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Theater without boundaries

DANNY Yung says artists should cross boundaries, go back and forth, and experiment. Some say the controversial Hong Kong director is a genius, some call him a traitor. Liu Qi reports.

A white feather falls from the sky into the hands of a little girl. She asks a boatman to take her to find the bird that lost the beautiful feather. Waving his water sleeves, the boatman "sets sail" and starts singing Kunqu Opera about the deteriorating environment.

The traditional singing is a slow, powerful lament. The backdrop is an animated sequence of destroyed nature and accelerating urban construction.

This 20-minute centerpiece performance at the World Expo's Japan Pavilion is the story of saving the precious crested ibis from extinction in Japan in the 1980s with the help of China. The show itself is a cross-cultural fusion of China's Kunqu Opera, a 600-year-old art form, and Japan's Noh theater, a 14th-century tradition that exemplifies the sensibility of a transitory world.

"Actually it's more Kunqu," said Shanghai-born Danny Yung, the man behind this experimental show performed daily. "Yes, there are Noh elements, but because the Kunqu skills are so powerful, the Noh part becomes subdued."

Yung, a pioneer in experimental art, is one of the most dynamic and controversial cultural figures in Asia. Some call him the godfather of Hong Kong's arts and culture. Some critics call him too radical, someone who undermines traditional Chinese theater arts. "Fouling his own nest" is how one Hong Kong critic describes his work.

"Stage is where everything can be discussed; without this it's just meaningless" - this sums up Yung's approach.

As a director, producer, artist and curator, Yung is known worldwide for his experimental theater that breaks down preconceptions and challenges the audience - they have to "work" for their theater. Some spectators are utterly bewildered, even shocked because these are not feel-good, sit-back-and-enjoy pieces.

Multi-talented and wide-ranging in his interests, Yung works in cartoon art, installation art, video and performing arts of various kinds. He holds American degrees in architecture (University of California, Berkeley) and urban planning (Columbia University). He lived in the United States for 18 years, returning to Hong Kong in 1979, shortly after the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) ended.

His enduring passion and latest theatrical challenge - some call it sacrilege - is deconstructing traditional Chinese opera and mixing it up: removing the elaborate costumes, taking off the makeup, eliminating the props, fancy backdrops and the powerful music.

Yung's modern takes on ancient tales are often performed on stark sets, by actors in modern clothes, who sing opera using classical hand gestures and body movements.

Yung once also asked his lead Peking Opera character to perform naked, except for a bit of underwear.

Instead of the traditional casting of men in female (dan) roles, Yung once asked an actress to play the part of a famous male dan Peking Opera actor - and then dress in women's opera costume. A woman playing a man playing a woman.

At last year's Hong Kong Arts Festival, Yung's experimental "Book of Ghosts" mesmerized the audience by combining Chinese (Kunqu and Peking operas) and Southeast Asian traditional arts (Thai dance and classical Javanese dance) - while interestingly taking ghosts as a metaphor for oppressed artists. All actors performed ghost stories from their own cultures.

"Many people feel confused about why I presented Chinese opera at the Japan Pavilion, since most pavilions promote their own culture," he said in an interview with Shanghai Daily.

"For me, the Expo is a very important platform for cross-cultural exchange, and to do cross-cultural collaboration is to set up a very strategic positioning of what the Expo can do for culture," Yung explain. Through the show, Yung demonstrates linkages and bridge-building: between Japan and China; between the oldest forms of art and the next generation; between art and technology.

Born in 1943 in Shanghai, Yung moved to Hong Kong with his family when he was five years old. At the age of 17, he moved to the United States.

In 1979, he returned to Hong Kong with his first one-man cartoon exhibition. Since then he has actively been involved in all aspects of art.

He initiated several art networks in Asia, including Asia Arts Net, Chinese City-to-City Cultural Forum and the Asia-Pacific Performing Arts Network. He was appointed chairman of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council in 1993, a post he held for a number of years.

But his real passion is Zuni Icosahedron, the non-profit, avant-garde arts collective that he founded in 1982, a time when Hong Kong's cultural atmosphere was less than vibrant.

The Zuni are a tribe of Native Americans famous for crafts using turquoise. An icosahedron is a three-dimensional shape with 20 faces "bearing a strong infectious character," and influencing each other, Yung said.

Zuni Icosahedron has worked internationally with performing artists, art education efforts and youth festivals.

But at the very beginning Zuni charged only HK$1 (13 US cent).

"For 1 HK dollar, everybody came," Yung said, laughing. "Actually we were challenging the concept of membership. So why not? If you don't want to be dominated by the economic norm." There were around 4,000 members at the time.

For Yung, the year 1984 was a turning point for both him and Zuni. It was a time in Hong Kong when there were lots of midnight shows.

