Monday, December 17, 2007

On Being a Stranger on Tong Chong Street

Posted by Tara O'Con

[Originally published on]

At one point while running "Strangers on Tong Chong Street," during our many rehearsals, maneuvering around local pedestrian traffic on their way to work in order to walk through a glass door, I looked at Liz and said with complete satisfaction, "this is my life right now." Choosing a creative path in life, I find that I often have these moments when I am tickled (and at times relieved) by the fact that I get to do things that are normal to me, yet completely absurd to most people. I relished moments like this even more so as they happened on the other side of the world, so far from my own daily routine, and so close to the daily routine of another culture.

Geography aside, the striking duality of blatant contrasts and unifying commonalities of this experience in comparison to any other project I have been involved in, site-specific work especially, has left its residue on me now that we are back in New York. Behind the scenes -- amongst ourselves, our colleagues from L.A, the directors of the Youth Arts Foundation, the production crew, the students performing -- there was the same excited buzz, and sincere investment similar to the energy behind any artistic endeavor. This in itself created a warm-fuzzy, its-a-small-world-after-all feeling. On the presentational side, it was quite unique to be a part of something that was so brand new to the space we were in, and to the audiences that were witnessing the festival.

During rehearsals on site, we were either ignored or passively observed by the areas regular inhabitants (not so different in NYC, aside from the occasional cat calls you would get here). However, the difference in audience behavior and body language (to what I am used to) was astounding. Instead of clinging to the fourth wall like a life preserver despite our attempts to break it down, they demolished it for us with welcoming curiosity. As Tom articulately described in his "Crowd Control" entry from 12/15, navigating through and around the audience became part of the work.

Once I quickly realized that the choreography would never be the same twice and I could not always dance with the abandonment I enjoy for fear of knocking someone out, it became fun and exciting to deal with the human obstacle course around us. At one point in the midst of a dense movement sequence I turned to see I little girl so close to me that I could have easily swept her up. However this proximity did not seem to faze her, and she gazed up at me, feet firmly planted. I quietly said "hello," and we smiled at each other. Priceless! It is a shame that the folks taking pictures and video taping us, at times as close as that little girl, did not get the same intimate experience. They couldn't possibly soak in the scope and movement of the entire piece from behind their narrowly focused lenses. Yet from the look of satisfaction on their faces, of knowing they had just captured something new in fleeting moments of time, I trust that they walked away with a profound experience all their own-just as the countless other people who stumbled upon us either that day or throughout the week. Isn't live performance so cool in that way?

Above photograph of Tara O'Con (top) and Elizabeth Carena in "Strangers on Tong Chong Street" by Tom Pearson and Zach Morris.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Crowd Control

Posted by Tom Pearson
[Originally published on]

It has been exactly one week since we performed in Hong Kong, and everywhere we look, photos and video clips of our work are popping up, all over YouTube, FaceBook, and the many photo websites. It's not surprising, really, how quickly and how many of these are surfacing, considering that so many audience members at the festival viewed the performances through video, camera, or cell phone lenses. For all the similarities we discovered between Hong Kong and New York, one difference was evident, the patterns of group movement and the way in which audiences experience public performances.

The first half of "Strangers on Tong Chong Street"
taken by Lewis Ho and posted on YouTube.

Original Music by Kris Bauman

Zach noted within our first week in Hong Kong that he felt that the crowds there shifted like puzzle pieces, all trying to move ahead by moving side to side and forward, especially in the MTR. In the New York subway system, crowds tend to push straight ahead in a linear fashion, even when weaving. The differences felt subtle in the first week when we were navigating our way around Hong Kong, but they became overt for us once we moved into performing dance in a public space.

