Cover The Last Night. Courtesy of the Hong Kong Dance Company.

After almost four decades of producing award-winning Chinese and modern dance productions, Hong Kong choreographer Mui Cheuk-Yin says she’s ready to take on Taiwanese writer Pai Hsien-yung’s love story in her new dance production, 'The Last Dance'—one she says is her most ambitious to date.

The Last Dance, Hong Kong Dance Company (HKDC)’s much anticipated new production, brings together two legends: Hong Kong’s top contemporary and Chinese dance choreographer Mui Cheuk-Yin, and Taipei Literary Award-winner Pai Hsien-yung, on whose classic short story The Last Night of Madam Chin the dance production is based. This will be Mui’s most ambitious project, bringing together social, Latin and contemporary dances into a single show.

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The show is due to be staged in February, after its original August 2020 premiere date was cancelled during the city’s third wave of the pandemic, but Mui says it’s worth the wait.

During her 37-year-long career as a choreographer and dancer, Mui has won the Hong Kong Dance Award three times (in 2000, 2001 and 2009), and received the Distinguished Achievement Award in 2012, which is the highest honour given by the Hong Kong Dance Alliance. She has also collaborated with international companies including Germany’s Tanztheatre Wuppertal, whose The Rite of Spring production in 2000 she performed in.

But it wasn’t until The Last Dance that the 62-year-old decided to work on her favourite Chinese author’s work. “I’ve read and loved Pai’s book since secondary school, but you need to reach a certain stage in life where you’ve gained enough experiences to understand the vicissitudes of Pai’s characters,” she says.

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Set in the 1930s, The Last Night of Madam Chin tells the story of Chin Zhao Li, a hostess at Shanghai’s Paramount Dance Hall, and reflects on her many and varied relationships. It was published in Pai’s 1971 short story collection Taipei People, which became one of the most important works in Chinese literature for its unique angle in documenting the lives of mainland immigrants to Taiwan in modern China.

Despite its age and historical setting, Mui thinks the tale will resonate with contemporary audiences. “The Last Dance asks the questions: where is home? What is love? The idea of struggle, leaving your homeland and establishing a life elsewhere is still very relevant today,” she says.

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Ahead of the show, Mui talks to Tatler about why it has taken her so long to work on her idol’s work and how she takes the page on to the stage.

Tatler: Why did you choose The Last Night of Madam Chin for your new production?

Mui: Pai’s works are always full of dance imagery; The Last Night of Madam Chin stands out to me because this story, which is set in a vaudeville hall, is loaded with song and dance elements.

I was born in 1959. I grew up listening to Canto-pop songs from the 1920s to 1970s. My grandfather loved phonograph records, and he would play these old songs by Canto-pop singers like Bai Guang and Zhou Xuan, and later on my mother caught on the trend and listened to Yao Su-jung and You Ya. People back then were simple when it came to courtships and relationships; the lyrics of these old love songs are so direct and bold. I want to recreate that adorable, simple world of old Hong Kong. I have the perfect excuse to work with a lot of these songs that I like in this show, which I hadn’t the chance to do in previous productions

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Tatler: Pai’s writing, much like that of Chinese literary figure Eileen Chang, is known for depicting the characters’ stream of consciousness. How do you translate his literary text to the stage?

Mui: There is never an equivalence between two genres, especially with literature and dance. When creating The Last Dance, I didn’t just tell Pai’s story. I left out many subplots, and made the backbone of the story Madam Chin’s relationships with her three lovers at different stages of her life.

Pai portrays these three disappointing relationships and how Chin strives for love. This is what intrigues me the most, especially from a woman’s perspective. It seems like Pai doesn’t know the answer to what love is. Is he trying to say that love is fictitious? I like encouraging the audience to imagine and ask questions. This is how, as a choreographer, I have a dialogue with literature.

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Tatler: What part does dance play in telling a story?

