City Contemporary Dance Company
The Comedy Of K
Hong Kong, Kwai Tsing Theatre
7 December 2012
A version of this review previously appeared in the South China Morning Post.
City Contemporary Dance Company’s closing show of 2012 was a welcome revival of Helen Lai’s 2004 The Comedy of K, a seminal work which shows this celebrated choreographer at the height of her powers.
The “K” of the title is Franz Kafka (1883-1924), the Prague-born Jewish writer whose life and work are the inspiration for the piece. Almost unknown during his short lifetime, Kafka is now considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th century and The Comedy of K brilliantly reflects the surrealism and existentialism central to his oeuvre.
Visually the work pays homage to another noted surrealist of the period, René Magritte (the chorus wear black suits and bowler hats) as well as the expressionist movement led by directors like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang which dominated German cinema at the time. Taurus Wah’s costumes, Tsang Man-tung’s sets and Goh Boon Ann’s lighting create a stunning, off-kilter, black-and-white world – Dr Mabuse meets Magritte – where the only colour is an occasional note of red in a bunch of flowers or a woman’s dress.
The outsider is a key theme of Kafka’s work (and indeed Lai’s) and the piece opens with its most extreme manifestation in the writer’s The Metamorphosis, where a man named Gregor wakes up to find he has been transformed into a giant insect. Naked, shivering and unable to move properly, his terror and confusion are intensified by the jeers and bullying of the “normal” people who surround him and the antics of a top-hatted showman who puts him on display.
Much of the piece is similarly bleak, with the pain of Kakfa’s difficult relationships with his parents and lovers evoked in a series of powerful scenes. The trio for the protagonist with a man and woman whose faces are concealed stands out as does the final duet where Qiao Yang (on the stage) and Dominic Wong (suspended high above it) reach out to each other in vain.
However, Lai deftly balances the overall darkness with the “comedy” of the title. There is a delightful sequence where Wong wanders first the stage then the auditorium trying to find someone who will accept the bouquet he keeps offering. There is also a ferocious black humour in the work’s most famous sequence, where a succession of dancers compete with each other for space on a bed, using it as a trampoline for spectacular jumps and falls or wriggling through the bars of the headboard as if it were a climbing frame.
Wong is magnificent in a role adapted from that taken by actor/comedian Jim Chim in the original production and involving everything from magic tricks to mime. He is sinister and sweet by turns as well as extremely funny. Lai Tak-wai vividly conveys Kafka’s despair and isolation through some superb dancing and Lam Po does a remarkable job as the unfortunate Gregor.
The company has only a short break at the end of the year before setting off on a 14-city European tour with another of its most iconic productions, Silver Rain, which includes choreography by Lai and three other top local choreographers: company founder Willy Tsao, Mui Cheuk-yin and Xing Liang, whose most recent work Thunderstorm I reviewed on DanceTabs.