²There appeared to be no dancers onstage in the Hong Kong Arts Festival’s Contemporary Dance Series Programme 1. The evening comprised two works – the first populated by an arctic seabird, the second by a six-man tech crew.

Wayson Poon in <i>Fleeing by Night</i> © Keith Hiro
Wayson Poon in Fleeing by Night
© Keith Hiro

Then there was the little battery-operated donkey.

Launched in 2012 with the support of the city’s leading philanthropic organization, the Hong Kong Jockey Club, this series offers a platform for emerging choreographers, who present their work at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre’s Studio Theatre. For one week a year, this 300-seater black box may well be the hottest venue for experimental dance in the region.

Clad in a starkly chic ensemble of white trousers and layered jacket, Wayson Poon opened the evening with Fleeing By Night². Programme notes refer to a scene from The Tale of the Sword, a famous Chinese opera. In this scene, Lin Chong, head of the imperial guards, who had been persecuted by a rival and exiled, escapes to a rebel hide-out in Liangshan Mountain.

The piece opens with Poon frozen in a twisted backbend on the glacial surface of a tightly stretched white fabric, while superb lighting effects and the bleak environmental sounds of Ólafur Arnalds rain down on him like a winter storm. Gripped by fear, he explores the alien territory, with movement vocabulary that evokes Beijing opera techniques, like flowing “sleeve skills,” as well as a range of skittish contemporary moves that give his wiry, angular frame the appearance of some kind of snowy white shorebird or arthropod.

There is a lot of business with layers of fabric that cover the floor, one of which is winched up to form a backdrop for abstract video projections by artist Vvzela Kook. These summon up a volcanic eruption, ice formations, and other wintry artifacts of nature. They also recall the work of the Korean monochrome painters currently on display at Art Central Hong Kong – in particular, Chung Sang-hwa’s serenely hypnotic, painstakingly crafted canvasses, which glisten with multiple textures and sheens.

Fleeing By Night² simply trails off, however, and the anguished eloquence of Poon’s movement failed to move me. The lack of dramatic arc and the unvarying quality of torment in the movement made this half-hour rather heavy going.

Wung Tan-ki and Rain Chan Pak-hin in <i>The Trouble-maker's Concerto</i> © Keith Hiro
Wung Tan-ki and Rain Chan Pak-hin in The Trouble-maker's Concerto
© Keith Hiro
To our somewhat fogged brains, Justyne Li Sze-yeung and Wong Tan-ki’s The Trouble-maker’s Concerto came as a tonic – a model of clarity and wit. The self-effacing conceit takes us into the theatre during preparations for a performance. A tech crew in their black uniforms are feverishly taping down the marley flooring, maneuvering props and equipment. A radio suddenly picks up the frequency of a classical station playing a Bach Toccata and Fugue. The music infects the crew like a virus; their movement develops rhythm, patterns and whimsy as they continue their technical tasks.

In the frenzied, ornate mopping of the marley, which takes on qualities of the Dying Swan, Li picks up a stray bolt. The crew fixate on the provenance of this bolt; they surmise that it is integral to some piece of equipment, which they must identify in order to prevent a technical meltdown during performance.

Hilarious sequences that make a profound comment on the nature of fame include an interview with a celebrity choreographer who spouts nonsense, attired in a raffish all-white outfit that recalls Kanye West’s recent blunders into fashion design. Then there’s the solo for the dancing toy donkey (purchased on the streets of Guangzhou for a few dollars), behind which the crew imitate its movement like a corps de ballet.

Sandwiched between the Bach Toccata and Fugue and his Air on a G String, the ingenious score includes the French vocal acrobatics of Habib Julien and the voice of a stage manager calmly calling out lighting cues amid the frenzy onstage.

At one point, Li staggers on from the wings, dragging an enormous bolt that dwarfs her petite frame: the Bolt has assumed mythic proportions, as the crew evidently has not managed to find its home. (This story element recalls Lopukhov and Shostakovich’s satirical ballet The Bolt – about a disgruntled factory worker, who attempts to sabotage his factory by tossing a bolt into the machinery – which the Soviets banned after one performance.) 

A cue is broadcast to strike the set, which the crew perform with astonishing speed. Li lags behind her colleagues, weighed down by the damn Bolt. She limps off into the wings. We think the piece is over.

But, in the blackout, here they come again, this time wielding tiny flashlights. No other lighting effects are employed in this scene. Thus, the crew are seen only in flashes and arcs of light as they dash around, busily doing God-knows-what.

At one point, the dancing donkey is faintly visible on stage, doing his thing. Seconds later, the flashlights illuminate what appear to be hundreds of his comrades scattered around the stage – the effect is menacing and comic at the same time. Moments later, they’re gone. (That is one hell of an efficient stage crew.) Set to a sensual cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence by Polish singer Ania, this scene is spellbinding, but feels out of place. It would fit better as an opening to the piece, a mysterious introduction to the crew.

The meticulous planning that went into The Trouble-maker’s Concerto was obvious from the split-second timing and virtuosity of its execution. It was not simply a technical triumph, however, but a fascinating forensic accounting of what it takes to make art.