For the beginning of the piece, we had originally toyed with the idea of soliciting a few friends in Hong Kong to follow our entrance onto Tong Chong Street, snapping photographs of us as if we were arriving superstars. We abandoned that idea a long time back, but we were surprised to find that not only did the cameras go off constantly during the entirety of our performances, they did so right in our faces. Crowds in Hong Kong have no qualms about pushing to the front and getting as close to the subject as possible. In fact, many a camera lens was almost shattered by a foot in the face. We did our best not to injure anyone (successfully), but we also had to fight for space to dance, frequently directing people out of the way with additional movement or, in some cases, actually physically moving people.

In the United States, audiences tend to give a wider berth to outdoor and site-specific performances and would most likely become aggressive if touched. In Hong Kong, touching people in order to move them out of harms way was necessary; no one thought it out of the ordinary. An intuitive traffic flow was built into the performance, and those who were not viewing it through a camera lens understood it and followed. You'll notice if you watch any of the many video clips online, that most people with cameras would huddle around if any of us stood still, so there is a lot of still footage out there while beautiful dancing was happening off camera. Rather than follow the movement progressions, many of the audiences in Hong Kong would gather around still moments, and the cameras would flash.

The second half of "Strangers on Tong Chong Street"
taken by Lewis Ho and posted on YouTube.

We also discovered that if we clustered, even after a big phrase of movement that traversed the space, audiences would close in, tighter and tighter. If we wanted to break into big movement again, we basically had to run at them and force them back, carving a out path for us to dance through. After a performance or two, we figured out some of the most effective methods for doing this, and the challenge became enjoyable as we discovered ways in which to subvert the cluster effect. Originally, for the ending, we shattered individually throughout the space to regroup along the street. Audiences were caught in the middle and refused to billow back. Therefore, we decided to run a narrow straight line, up and down the street to part audiences on either side so that we could play along the length of the street.

In many cases, audiences would just fill in the gaps between bodies, so our trio frequently became a group number with audiences strewn in between. In a lot of ways, we learned a great deal more about working in public spaces because of this. We had talked about taking cultural differences into consideration, but these were the types of discoveries one can only make in performance. Fortunately, we had six opportunities to work it out. I agree more strongly than ever with Zach that outdoor work needs strong images, bold costumes and tons of framework and unity. If we had not built these into the piece, there would have been a lot of muddy movement thrown onto the space. As it was, there was enough strength in the elements of image and unity and enough flexibility in the transitions to accommodate for the frequently invasive public. And I say "invasive" coyly and as a term of affection here because as site-specific artists (not to mention westerners), we are often considered the invasive element. And, since it is really about placing art in the public sphere, when the public occupies its space with such authority, the art really does become truly integrated if the public accepts it (or captures it, as the case may be with all the cameras). The denizens of the site are as integral as the architecture, and together with the social/cultural considerations, and historical markings, they make up the topography that our work attaches itself to.

For a series of various festival clips, including more of "Strangers on Tong Chong Street," visit

Or try a search on YouTube for "Urban Dance Festival Hong Kong" and see what you come up with. :)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Daily Motion

Posted by Tom Pearson
[Originally published on]

Here's a couple of press items we'd like to share. First, is a program from Daily Motion, performances clips from the Urban Dance Festival in Hong Kong, featuring our new site-specific work, "Strangers on Tong Chong Street," as well as CDT and local Hong Kong youth groups.

And following, is a list of questions we were asked for U Magazine in an interview we did prior to arrival in Hong Kong. The online and hard copy version is printed in Chinese, so we have provided the English version below for our readers.

The following questions are answered by Tom Pearson and Zach Morris, Co-Artistic Directors of Third Rail Projects and choreographers of "Strangers on Tong Chong Street," and Mayuna Shimizu, a founding member of Third Rail Projects who has performed in works by Tom and Zach since 1999.

(1) Could you say a few words about what site-specific dancing means to you?
Zach: For us, site-specific dance is about getting art out of the theater and gallery and putting it into the public realm, about using performance to illuminate urban space which is often taken for granted or overlooked. It's an opportunity for art to really engage with "real world" architecture, topography, environments, and most importantly, the communities who inhabit them.
Tom: In addition, it is often about finding hidden meaning or heightening people's interactions with a space. Site work is vital because it opens up the work to a wider population, one which might not experience it otherwise. And you can never fully control what's going to happen on site. In that way, it's a collaboration with the public.