Mui: In The Last Dance, I’ve used different types of dances: Latin, ballroom and contemporary. For a dance production, dance is not only about body movements; it’s a style. The choice of dance genres, the dancers’ interaction, tension and space all help to convey the characters’ personalities and relationships.

To reflect Chin’s first love, I used tango, which involves two dancers embracing and moving intimately to represent how a young Chin totally believes in romantic love. For her second relationship, I use jive. The hardened character jumps and swings up and down, and shows much dominance through this energetic and aggressive dance. Finally, for her marriage, I use the waltz. Chin comes to terms with her fate and no longer pursues her romantic ideals; she feels content with the plentiful life her fiancé can give her. This is shown by the smooth, synchronised waltz steps.

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Tatler: You’ve taken the high heel from Pai’s text as a motif representing Chin's identity. Why is the high heel important to your production?

Mui: Unlike nowadays where one can wear anything, including sneakers, when wearing a wedding gown, shoes back then were suggestive of a person’s profession. In the case of a dance hall hostess, it would be high heels. Pai’s story opens with the clicking sounds of high heels as Chin and the other dance girls walk down the stairs of the dance hall. The story hasn’t even begun, but Pai has immediately brought me into Chin’s loud, glamourous world. It leaves such a strong impression on me: I imagine Chin’s life must be all about dressing up and presenting her best self.

But when Chin is done with her day, she takes off her shiny high heels and puts on her unglamourous night gown. I designed a solo part for Chin where, portrayed by our principal dancer Hua Chi-Yu, she looks into the mirror and sees a melancholy, fragile, lonely woman. Her glamour is a façade. Instead of wearing the high heels, she dances with the shoe as if speaking to it about what her temporary vanity means to her.

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Tatler: How is The Last Dance different from your previous productions?

Mui: This is the first time I’ve incorporated social dances into my production. Moreover, I don’t think I would have been able to understand Chin’s life decisions or Pai’s thoughts when I started 30-odd years ago, so I wouldn’t have been able to do it justice. I’m 62, an age where I’m experienced enough in life to take on subjects like these [love, life and decline].

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Tatler: How does the variety of dance genres in The Last Dance reflect your own diverse dance background?

I started learning Chinese dance when I was small, and then folk dance. My teacher was Chinese Cambodian, so the dances I learnt had Asian roots. When I joined the Hong Kong Dance Company in 1981, I learnt Cantonese opera and ballet. When I left the company, I also learnt modern and postmodern dance.

Designing the choreography of The Last Dance is like unlocking my muscle memory of the different dance types. There isn’t a formula of how I put different dances into different parts of the story, but once I put myself into the shoes of the characters, my emotions help bring out my muscle memory to design the choreography.

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Tatler: Has the pandemic posed any challenges for you and your team?

Mui: This production was conceived in 2019. After much hard work, it was postponed in 2020. I was concerned that we would not have the same excitement to pick up the production again. It turned out that I had needed more time to let my thoughts for the show come together: back in 2019, I only had a month or two to plan the production, which felt rushed. Chi-Yu [Hua] also said that when she rehearsed the steps again this year, she felt she understood the characters better, and even though the movements remain the same, she now feels that she’s at one with her character. So maybe that’s one positive thing out of the bleak times.

Tatler: What is your take on Hong Kong dance’s scene? Is there space for more Chinese dance productions?

Mui: I recently collaborated with Hins Cheung on one of his concerts [as the choreographer]. It’s an interesting experience: I think the majority of his audience who are into pop culture don’t necessarily dislike slightly more artsy productions, it’s just that they might not have had the chance to be exposed to them [until the concert].

Hong Kong’s east-meet-west context provides a great environment for different types of dance productions to thrive. But after a new work has been put on stage, it rarely gets the chance to be shown again or to an international audience. I’m not just speaking for The Last Dance; if we can figure out how to fully showcase dance productions, such as by staging them in different districts to different audiences, Hong Kong’s dance scene can definitely go further.

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