Total Freedom: “You and You” Brings Hong Kong Dancers Together

It’s towards the end of a conversation with Christian Rizzo that our attention turns to the notion of structure. And more specifically, how it applies to the open studio session the famed French choreographer and artist has only had a few weeks to help conjure out of nothing much more than a few general thoughts. “I’m trying just to create the time and space that the people can be free [in],” he says.

And that gets us thinking immediately about how structure accounts for so much of life here in Hong Kong, and about what challenges that poses in terms of the city shifting towards its proposed role as a cultural hub. We are surrounded by physical structures, and there is continuous construction lining the harbourfront outside the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA), as there is elsewhere, and it frames our landscape as the physical shape of the city evolves. 

Then there is the simple matter of the structures laid down for everyday life in what must rate among the most organised cities on the planet – and that’s part of what makes Rizzo’s work on a 60-minute session titled You and You and You and Me and You and Us and You so intriguing. How might we react if all the structures that surround our lives were taken away, and we were allowed complete freedom of movement and creativity?

There’s a definite and mischievous glint in the 58-year-old Rizzo’s eye when he says that, for You and You, he wants his dancers to do exactly that — to escape the strictures of their normal lives — as they prepare for a session on Thursday that comes under the banner of Dance Reflections by Van Cleef & Arpels, and forms part of the 2023 edition of the French May Arts Festival.  

The official line is that Rizzo has proposed “a choreographic creation process echoing” the work of video artist Sophie Laly, and that the pair has invited local dancers into “an individual and collective creative research, which culminates in a final public presentation that fuses visual art and choreographic elements.” In layman’s terms, Rizzo and Laly have joined with eight dancers here inside the HKAPA to create something out of nothing. And they’ve given themselves three weeks to do it.

“We never start from nothing,” Rizzo explains. “We’re starting from the space, where we are, the moments we have to share, to be together, to try to understand who we are. So it’s already a lot of things. Of course, it’s not formed but already I think everybody’s brought his own story or her own story, perspective, and desire. I’m trying just to create that time and space, and also to allow them to think about themselves through what’s happening. For the audience, too, we are not creating a piece, we are just creating a moment to do all that.”

The Frenchman has priors when it comes to disrupting our commonly — or traditionally — held perceptions of performance. His career has shifted from rock star to fashionista to choreographer, visual artist and curator. This interdisciplinary nature of this project reflects that legacy of creative freedom. Rizzo has recruited Hong Kong dancers from all corners of Hong Kong’s arts community. The cast includes independent dance artists Wong Pik-kei, Yang Hao and Joseph Lee, Ma Renjie and Irene Lo from the Hong Kong Ballet, and Ji Jie, Pan Tong and Wayson Poon from the HKAPA’s School of Dance MFA Program. They have been given a unique opportunity to work together, and to be freed from any constraints — either real or imagined — they might feel working under the usual structure that comes with their day-to-day careers. Some ideas will work. Others, maybe not.

“This is something that is exciting, and doesn’t really happen,” explains Lee. “The cast, for me, is exceptional. For me, we don’t usually work with, for example, Hong Kong Ballet dancers. Even for the independent artists, we haven’t actually performed together, so this is quite an exciting combination.”

For his part, Rizzo has welcomed the possibility that not all suggestions might be the right ones. “Perhaps it’s nice also to have things which are not working because we are not in the perspective that we are building an object for the art market,” he says. “It’s just an experience, so perhaps we can allow ourselves to present things which are not working, but are work, it’s still about the work.”

The process behind You and You formally began around three weeks ago, but the concept was first conceived when Rizzo hosted a series of workshops over Zoom last year, when he was in Paris and Hong Kong was still under pandemic restrictions. Rizzo says he started then to think about how to “reactivate” artists who had been “robbed of interaction for three years.”

The first step in the evolution of You and You has been for Laly to film the dancers, individually and in close up, as they react to watching a video highlight reel of a selection of Rizzo’s previous works. Then they were filmed as they expressed the initial reaction they felt: in dance. The audience “can’t imagine what they are looking at,” says Laly, as all they will see on screen are the reactions on the faces of the dancers, not what the dancers were actually watching. Meanwhile, the footage of them dancing will float across the screen “like they are ghosts.”

Over the past few weeks, Rizzo has first met with each dancer, engaging with them in dance and in conversation, then split them into two groups of four that have either rehearsed in the mornings or afternoons, before they all came together, just last Friday, for their first rehearsal as a group.

A day earlier, in a rehearsal room at the HKAPA, one of those two initial groups of four workshopped their movements. The four dancers started in separate corners of the room, to a soundtrack that was part electronic beat and part the sounds of a gathering storm. They moved as individuals at first, swirling at times, then becoming still, then seemingly drawn together like the vortex of a storm. It was fluid and it seemed — looking on — to be a completely natural process.

All the while Rizzo sat on the floor, transfixed, smiling broadly and making small movements with his hands. He joined the group at the end with a few suggestions, rather than commands, and there was laughter and the sense was most definitely that this was a work in progress – and that the process was being thoroughly enjoyed.

For the artists involved, the process has been liberating. The hope ahead is that the audience will feel the same way. One of the performers, Joseph Lee, associate artistic director of Unlock Dancing Plaza, is more used to leading the experimentation than being guided through it. There’s the thrill, he says, of sharing the same physical space with a disparate group of artists, and of sharing “different realities.”

Lee says that, after the first rehearsal that brought all eight artists together,  there was a focus on not looking to match movements with other performers, allowing improvisation to speak for itself, and on giving the audience the freedom to “create images for themselves.” He says “there was an important reminder for us to be really present in the task itself, and not to think about trying to look good from the outside.”

It all comes down to an expression of self, says another performer, Wong Pik-kei, describing it as a shift from the usual focus on the energy of movement and has resulted in her questioning what exactly it means for a performer to actually “go inside a space.” Yang Hao describes it as “a lot like writing poetry. You put a lot of words together, they are usually not associated with each other or used in terms of context. Then each person [the audience] can assign them meaning.”

The performance continues the conversation Rizzo is having with Hong Kong, about the city’s relationship to its art, through his workshops and his work such as this performance and the ones he has previously staged at the Freespace at West Kowloon. “I’m sure it’s the beginning of something,” he says. “I’m not a magician but I feel energy. And when I’m talking with artists, with some producers, also that it [feels like] something is happening here. So how can we also add to it? What is the real perspective and the future of the consideration of art today? It seems to me, hopefully, we are all asking ourselves the same thing.” 

You and You and You and Me and You and Us and You will be performed on May 18, 2023. Click here for more information.

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