Hyoseung Ye in <i>Traces</i> © Keith Hiro
Hyoseung Ye in Traces
© Keith Hiro
Korean dancer-choreographer Hyoseung Ye delivered a profound performance of alienation at the Hong Kong Arts Festival on Saturday, paired with an irresistible pas de deux à trois by the Taiwanese troupe HORSE, making the all-male showcase a miracle of choreographic, musical and theatrical design. 

Ye’s intensely personal piece, Traces, reflects the isolation and culture shock he initially felt upon moving from Korea to France. (He worked with Carolyn Carlson and, later, with Alain Platel in Belgium.) Squarely facing the audience, under a microphone suspended from the rafters, he attempts to introduce himself, but we strain to hear as he mumbles haltingly in French. Frustrated, he lashes out and sends the mic swinging over our heads. He squats, and ravenously wolfs down a sandwich. The exertion – and perhaps the foreignness of the food – makes him vomit.

In an overheated panic, he rips off his shirt and falls to his knees, head bowed. All we see for the next ten minutes are the exquisite heaving of his naked shoulders and back, and the desperate twisting of his tattooed arms, as Antony and the Johnsons croon their perverse, haunting Cripple and the Starfish. Just as the pain expressed in that plaintive anthem morphs into masochistic pleasure, Ye’s lonely terror morphs into something strangely beautiful.

With face and legs obscured, the writhing musculature of his back and arms assumes a magnificence akin to the sleek, sensual power of the headless, legless torsos on exhibit across the plaza at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. These massive wooden sculptures by Tong King-sum “Tempt Touch,” as the collection is labeled.

<i>Gesture</i> 1978 in  pine © Collection of Mrs Tong Chiu Wai-yee, photo courtesyof Hong Kong Museum of Art
Gesture 1978 in pine
© Collection of Mrs Tong Chiu Wai-yee, photo courtesyof Hong Kong Museum of Art

Gradually recovering his sea legs, Ye staggers around the stage. He distorts his body with great control and precision, every movement driven by emotion. We hear the strains of a Chopin waltz – perhaps a neighborhood pianist practicing near an open window. Ye’s voice, humming, is recorded over it, as if the tune stirs a memory. He tries again to communicate – this time in the language of breakdance, with moves like flares and backspins, but deliberately sabotages them.

The pianist, too, is having difficulty learning the piece: a few chords go astray, an elbow slips and hits the keyboard. The waltz trails off. We imagine the frustrated pianist taking a cigarette break, leaning against the keyboard… The lighting dims, and Ye saunters off into the gloom, clutching his sweat-stained shirt, as a few stray notes waft through the air. It's a heartbreaking sequel and counterpoint to Dances at a Gathering, Jerome Robbins’ monumental work that celebrates tribe, and the essence of belonging, also danced to beautiful Chopin waltzes.

2 Men is billed as a duet – created by Taiwanese dancers Chen Wu-kang and Su Wei-chia, in collaboration with Hong Kong writer-director Edward Lam – but it is truly a trio, with the brilliant improvisator Lee Shih-yang seated downstage left at an upright piano stripped of its upper front board. While most of the dance is choreographed, much of the music is improvised, with Lee often playing “inside the piano” – not a prepared piano in the strict sense, but with various manipulations of the piano strings, and use of objects like coins and sticky tape to alter the sound. Lee lulls us into an easy-listening mood, with a few bars from one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, segueing into Jerome Kern’s All the Things You Are. Chen sits next to him, reading aloud from a book an essay that obliquely addresses the question of Taiwanese identity.

(The spoken words are in Mandarin Chinese, which should pose no great challenge to non-speakers. I was given a translation of the spoken words after the performance: while it illuminated certain details of the performers’ histories, and crystallized certain comic and poignant moments, the dance and music conveyed everything we needed to appreciate and fall in love with this fanciful and touching piece.)

Chen Wu-kang and Su Wei-chia in <i>2 Men</i> © Keith Hiro
Chen Wu-kang and Su Wei-chia in 2 Men
© Keith Hiro
While Chen reads and Lee seduces us with his jazz stylings, Su (who resembles a cuddlier incarnation of heavy metal comedian Jack Black) leaps gracefully around the stage – very much like a gazelle, though his stocky build would suggest otherwise – incongruously wielding a badminton racquet. Chen puts down his book. It is his turn to warm up with the unorthodox badminton routine. The two dancers “introduce” each other, though they are actually speaking of themselves while appearing to speak about the other. Chen strips to his Y-fronts – perhaps to highlight the contrast between his physique and Su’s: he is taller, leaner, more handsomely brooding. The pals start to get on each other’s nerves. The piano gets jangly. Suddenly, Su comes down with a mysterious ailment; he appears exhausted, trembling... which worries his friend. The piano worries, too.

The piece is a meditation on male friendship that, remarkably, avoids the trite potholes of bromance, homoeroticism, and warrior culture. It traces the vicissitudes in a long relationship, the give-and-take. The men may reach for imaginary swords, but they don’t draw them. They embrace and, unselfconsciously, dance a slow dance together.

The movement occasionally nods, gracefully, to Eliot Feld (with whom both dancers performed) and once, hilariously, to George Balanchine: the moment in Prodigal Son when the perfidious siren wraps herself around the prodigal’s waist then slides to the ground – only in this case Chen slides down Su’s body, upon which the weary Su sits down on Chen, as if on a bench.

The dancers, seemingly mismatched, mirror each other splendidly in line, dynamics, and attack – whether floating through the air, slamming themselves brutally to the ground, riffling through a barefoot soft-shoe routine, or swimming through a wavy kind of Tai Chi ballet. Lee on the piano alternately taunts and cradles them. At the close, he returns to the lovely strains of All the Things You Are, as Chen and Su engage in a vigorous badminton game. At the final chord, the shuttlecock goes flying into the audience. Cue blackout, to audible sighs of delight from the spectators.