If you think a Chinese dance performance means coquettish girls held taut by cheongsam and shuffling behind fans across the stage, think again – at least when it comes to the Hong Kong Dance Company. In Storm Clouds, the company’s visually striking new performance, which shows this weekend, two male leads brandish swords, spin, kick and leap with the power of Bruce Lee.
An adaptation of a hugely popular comic series called The Storm Riders, a 700-chapter epic created by Hong Kong artist Ma Wing-shing in the 1980s, Storm Clouds brings the ancient Chinese tradition of martial arts to the stage. In the story, two children grow up under the guardianship of a powerful and evil clan head, the Lord Conqueror. Named Wing and Cloud, the boys become mighty martial artists, and as they fight to win love of The Lord’s bewitching daughter, turn against each other in fierce rage. Swords clash as Wind and Cloud scuffle, while beneath them water is used to dramatic effect, spraying from their feet in streams as they battle and captured by the stage lights in a beautiful spectacle. (Come prepared to get wet if you have seats in the first three rows.)
It may seem at odds to blend martial arts with dance, but the two ancient art forms have evolved around each other over thousands of years, and their roots can be traced to the very origins of Chinese performance. The Chinese Cantonese word for dance (mou5 舞) is thought to have come from the ancient word for shaman or sorcerer (mou4 巫). Classical Chinese dance may have mimicked a sorcerer’s stomping body as he divined on the gods, or the shaking and revelry as a message was received. And the way that you say dance mou5 dou6 (舞蹈) or mou5 wui6 (舞会) also shares the same stem word heard in martial art – mou5 seot6 (武术).
Another word is shared between them too: art. “Although we may think of kung fu as a fighting tool, it is much more an art form,” says Storm Clouds director Yang Yuntao, just as dance is. Kung fu did not originally refer to a type of martial art but instead defined the study and repeated practice of a skill and can still be used to describe repetitive elements used to strengthen mind and body. Calligraphy can also be classed as a type of kung fu, for instance.
As well-trod classical dances moved from the Chinese courts of the emperors into theatres to be shared by the public they changed and evolved just as martial arts expanded into hundreds of different fighting styles, each inspired from philosophy, legend and beliefs. But even today they share similarities in the flick of the wrists, hand and feet positioning, and kicks and spins that have borrowed from each other through the folds of time. Tai chi retains many of the same movements seen in Chinese dance performance today, says Yang.
When Yang began learning the techniques of Martha Graham – often hailed the founder of modern dance — and incorporated them into his own training, he was surprised to discover that techniques she developed in the 1930s where based on strategies the Chinese had been practising for centuries. For Western audiences, her technique of focusing on breathing and muscle tension to create an emotional movement was seen as new and revolutionary.
Graham’s ideal was mindfulness between breath and the body. In Chinese tradition, this is commonly known by its Mandarin name, qi (hei3 氣). Yang found the techniques familiar, recognisable from the core of the Chinese dance classes he’d taken for years. “We talk a lot about the diaphragm for control,” he explains. “You cannot sustain any level of dance without breathing like this,” he says. “They also taught it. I was surprised because we have always known it.” Qi is fundamental to kung fu too, and it only takes a walk to Victoria Park at dawn to watch the tai chi practitioners there to understand.
While this history is deep within and integral to any Chinese dance performance, Storm Clouds feels thoroughly modern. Eddy Mok’s vibrant costume and wigs outfit the dancers in a painterly anime-style reminiscent of the original comics, and Lee Che-yi’s driving electronic score is complimented by digital images in the set.
Yang is quick to point out that Storm Clouds merely interprets martial arts through dance, but the dance moves feel authentic, the action high energy and dramatic with elements that lean towards film. At one point, the company’s dancers underpin the brother’s passion and intensity as they leap and swing across the stage by bungee ropes. The technique will be familiar to kung fu movies fans everywhere, as well as anyone that watched Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
The bungees are a feat that has taken quite some practice. In 2014, when Storm Clouds was first shown, it won Hong Kong Dance Awards for outstanding achievements in music, male dance performance and production. Now Yang is hoping to up those triumphs with the show’s return. The bungee scene was popular last time round, but deemed too small, with just two dancers involved. For 2016, six have been employed in these scenes and each is required to grasp one knotted end of the stretchy rope and use his own bodyweight to create the momentum to leap and bound. Hitting targets is the big difficulty. Yang wanted to keep the piece full of drama and bombastic movement, making it accessible to those that rarely, if ever, choose to view dance. He hopes rope swinging is one way to do that.
It’s not all fight scenes. In the midst of the story’s central love triangle, caught between Wind and Cloud, is Hung Chi. Hers is a story of jealousy, passion and scheming, and while she might occasionally appear coquettish, watching her being tossed and thrown between the two boys feels as unlike a traditional fan dance as anything.
Storm Clouds runs from June 24 to 26, 2016 at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.