Mayuna: The experience is sometimes accidental and a surprise for so many people. They stumble upon it and it becomes their own discovery, something they really remember.

(2) What role does the audience play during performance? I don't think they are merely observers. Would they be invited to dance or interact with the performers? How?

Zach: The audience is inherently a part of the performance. There is no separation like in the theater. The simple act of gathering around a performance creates an irregular event in the space, therefore, totally re-defining it. Sometimes we make work that asks the audience to follow it, to make choices about how they view it, and the trick is to make sure the dance has an intuitive flow and traffic patterns that audiences can easily navigate.

Tom: The role of the audience can vary considerably depending on the intention of the choreographers. Some site work has a participatory element--but not necessarily, and not all people in the site would consider themselves audience members. Many are just passing through, or they are the regular denizens of the site that may feel the artist is an intruder. It's important to engage them in some way, explain what you are doing, and have them accept you in the site.

Mayuna: Focus is important. With no fourth wall, you have to make your intentions clear and imagine yourself from the audience's point of view. What would make you follow, or participate? You have to use your sixth and seventh senses, and it is always different depending on your own personality and the personality of those gathered around.

Mayuna Shimizu, Marissa Nielsen-Pincus, and Donna Ahmadi
in Tom Pearson and Zach Morris's "Strangers on Tong Chong Street"

(3) I think accidental happenings are common during performing. How should the performers react? What extent should improvisation play?

Mayuna: As a performer, I really enjoy those unexpected moments because they are so different from what you experience in the controlled environment of a theater. As people, we have so many possibilities in terms of the way we react, and we learn so much about ourselves in moments were we have to make sudden choices. Site-specific performances are like conversations, and you are discovering things about each other.

Tom: I agree. I love the unexpected because it really puts you in the moment. Our group of performers have worked together for many years and are all wonderful at improvising within the spirit of the piece to incorporate any surprises. In fact, it is important to us that the unexpected is acknowledged rather than ignored. It brings truth to the work and eliminates artificial constructs.

(4) For me, site-specific dancing is the interpretation of a site by the choreographer and the performers. Is there any re-interpretation of the site by the audience during and/or after the perfomance? What is the significance to those communities whom come to/pass by the site frequently?

Zach: For me, site work amplifies, reacts to, or comments on a space in some way. It's more of a dialogue with the site than a translation of its components into dance. The artist is drawing from certain elements or relationships within the site. Audiences will view that through their own unique lens and in light of their past relationship to the space. Meaning is accumulated, and ideally, new connections with the space will persist while echoes of the performance will help re-define audience's future relationship to the site.

(5) What elements at Tong Chong Street drew your attention at first sight? How much do you know about it's landscape, history, community, culture, stories....? Are there things in common/great differences between Tong Chong Street and the most familiar street in your hometown?

Tom: So far, our relationship to Tong Chong Street is virtual, through photos and videos of the space as it exists now. We know historical accounts through online research, but we are seeing these through someone else's filter and making our own assumptions based on that. It prepares us to a large extent, but our own personal connections can only happen once we are there.

Zach: Tong Chong Street has an urban topography that is similar to other commercial cities of the world, with its familiar coffee shops, transnational corporations, public art and gathering spaces. It's a good fit for us as New Yorkers because, although we are strangers coming into this new space, we are strangers from a city that parallels Hong Kong in a number of ways. Both New York and Hong Kong share a similar mercantile history and both are dynamic, innovative cities in a perpetual state of re-invention. As such, the streets and landscapes of both cities have undergone numerous changes and developments--history built upon history. It is perennially interesting to me as an artist to dig down through those layers, unearth each one, and have them manifest in the space as it exists now.

(6) Has your dance group ever performed in Chinese communities?

