舞蹈手札 June 10, 2020 | 文 Text：陳瑋鑫 William Chan; 翻譯 Translation: Tiffany Wong
誠然，由於香港一直缺乏針對表演研究的專門學系與研究傳統，業界內擁有相關學術研究經驗的人也不多，故暫時難以寄望可以在短時間內做出如Phillip Zarrilli教授的成績。但多困難的事情，也必須要有一個開始，香港舞蹈團這個三年研究計劃就率先在這方面作出嘗試。一眾出身自舞蹈訓練的專業舞者，自2018年開始，投入一個體現式研究（Embodied Research）過程，在學習南方武術不同套路之時，就著每人的身體經驗與感知，不斷作出反思與詰問，並以文字持續記錄，朝著探索與舞蹈表演及編創的轉化可能這個方向去進行。
[ENG] Developing physical expressions through martial arts
Findings and observations from a new research study on dance and martial arts
Chinese martial arts have a long history, with countless schools, techniques, weapons and routines. Many movements and elements from Chinese martial arts have seeped into different kinds of performing arts, but seldom do we see any systematic analysis on this kind of transformation, especially not within Chinese (traditional) dance studies. The ongoing Research study on Chinese martial arts and Chinese dance by the Hong Kong Dance Company attempts to analyse and reflect on martial arts routines from the perspective of dancers’ bodies and experience through the methodology of practising Southern Chinese martial arts. This is followed up by dancers carrying out creative research.
About physicality studies on martial arts and dance
A classic example of cross studies between martial arts and dance is the work of Professor Phillip Zarrilli, who passed away in late April this year, and who developed an actors’ training method that unites the mind and the body drawing on the fundamentals of yoga and Asian martial arts. In his early years, Professor Zarrilli studied performance and practised Tai Chi in America. In the late 1970s, he spent seven years in Southern India, first learning the Kathakali dance genre, and then, tracing it back to its origins, studying Kalaripayattu, a traditional martial art also originating from Southern India. Finally, he combined insights from his seven years in India with his knowledge of yoga to develop a set of effective performance training procedures, principles and methods.
Frankly speaking, since Hong Kong lacks a professional school and research culture specifically dedicated to performance studies, and few people in the industry are experienced in relevant academic research, it would be mere wishful thinking to assume we could achieve results comparable to Professor Zarrilli’s within a short time. Yet, however difficult the task may be, we need to start somewhere and the Hong Kong Dance Company is making a first attempt by embarking on this 3-year research project. Starting from 2018, a group of professionally trained dancers have participated in an Embodied Research -- as they learn the routines of Southern Chinese martial arts, they continuously reflect upon and question their physical experiences and perceptions. On top of that, they keep track of their progress in writing and explore the possibilities of transforming what they have learnt into dance and choreography.
In traditional academic research methodologies, we usually establish a research question first, then find our research focus by investigating relevant archives and discoveries from studies in the past. After in-depth analysis and dialectical process, we express our understanding and findings as conclusions. However, in the methodology of Embodied Research under Practice-as-Research, the emphasis is more on self-scrutiny, experience and observation. The final presentation might not be the most important stage -- rather the greatest value lies in the process itself.
Workshop fragments of the Research ; Photo provided by Hong Kong Dance Company
Initial explorations in the first two stages
Among the dancer-cum-research-associates in this project, only a minority had briefly practised martial arts. For most, it was the first time they had come across Southern Chinese martial arts. Hence they all found it exhausting at the beginning to practise several different schools of martial arts within a short time. Do not be misled into believing that professional dancers or dance majors must be experts at memorizing movements and should not have much difficulty learning new routines. Their martial arts training was not as smooth as might be imagined, as movements of the martial arts involve ways of transition, rhythm and exerting power that differ quite significantly from normal dance practices.
