Six rooms, six performers, three hours. That’s Six Mouths, the annual performance of contemporary dance group Unlock Dancing Plaza, which will occur this weekend in Ma Tau Kok’s Cattle Depot Artist Village. It’s a show with two central themes, explains Joseph Lee, Unlock’s associate artistic director. Audience autonomy is one. The 60 to 70 people attending each performance can wander freely between the six rooms, staying as little or long as they like in each of them, or even leaving the venue altogether. Food is the other. The show’s Chinese title, “品品” (ban2 ban2), shows those six mouths (hau2 口); it’s an archaic word for tasting, but one that nicely captures how people are likely to experience the work as they swap one performer for another.
To perform Six Mouths, its creator, KT Yau, has brought in a playwright and a theatre director alongside four dancers, one of whom is also a tattoo artist. “The six have very different backgrounds,” she says. “Putting them each in their own room was a way of enabling me to enter and leave their individual worlds freely.” The audience can do the same. “You have the freedom to stay or move between the different rooms in any sequence you like. But I want your choice [to] be conscious – how long will you be staying for a person?”
Whether there will be dance remains to be seen. Certainly there will be talking, says Lee. And movement. And music. “But their backgrounds are really diverse. Their performances will be really difficult to define.” Of course, questioning ideas of performance and purpose have long stood at the heart of contemporary dance. And it’s no surprise that even movement itself may end up playing second fiddle to other ideas. Yet what takes Unlock a little further off the beaten path are the various ways in which it is supplementing the exploration of novel ways of presenting shows with creating spaces in which other people, including non-dancers, are made central to the group’s work.
The group’s founder, Malaysian-born Ong Yong Lock, came to Hong Kong aged 20 in 1989. For the next several years he worked first with the Hong Kong Dance Company and City Contemporary Dance Company. Lock set up Unlock in 2002. Eight years later, when it received its first significant round of funding from the Arts Development, it moved into its current base, a commercial unit in an industrial building in San Po Kong.
Although Lock is still the group’s artistic director, his principal interest nowadays is dance outreach, working on community projects and education workshops with children and other amateurs. “How [can we] make everyone [feel] like they are dancing?” he asks. “In Unlock’s context, dance is beyond beautiful gestures. If we can establish a ‘friendly’ relationship with our bodies and let go of certain kinds of styles or imaginations, we can all dance freely.”
His current projects include “Body in Time”, a year-long collaboration with the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and Sai Kung district council to offer workshops to elderly people that will eventually end with a show, tentatively scheduled for October this year. That leaves Lee running Unlock’s artistic and professional development. These comprise a diverse range of projects: curating the workshops, showings and talks of the group’s various Open Research Weeks, overseeing its annual Danceless festival and organising its overseas artists’ residencies.
Unlike most dance companies, Unlock has no dancers or resident choreographers of its own. Instead, it is structured around a small body of full-time staff—half a dozen in total, plus two interns—whose main task is to facilitate collaborations with others. One great advantage of this approach is the flexibility it allows the group – it can work with whoever it wants. It also helps Unlock overcome the problem that when it comes to dance Hong Kong remains a small city, dominated by the dancers and other artists and performers trained at the Academy for Performing Arts. One outcome of this, says Lee, is that “people may not actually be doing quite the same things, but they tend to share similar aesthetics.”
And so, perhaps most importantly, it allows Unlock to pursue diversity, be that by working more with artists from other countries, as is the focus of its Danceless festival, which in non-Covid years brings five groups of dancers to Hong Kong from overseas, or having performers from other disciplines, as is happening with the involvement of two street dancers in its “Dance-to-be” emerging choreographers platform, another part of its Unlock Body Lab programme.
This is where Lee’s side of Unlock overlaps with Lock’s work. “What aligns the community side and the professional side of our work is that in both we’re thinking about alternatives for education and alternatives for performance and creation,” says Lee. Clearly there is no question of rejecting dance in all this. “That’s the thing we use, the skill we have. The question is how to [use it to] communicate and how to appreciate others, how to develop empathy,” he says.
But there are questions that need to be asked about how artists should approach sharing their expertise with others. “When we talk about dance education, usually we think that means artists bringing their own practice to the public to teach them how to dance,” he says. I think we’re quite different in terms of how we see education, with less of that traditional hierarchy in terms of teaching and engaging the public. It’s not about teaching them steps or a style, but about stimulating them, provoking their thoughts, and so allowing their creativity to be shown in a performance.”
Ultimately, says Lee, “we’re not teaching them how to dance, but expanding their imagination. What we value is how creativity can empower people.” Perhaps this explains why Unlock is happy to hand over its annual showpiece to someone who’s not a member of the company, and who in turn brings in people who aren’t performers, let alone dancers. “Six Mouths aligns with our philosophy in that KT can bring in a drama director to be in a dance performance because that’s what she believes will lead to different performativity,” he says. “We’re no longer talking about dance or technique, but what gives diversity to the idea of what a performance can be.”