Tom: We are fortunate to live in city with such a vibrant Chinese community. Mayuna has choreographed and performed her own work for New York's Chinese New Year Festival, and we have worked in a number of capacities with H.T. Chen and Dian Dong (H.T. Chen and Dancers). We often rehearse at their Mulberry Street Studio in Chinatown, and have sought their advice on a number of topics, including artists and organizations we should connect with in Hong Kong.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Interpretations: Follow-up

Posted by Tom Pearson
[Originally published on]


Donna Ahmadi performing in
"Strangers on Tong Chong Street"

Now that we are all back home, the next few blog entries will focus on follow-up thoughts and media from the performances of "Strangers on Tong Chong Street" in Hong Kong. The piece was created and performed by Tom Pearson and Zach Morris for the Swire Island East Urban Dance Festival in collaboration with and also performed by: Donna Ahmadi, Elizabeth Carena, Marissa Nielsen-Pincus, Tara O'Con, and Mayuna Shimizu. Original music was composed by Kris Bauman, and costumes were designed by Zach Morris and created in consultation with Karen Young.

Our last entry, "Interpretations" touched briefly on the issue of qualifying site-specific dance for our audiences, press, sponsors, etc while in HK. This was the first ever festival to feature site-specific dance in Hong Kong and required quite a bit of frame work and an educational component to explain the series. The Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation, partnering with Swire Properties did an exhaustive interpretation campaign, featuring program notes, an installation display with explanation and video clips, online audio tours, and announcements at the pre-event cocktail in order to clarify for audiences what they were about to experience. Zach and I were brought over early to teach master classes in site-specific dance composition to local artists. We appreciated the research that the presenters put into this (not to mention bravery in undertaking a festival of this sort) and the framework they devised for the event, and we want to share below the audio tour for our work and what I think is a wonderful explanation of site work for the audiences in Hong Kong (from the program notes).

From program notes (culled from descriptions set forth in an article by Camille LeFevre):

What is Site-specific Art?

Site-specific art is performing and/or visual arts created to exist in a certain space. The artists will take the location into account while planning and creating the artwork. Outdoor site-specific artworks often include landscaping combined with permanently sited sculptural elements. Indoor site-specific art may be created in conjunction with the architecture.

Liz and Tom inside the Urban Dance Festival interpretation display.

A video screen inside the display showed examples of site-specific
works by Collage Dance Theatre and Third Rail Projects as well as local groups,
and clips such as the one above flooded YouTube.

About Site-specific Dance

A dance is site-specific when the choreographer receives the spatial dictation, directions for audience placement and theatrical inspiration from the site itself; in turn, the site becomes the framework for, or map of, the dance. The site-specific choreographer also generates the work's movement vocabulary and its content out of their excavation of, research into and interpretation of the site's unique cultural matrix of characteristics, whether architectural, historical, political, economic, social or environmental.

Dance shows that are created in specific sites can humanise the city while re-evaluating its architectural and artistic heritage. Through site-specific dance, people walking through the spaces learn to look at a location, a street or a corner in a new way, rediscovering a particular venue.

Many people take for granted that a space has one use. Stairs are meant for us to commute between different floors. Beds are made for sleeping and dreaming. But if the function is not the primary concern, how else do we connect to the space, what else might be essential? An abandoned hotel, a laundromat, an escalator, a police academy, a space that is never considered for a dance performance and is for a specific use that is generally agreed upon, consciously or not. Buildings use architecture and rules of socialisation to guide the public in a very limited and predictable flow of movement. Site-specific art is a perfect medium to explore the vast under-realised potential that a space has for movement and meaning.

Friday, December 7, 2007


Posted by Tom Pearson
[Originally published by]


Zach Morris, Marissa Nielsen-Pincus (flanked by Mayuna Shimizu and
Donna Ahmadi), and Elizabeth Carena in "Strangers on Tong Chong Street"

Yesterday, we performed our first full run-thru of "Strangers on Tong Chong Street." TVB 8 sent their crew to film, and afterwards Zach and I were interviewed for the feature they are airing on their arts and leisure program this coming Thursday. You can check local listings and programming on their website: The program will air throughout China, Australia, and Europe.