According to participating dancers’ research records in the first two stages, taking Choy Lee Fat as an example, during routine practice, performers have to be aware of the point of force exertion from their muscles, the path of their movements and the final burst of power. The practice stresses the explosive and unexpected nature of this burst of power, which enables the practitioner to strike directly and knock down the opponent without warning. If there is any preparatory movement, the opponent may easily see through your tactics and hit back. Chinese Dance movements, on the contrary, very often involve a lot of preparatory movement, such as retreating before going forward, going right before going left, going down first if desiring to go up, closing first if planning to open. These movements are linked with isolation as coordination, without any specific pursuit of speed. Also, the frequent elongation of the body and the addition of ornamental, performative moves emphasize long lines and perfect movement transitions. Therefore, when dancers practise martial arts, it is necessary for them to get rid of their inherent physical habits, to learn to eliminate stylized and extraneous movements in order to satisfy the martial arts goals of defending oneself as well as beating back one’s opponents.
Besides, to achieve sufficient speed and power during routine practice, it is necessary to coordinate the whole body to exert force, shift the centre of gravity and the body level. Dancers have to adapt to these new ways of exerting force and shifting weight, thus developing muscle combinations different from those used in dance. However, after having these concrete physical experiences, dancers, with their sensitivity towards movement, joints and muscles, can draw on their dance experience to analyse and compare the practice of dance with martial arts from multiple angles, building the foundations for the creative work in the third stage of the project.
Martial arts practice as the foundation of research
Although some dancers/research associates faced various difficulties in picking up martial arts in the first two stages, such as finding it awkward to memorize movements, lacking fluency and strength in action sequences and so on, the majority have persisted. The bodies of those who joined in the middle of the project also displayed gradual transformations after regular revision and practice. As the project has entered its final stage, most of them have achieved an above average performance level in martial arts. One or two research associates have even participated in martial arts competitions, having further exchange with other martial arts practitioners.
As opposed to the body training and movement studies they are used to when preparing for one specific dance piece, the dancers have had to put extra time and effort into this project, to set aside their normal dancer/choreographer mentality, gain better understanding of the martial arts and thus try to extract different elements from their practice of Southern Chinese martial arts and present them in the form of dance. During the research process, they have also had to continuously reflect and make notes, as if they were back to being students.
It is still very hard to anticipate at this stage what the end results and conclusions of the project will be. Dancers are still actively exploring and discussing. As this is the company’s first attempt at conducting this kind of performance research study, they are all feeling their way, advancing step by step. Nonetheless, after hearing a few of the participants talk about their goals at the creation stage, I feel that they have a clear research direction and am looking forward to seeing their final presentations.
Between Dance and Martial Arts; Photo provided by Hong Kong Dance Company
Applying martial arts elements flexibly in choreography
In their “performance” this September, the audience will not see dancers performing martial arts routines on stage; rather, they will see experimental dance pieces incorporating elements drawn from martial arts. These include a duet based on the White Crane style which experiments with the change of power in a confrontation; the creation of repetitive moves combining physical elements from martial arts with Chinese dance or contemporary dance techniques; and the exploration of the relationship between weight, emotion and space through 10 movements.
Apart from experiments analysing external physical techniques, another research direction at this stage is exploring how to achieve a certain internal mental state. Could the heightened concentration and the changes in mental state experienced while practising martial arts also be achieved in dance performances, inspire novel and different patterns of movement, or even eventually lead to developing a unique dance style? These are topics worth investigating.
Taiwanese companies have had notable success in integrating martial arts into their physical training, as well as their methodology for creating choreography. Companies such as Cloud Gate Dance Theatre and U-Theatre Taiwan have adopted Tai Chi as part of their dancers’ basic training, and have gradually built their unique performance styles. This development did not happen overnight. We have yet to see what inspiration the dancers and choreographers of the Hong Kong Dance Company, who are continuously dedicated to the development of contemporary Chinese dance, may take from the local Lingnan martial arts in their efforts to create new types of movement.
Research Study on Chinese Martial Arts and Chinese Dance — Results presentation and Performance
Date: 27.9.2020 (Sun)
Venue: Freespace, Art Park, West Kowloon Cultural District
For event and performance details, please stay tuned to “Research study on Chinese martial arts and Chinese dance” Facebook page and announcements on westkowloon.hk
(English Translation by Tiffany Wong)
Text: William Chan
William Chan is a performing arts critic, theatre director and media producer, currently focusing on performing arts research and education.