Willy Tsao, Lai, and a few other passionate dancers used a small studio on the rooftop of the Rainbow Primary school in Wong Tai Sin to stage a first production. She later became CCDC artistic director and resident choreographer. Through a career marked by richly emotive and expressive pieces, her works have been performed globally, from Munich to Mexico. In 2000, the Hong Kong government awarded Lai a Medal of Honour in recognition of her contributions to dance, and she has also been awarded the British Queen’s Certificate and Badge of Honour.
A strong theme in Marquez’s book is fate. With a life that seems to have worked out so serendipitously, does Lai believe in it? “I think that there is fate, but I also believe that people make choices. Your choice leads you to one thing and if you had chosen the other thing it would lead you somewhere else. Maybe you ask, ‘Why did you make that choice? And that’s where the fate part comes in,’ ” she says.
Did she ever think about leaving Hong Kong? “I like the idea of Italy – where there are more handsome men,” she says, a grin sweeping across her face. Jokes aside, Lai says she has been happy working at the CCDC and feels fortunate to have so many friends here.
People say Lai’s work is an extension of her own character, but she’s not sure she agrees. “People said that about Frida [her piece on Mexican artist Frida Kahlo] and about a Tale of Two Cities, which is about Eileen Chang, the author.” She shrugs. “I don’t agree. That’s a part of me, yes, but that’s not about me.”
Not all of her pieces depict Hong Kong, although some have prominently so. In 1997, her now legendary piece Revolutionary Pekinese Opera (Millennium Mix) remarked on residents’ panic in Hong Kong as the handover approached. The piece used mass dance forms mashed together maniacally. Her 2010 production on Eileen Chang for the Shanghai Expo, Tales of Two Cities “told the story of Shanghai and Hong Kong,” Lai said at the time. Another piece, Insomnia, was about the city’s “sleeplessness.” “People here have so much anxiety and they just cannot sleep. It came from my personal experience living in Hong Kong,” she says.
Lai won’t say that Soledad is a direct reflection of life here, but she notices a synchronicity between Marquez’s fictional location, Macondo, which has to accustom itself to European influence, and Hong Kong. Suart’s rusted shipwreck, a large slanted piece that dominates the deep stage at the Kwai Tsing theatre and that Lai says he’d prefer viewed as a sculpture or installation rather than set piece, does suggest a washed-up colonial presence.
“I think at the moment it is very confused,” she says. “There is a sense of helplessness right now, on the one hand. But on the other, you can take that feeling and use it to do something,” she says.
With Soledad less than a week away, the last jigsaw pieces of production are slipping into place. It has become a multi-layered series of moods, motifs and characters inspired by the original book rather than a retelling, she says. There is light with dark. “I didn’t want it to be melancholic or heavy. The book is very fantastical,” she says. But even as the piece finds its focus, she says the audience might not. “I think they may be puzzled,” she says. “Trying to work out who this character is, what’s happening. ” She pauses. “Actually that’s a good reaction. I like that.”
Does Lai get nervous on opening night? She shakes her head. Not since Nine Songs, an early work that debuted in the UK and where she sat in the front row, her nerves so rattled, she thought she might throw up. These days, she feels excitement, because while she never wanted to be a dancer, the thrill of watching dancers work never seems to fade.
Soledad runs from December 11 to 12, 2015, at the Kwai Tsing Theatre, 12 Hing Ning Rd, Kwai Chung, N.T.
Click here for showtimes and ticket information.