We are discovering for audiences and press alike, there is quite a bit of context and interpretation needed to qualify site-specific work and explain its role within the larger worldwide dance scene. It becomes evident from the questions we are asked that site-specific dance is often assumed to be a dance form itself, akin to modern, hip-hop, jazz, or ballet. We first have to explain that any of these forms can provide the movement vocabulary for a site-specific work, and that to work on site simply means that the choreographer engages with the existing architecture and topography of an area. Often we explain our vocabulary as "modern dance" rather than take the extra step of explaining the nuances between "modern," "contemporary," or "experimental." Suffice it to say that much of the work that qualifies itself as site-specific (from New York anyway) frequently uses a contemporary dance vocabulary. In the festival here, it seems to run the gamut, including jazz and even a site-specific rendition of "West Side Story."

Marissa Nielsen-Pincus, Mayuna Shimizu, and Donna Ahmadi

Today, we ran the piece again for a press preview, and tonight we excerpt the work for the pre-event cocktail. Much of our existing space has changed for this portion as the cocktail takes place in the evening. Lights, booths, and stages are now occupying some of our playing area, so we've adapted to fit this "new" site. Tomorrow it all vanishes and our site will be restored to its original shape for the performances. Fortunately, there is flexibility built into our transitions. Today we got the first glimpse of how crowds may react as we push through them, run through their midst and re-shape their focus as the work progresses through the site. A moment of un-choreographed brilliance occurred during our morning run-thru. As the group reassembled into our trio section, Marissa, Donna, and Mayuna broke through to the middle of a crowd and began moving. The crowd responded by slowly billowing out and enveloping the movement in a wide, expanding circle. It really took my breath away to see the audience moving so responsively and organically with the movement.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Strangers on Tong Chong Street

Posted by Tom Pearson
[Originally published on]

Tara O'Con and Elizabeth Carena
performing in "Strangers on Tong Chong Street"

We finished the new work about an hour ago. We have tech tonight, after a run-thru with TVB 8's television crew for broadcast in China. Tomorrow is the press preview/pre-event cocktail, and the festival begins Saturday morning and runs throughout the day. We will perform a total of six full times, and then hop on a flight back to New York on Sunday morning. Time is moving quickly. Whew! Our artists have been moving full speed ever since arriving, and the challenges of building a work in crunch time is compounded with the physical toll on our bodies with the non-stop rehearsals. In between, we have had photo shoots, lunches with the sponsor, and intermittent costume repairs and amendments. But, we are pleased with the way the work has come together. It feels exciting and dynamic, and yet subtle and nuanced at the same time. But mostly, it feels like it belongs here.

The daily inhabitants have begun to watch us, to turn their chairs out at the cafes or pause on the stairs and bridges to watch. They are warming up to the idea of navigating around our antics, unlike the first week where they would completely ignore us... almost out of embarrassment. Now, we are a bit more contextualized as they've seen the work develop and gotten used to our vocabulary. Also, the security staff and businesses in the area have begun to help facilitate our rehearsals, and there seems to be a growing sense of ownership of what we are creating in the space.

We hope to share some photos and video of the actual work very soon; although, we are not positive we can deliver it in real time. Our focus now has got to shift to full time technical problem solving, but we promise to get a video up as soon as possible.

Monday, December 3, 2007


Posted by Tom Pearson
[Originally published on]

Zach experimenting with movement on site
on Tong Chong Street while Tom directs

Zach and I have been in Hong Kong now for one week, and the performers are due to arrive at the hotel any minute now. I think we are both relieved to have them here with us. It's been difficult to fully imagine the work or set any major segments without them; although, we have been able generate some new material based on our reactions to the space and set a few solo moments on site. Being in Hong Kong, in Quarry Bay, specifically, has been a pretty smooth transition for us. By going to work immediately, grounding ourselves in the familiar routines of rehearsal and art making, it feels as though our experience is more natural, more in tune with the city's pulse. We've been able to meet with other artists, make new friends, and get glimpses of Hong Kong as they live it. And, over the course of the past few days we have given ourselves some time off whenever possible to do a little touring as well, to step away from our work and get some perspectives on the larger Hong Kong.


