a love letter to helen lai

In late September, Ben and I spent 10 days in Hong Kong. Hong Kong exploded into international prominence as a kind of libertarian wonderland: no taxes, free trade, all gateway, no fee. The results, then, are not surprising: the life of the city revolves around working all the time to make lots of money, and in your brief spare time, spending that money so when you go back to work, you can show off. We found ourselves in malls even when we were consciously avoiding them, because every building had one. Terrible pollution problems, that they are only now starting to solve. Not much of an idea of civic responsibility or identity or funding. Most of the public spaces and public art are designed by or part of corporate structures.

So of course, it’s the last place I would have expected to see some fantastic live performance.

Enter the City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC), a Hong Kong modern dance company. We saw Silver Rain, a retrospective of their 25-year history. I’ll get the hyperbolic superlatives out of the way: it was easily the finest live dance performance I’ve ever seen, and certainly in the top ten live performances I’ve ever seen. Watch the clips, they’re just fantastic.

And one choreographer stood out: Helen Lai.

She’s choreographed a piece that combines figure ice skating with tango (sounds just wrong, I know, but the excerpt with two men tangoing was delightful and witty and sexy and perfect). She did a stunning piece about SARS that had dancers in gas masks, carrying suitcases filled with dirt, watching TV, tossing their suitcases and then dropping themselves into a hole in the ground. One excerpt, from “The Comedy of K,” featured a series of dancers coming onstage in suits, removing those suits, and then flying onto and doing absurdly athletic moves and bounces and slips and turns on and around and through a iron-framed twin bed.

Every piece she choreographed was athletic; theatrical; fiercly and complexly feminist and political; utterly unselfconscious about gender bending and genre mixing; precise in its dancerly technique and storytelling. It was just some of the smartest staging and choreography I’ve ever seen.

If this is an exercise in writing, with specificity and passion, about a production I liked, I’m probably failing. But it certainly has set the bar very high in terms of dance.

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