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dance journal/hk: From the Top

By: William Chan

From dance journal/hk 20-3

 

While the past 20 years has slipped by, dance journal/hk has become firmly rooted in Hong Kong. From its beginnings as an entirely black-and-white photocopied edition, to today as a full-color printed periodical with an online version and follow-up videos, the journal has undergone many changes. How has this specialized publication, which has gained industry-wide recognition locally, made it through the past two decades? What are its seldom heard stories? Answers to these questions begin with a look at the dance ecology of the 1990s.

 

The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA) sent out its first dance graduates in 1988. To replace the Council for the Performing Arts, founded in the early 1980s, the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC) was established in 1995 as the statutory body to plan, promote, and support the development of the arts. More subsidies were available, directly stimulating the rapid development of local dance activities in the 1990s. At that time, many early graduates from the HKAPA organized dance companies one after another; along with the social ambience regarding the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, many thoughts on our identity and creations were sparked. However, most dance criticism in the mainstream press focused only on the productions of flagship art companies or performance tours of overseas dance companies to Hong Kong, neglecting the productions of small and medium size dance companies.

 

Willy Tsao, founder of City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC), self-financed and published a cultural and art magazine, Crossover Magazine, in the 1990s. Through this serious publication, he hoped to encourage more reports on arts and culture, as well as contemplation and discussion after each production. Nonetheless, the subvented organization at that time, which was the Council for the Performing Arts, did not attach great importance to his work, and made various requests impeding its development. For example, instead of attention to certain types of styles or performances, the Council demanded balanced reporting on different genres of the arts. In light of these conditions, Tsao, as one of the founding members of the Hong Kong Dance Alliance (HKDA), suggested creating a brand-new dance-oriented publication, dance journal/hk.

 

Tsao intended the publication to be professional. A large readership was not sought, as it was meant for industry practitioners with an emphasis on serious discussion and commentary. According to Tom Brown, another originator of dance journal/hk, in every major metropolis around the world where dance thrives, there is a publication devoted exclusively to dance. Therefore, he hoped for such a publication in Hong Kong to provide more room for commentary about dance and space to review the works of young independent choreographers, furthering the growth of creators and nurturing dance audiences.

 

There were a lot of considerations regarding the Chinese and English names of the journal. Tsao recalls that when he tried to name the journal, his main concern was to make the theme of dance stand out in a non-academic way. After discussion, in the end, a simple and low-profile name was preferred《舞蹈手札》to《非常舞蹈》as the Chinese title. As for the English version, Brown reckoned that the word journal had a bit more weight than magazine. Although journal shares the meaning of periodical, what it implies is in fact a less scholarly diary; moreover, it was decided to have the title all in lower case letters with a tag of “/hk”. This decision was partially inspired by fashion designers of that time, who similarly tagged the initials of their cities to their brand names.

 

Starting from the second year of publication, Cecil Sze Tak-on, was engaged in the design and layout process and later also assisted in editing and writing for the journal. He talked about the lack of specialized reviewers and full-time critics in spite of attention to commentaries in the performing arts industry at that time. Although funding allowed the periodical Xpressions to launch in 1998, its reviews couldn’t save it from termination as that funding came to an end.

 

Brown pointed out that during that period, articles published in the mass media were only a few hundred words in length due to limitations of space. Listing information about production staff and a brief summary alone took most of that space, leaving not much room for a detailed critique of the production. dance journal/hk has made the publication of longer and more in-depth articles possible and has become a contemporaneous record of dance development.

 

Thinking back to the commencement of the journal, Tsao remembers a plain edition with only a few copies and even an undetermined number of pages. He and Brown would write one to two features or reviews and asked active commentators for articles. Owning to limited resources, they couldn’t pay much in remuneration to the writers. It was hard to request a contribution of articles to the journal, and most of the content consisted of material reprinted from newspapers. Tsao says that there were art reviews in South China Morning Post, Ta Kung Pao, Ching Pao, and Sing Tao Daily, and they would reprint the published articles in dance journal/hk, as a form of news clipping service for HKDA’s members. On one hand, they could save on costs; on the other hand, it was more convenient for artists, art companies, and readers to look for different reviews of productions within just one publication.

 

Brown adds that the initial aim of the journal was to include reviews on all performances every month. It would be ideal to have feature articles and the latest news in each issue, as well as in-depth articles in every other edition. However, there were not many writers, so in the early days most of the content consisted of newspaper clippings. Sze says that he helped with the clippings at first as well but discontinued with it when the administrative work from securing the rights of reprinting articles increased as a result of the amendment of the copyright ordinance later.

 

At the beginning of dance journal/hk, Tsao was the voluntary editor-in-chief who made plans and wrote articles. According to Scarlet Wong, who participated in the layout and editorial process at the HKDA, Tsao originally wanted to have a dance-themed publication that could comprehensively record dance performances in Hong Kong. With limited resources, they had to do many things by themselves. In addition to typing, layout, and proofreading, for the first two issues Wong photocopied the manuscripts at Hong Kong Ballet herself, brought the A3-sized pages back to the HKAPA, folded them into 500 copies, and gave them to the Hong Kong Dance Company to mail and distribute – a prime example of domestic processing.

 

With the subsidies for numerous projects from the HKADC, HKDA was later able to apportion a sum to support the publication of dance journal/hk by hiring professionals to design the cover, type the manuscripts, and send the journal to printshop. Yet, Wong still took over the design and layout of the inside pages, as well as the later stage of publication on her own. She admits a scant knowledge in publishing, frankly saying that she simply used Word to design the layout initially; only after some time did she learn an editing software, Pagemaker, on her own, so as to address the her lack of knowledge. A pure desire to contribute to the journal sometimes overrode aesthetic consideration.

 

As Tsao had been busy giving lectures and advancing the development of modern dance in China, it became harder for him to keep up with local performances and dance development due to his frequent departures. Therefore, Brown, who was working for the HKAPA at that time, together with Chu Kit, formed an editorial board with Tsao to cope with the editing of the journal. Sze remembers the difficult days for every team member in the first year of publication. Because of an insufficient number of articles, sometimes the journal was issued every two months instead of the intended monthly edition. Moreover, HKDA had very limited financial assistance, and with everyone’s demanding schedules sometimes it seemed there was no one person in charge of the journal. During the most difficult times, Sze happened to be available, and consequently started to follow the layout and editing work.

 

Sze also recollects that when funds for Multi-Projects Grant were used up, HKDA made another application in order to sustain dance journal/hk; however, the amount it received was reduced by half. As a result, there were only six issues a year, turning the journal into a bimonthly publication. There was a time, at one point in the journal’s history that because of an administrative error in completing the audited report for the HKADC on time, it suspended publication because funding was withheld. That was why there were only four editions of the journal in 2002 (with the fourth edition published on a self-financed basis). The journal resumed publication in early 2003 and continues to be published to this day.

 

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All publication of dance journal/hk since 1999 can now be accessed on www.dancejournalhk.com/past-issues

 

Special thanks to the following donors in supporting 20th Anniversary Feature for dance journal/hk:

Pearl Chan

Stella Lau

Shirley Loong

Natasha Rogai

Cecil Sze

Paul Tam

Septime Webre

Kevin Wong

Sylvia Wu