Some of our excursions in Hong Kong

Our primary focus and the reason for our early arrival was to teach workshops focused on our methods for generating movement and creating site-specific works. We taught approximately 60 students in the two classes on Tuesday and Friday. The first group came from various backgrounds, personally and artistically - and we found that they had some preparation for the course in that they were prepared for anything. The second group was mostly students from the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, and it seemed that they shared a more common movement vocabulary. In both groups there was varying comfort levels with regards to the exercises we shared with them, but the risk takers were present in both, and students were able to learn from each other as well as from us.

Teaching these workshops in a studio setting presented its own challenges, but fortunately, the room was filled with furniture, props, doors, and corridors. We treated it as our site, and students were able to make interesting choices, finding the natural frames in the existing architecture... creating dialogues with light sockets... or battering into locked doors, even exploring the open spaces between the structures.

Our format seemed successful as well. It took a while for them to warm up to what we were doing, but by the end of the class, they could see the potential in what they were creating and project what the next steps might be. We began with a brief introduction on what site work means to us: speaking of architecture, topography, history, and cultural considerations. Following this, we led a brief warm up and began moving through the site, making observations as we went: noticing the major structures, the most emphatic elements, the obvious, the hidden, etc. Then we began to interact with the site, moving between where we felt most comfortable and where we were most interested - learning how to amplify these spaces, be large or small within them, etc. From there we pulled images and movements from our explorations to create phrases culled from the site, and then applied these back onto the architecture of the space. We finished by exploring ways in which to focus audiences, either by placement (of performers and/or audiences), the dynamics of the movement, when and where to utilize unison, speed... speaking of geographical and spatial unities-considerations of paramount importance when removing dance from the theater and relinquishing the control of a proscenium, lights, and a stationary audience.

Lamposts and Gathering areas on Tong Chong Street

Now, after teaching all of these techniques, we decided to put our money where our mouth is, take a step back and start our process anew, to take a look at Tong Chong Street as if we'd never seen it before, break out our notebooks, and make some observations of our own... What we noticed was that it was ever-changing. The symphony orchestra builds an entire stage, complete with a full light plot and sound system, every Tuesday. They have a performance in the evening, and then it is gone. We encountered Bailey's Day. Billboards went up, the liquor and partygoers came out, and by 11pm, it all vanished. Part of this is testament to SWIRE, a company continually animating their spaces with art and events, but we can't help but feel that this notion of coming and going somehow represents something much deeper in Hong Kong's DNA.

The details of the site are quite beautiful. The open space of the street has its own topographical appeal in relation to the structures on either side: the glossy, clean lines of the corporate towers on one and the stucco roughness of the apartment buildings and restaurants on the other. The street itself is both a divide and a bridge, like a red brick river that I keep wanting to run to the middle of and dance as largely as I can. In reaction to this lovely dichotomy, much of our movement has developed to hold dual conversations in the space, with sharp, clean and precise gestures focused on the tower facades and organic, curving, clustered movement in relation to the gathering spaces.

The Towers and Facades of some of SWIRE's
newer buildings on Tong Chong Street

In terms of what we've been able to accomplish without our group, two solo moments have developed. Mine honors my impulse to run to the middle of the street and explode, but this still needs the others to make it work, with corresponding counterpoint from the restaurant seating area. Zach's solo, on the other hand, we were able to explore a little more in-depth. With movement generated in New York and in the studio here in Hong Kong, and informed by our observations of the site, we worked to adapt this sequence to the frame of the lampposts, which repeat along Tong Chong Street.