"At 12am, you could go see a movie, and usually those who went to the theater were very violent. If they didn't like the movie, they would take out their knives. It was kind of a cult," Yung recalled.

Then the Hong Kong Art Center asked Yung, "Would you like to try it?" Why not?

"It was the year when 1997 (Hong Kong's return to China's sovereignty) was being discussed. Midnight was kind of a line, when you crossed 12am, the frog turns into prince, or the prince turns into frog," Yung mused.

For the four consecutive nights - from 11:30pm to 12:30am - the shows, a mixture of everything (drama, dance, music, poetry), were completely booked. "It was incredible," Yung recalled. "We named the show 'Opium War,' because that was the founding of Hong Kong. We discussed what is war and what is an island; what is Hong Kong and what is the whole idea of discovering a place."

On the last night, Yung turned the tables and invited spectators on stage - and the whole theater, stage and seating, became a performance area.

Soon the Hong Kong Art Center's management, clearly rattled, said it was too dangerous to let the audience on the stage. Then they cut the lights and power and disappeared.

"We sort of performed in the dark, but we carried on," Yung recalled. "At the end of the show, wow, all the performers and spectators were so excited because it was about redefining what theater is all about and redefining what an art center should be.

"I have to say the stage is a place of possibilities, a place to learn, collectively together," Yung said.

In the early days Zuni attracted a lot of very experimental people who later became very popular. Yung cites theater director Edward Lam, singer-actor Anthony Wong and composer-writer Wyman Wong.

Yung said many people call him narcissistic.

"Of course I'll still keep on doing my things. I'm not going to do a music video for Faye Wong or any of the young pop stars."

Yung constantly shuttles among Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing.

He's curious about people's reaction to his Kungqu Opera "Flee by Night" to be performed in October in Shanghai.

"There's already buzz among a certain group of people. Some who know about it want to see it. So I'm always thinking of how I continue this interactive experience (with them) in an unconventional way," he said.

The Shanghai Drama Art Center has also asked him to attend a university workshop at that time, involving 400 students and professionals interested in experimentation.

"I asked how students would respond and the art director said, 'They will not understand what you're talking about'," Yung recalled, bursting into laughter.

"He was being honest, but it's still necessary. A dialogue between us is necessary. For me, it's a challenge, but I'll take it up," Yung said.

Just as he did decades ago.

Contemporary artists

Today's artists are not very creative because they are too dominated by the market, everything is money-oriented.

There are always people following the market, that's OK, just let them follow the market. But there must also be a percentage of people who are looking for something more serious.

You don't need the whole 1.3 billion people (to accept your work), but the concern is that the whole value of mass media is very much in the consumerist direction.

Art and politics

Many people say Danny Yung's work, whether an art piece or a stage performance, is politically motivated. I think artists are supposed to do that; they are like travelers who constantly cross the boundaries and go into different places and look back and forth.

I don't think there's a line between art and politics, there's not any line anywhere. And I don't use arts and politics as equal things; culture is much bigger than economics, politics and social issues, because culture is everywhere.

Some veteran performers

For many times I criticized those established performers of resting on their past achievements, because they didn't rethink at all. They find it so easy because they know the stage and every single element too well. They are so restricted by their profession that they forget to develop.

They only play up to the audience. So I keep telling them that if you want your audience to love you, that's one thing; but if you really want to find out what love is all about, that's something else.


A lot of contemporary theater is getting closer and closer to entertainment. Many works are made for office ladies or yuppies, or for those who are dating. But something is missing.

The hierarchy of structure in the theater has been around for so long. In a Chinese group, the director often has supreme power, which means everybody just waits for the order and lets someone else decide.

If we discuss works openly, then we are breaking down the hierarchy of directors who have a dominant position ... Then you can absorb many ideas from all the participants. That's what democracy is all about. Although at the end someone must make the decision, the discussion is there. The dialogue, exchange and interactions are very important in creativity.

Culture in Shanghai

In a highly commercialized city like Shanghai, the creative energy is not in the arts, but on the streets. Sometimes when you see people, you will say 'wow, so creative' - how they dress, how they walk, what they are experimenting with. Shanghai contains surprises.

I read a magazine Art World with a special article about Pina Baush, a German dancer who just died (in July 2009). I thought, 'wow, she just died but Shanghai has already reported on it' ... In such a big city, there's always a percentage of people always looking for something else.

New ideas

My dream is to build an anti-war cultural center in Nanjing. Not an entertainment center for selling tickets to singing and dancing shows.

A real cultural center is where, in this era, we explore ourselves and at the same times explore society ... When no one is doing this, I think it's the artists' responsibility to take it over.


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