For this week's article, I talked to dance artist Rachel Yan Ting Li.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Rachel started studying dance as a young girl, mainly ballet and contemporary dance styles. Part of her training was with the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and the Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation, which inspired her to pursue dance as a career. Rachel speaks of the “taboo” around dance and performing arts in Asia, with the creative industries still seen as inferior to traditional high-earning jobs. However Rachel has overcome many obstacles, including gaining the support of her parents, which led to her move to London in 2017 to begin her training with Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance.
Rachel is currently based in Manchester with Emergence Dance Company, the postgraduate dance company of Joss Arnott Dance and the University of Salford. She studied on the MA in Dance Performance and Professional Practice and graduated this September.
Rachel is a powerful performer and often draws upon experiences of her upbringing into her performances. Here, she speaks of how her background in Hong Kong has shaped who she is as an artist today, and the importance of using dance as a tool for social change.
Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?
As part of Emergence, I have been working in the studio a lot. We have worked with three very diverse choreographers: Joss Arnott, Kevin Edward-Turner who is the Artistic Director of Company Chameleon, and Becky Namgauds. Each one has made me approach how I move in a different way. The settings of each of the choreographed works were quite surreal: Joss’ work was set in the Underworld; Becky’s had the feeling of utopia or somewhere non-existent; and Kevin’s was a protest, so in that sense we weren’t in a studio at all! Last year during the lockdowns, I found myself losing part of my creative self, partly through being in a confined space, so now being able to move freely again is such a blessing!
When I’m creating my own work, I often find inspiration in the activities of daily life when I’m at home, commuting, and from the people around me. I take ideas I pick up back to the studio to try things out before piecing things together. My workplace can be anywhere as when I have a project on the go, I’m constantly thinking about it.
"I believe that dance is not just movement: it can be a medium to spread awareness of certain issues; be impactful to an audience, and be powerful."
How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?
I do a lot of research at the beginning of any creative process. I believe that dance is not just movement: it can be a medium to spread awareness of certain issues; be impactful to an audience, and be powerful. It’s important for me to stay up to date with what is going on in society and what topics that the world is talking about right now, because particularly for contemporary dance, it should be connected with what is happening in the world today. My daily life, the news, images and videos all feed into this.
When I’m in the studio, I’ll pick a few things that stand out to me, often choosing a few images or words that I can connect to. I try to internalise the emotion that comes with them as well, which is something I’m playing with at the moment.
Talking to people is also very important as it can spark ideas or offer moments to reflect on how my piece is coming along. This helps when considering how I want to present my work.
What is the main subject of your inspiration?
As I previously mentioned, for me dance has to be connected to what is happening in the present moment. Therefore, daily life and current world issues are the main subjects of my inspiration. I think dance is such a powerful tool to create an impact on people’s lives. Even if the piece is abstract, the audience can take away their own interpretation, or perhaps they might connect with it emotionally.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently working on my Practice As Research Dissertation Project, which will be a choreographed solo piece. My research topic is questioning how can dance be a tool for social change? Through this project I wanted to look at the stepping stones of building up to how dance can impact society, and through the solo, I’m investigating different ways to do this.
The solo is based on discrimination and racism, particularly towards Asian people. The past year and a half during the pandemic as someone who is East Asian, I have noticed an increase in the racial attacks. For someone who moved to the UK a few years ago, I had only started experiencing this in recent years, but for those who have lived here for longer, it must be increasingly hard. I wanted to use my piece as an opportunity to raise awareness of this racism and discrimination, and to provide a wish for hope the prevention of this in the future.
It’s also my first time choreographing a 15 minute piece! I’m using multi-media, which I’m finding really interesting. I have also created a film that is played throughout the performance featuring interviews with people about their experiences, as well as vocalising my own experiences too.
What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?
My interpretation of sense of place is where I feel home. This might mean including a cultural element in my work, or embodying a feeling or a sense that connects me to my home in Hong Kong. Reflecting back on my work, I always seem to include an element that is a reflection of my home. For example: I created a piece called The Pulse of the City, which reflected on the busyness of Hong Kong. I also did a piece where I used Chinese dance fans and related to the cultural meaning that they embody. It’s about bringing me and who I am to each piece that I create.
Are there elements of your work that connect with or are inspired by the natural world?
With my current work and film, I project part of my solo onto the screen, which is of me dancing in an outdoor location. I wanted this to create a peaceful and tranquil vibe, hopefully sending out a message of hope for the future. I think the outdoors, particularly areas that are green with little human impact, can be very uplifting and so it is fitting for the end of the piece.
When we began working on Becky Namgauds’ piece, On a Warm Spring Night, we explored themes around the moon cycles and nature at night. It is an improvisational-based piece and so when we were rehearsing, we were responding to the music, which used sounds from the natural world. It was quite peaceful! Becky also kept reminding us of the moon and to feed off each other’s energies. There were two parts to the piece, the first being fluid and experimental, and the second more like a rave when we were creating the piece initially, but the end production turned out to be quite different.
Does the natural world have a part to play in your everyday life?
Definitely! Back in Hong Kong, there are less green spaces. The pace of life is so quick, everyone is busy all the time, and the pressure is so high, people rarely stop to slow down and notice the natural world. However, since moving to the UK, I have learnt to slow down and notice the natural world more. There is also more nature to explore here.
During the pandemic, I started taking daily walks which I didn’t do before. Especially now when the weather is nice, I try to walk everywhere and enjoy the outside world. I have noticed that when it is sunny here, people head outside for the day, whereas in Hong Kong, if it is hot, people just stay indoors where there is air conditioning! So I have learnt to embrace the sun. Even in London and Manchester, there are many green spaces, including a wetlands area near me which I have visited a lot recently.
Do you have a favourite artist or creative individual? Someone who has artistically inspired your work?
I have to say my fellow dancers in Emergence as we are all unique and everyone has so much to offer artistically. I find Joss inspiring too. I did a workshop with him a few years ago as part of Rambert, and I found his style really cool! Now, having worked with him and seeing what process he goes through to create work, I found it fascinating and fun to work on something that was technically challenging, so much intricacy and detail, but playing with dynamics and the layering of the piece as well. After working with Joss, my own movement style has definitely been enhanced.
What would your top piece of advice be for creatives navigating their way in the arts industry today?
Be brave to say yes to opportunities and go for it! You never know where each opportunity may lead you in the future. Taking a leap of faith might open doors to places where you never imagined you would find yourself. Every experience enhances you as an artist. Don’t be afraid of failure as this is a step in the process of finding out who you are. Rejection simply might mean that you are not the right fit for the certain work or opportunity. This is all part of the process of finding your place in the world.
For the dance industry in particular, there is so much variety out there and sometimes you might feel a bit lost, not seen, or not unique enough, but try to be yourself. One day, somebody will appreciate what you do at the right time and in the right moment with the right person. But if you don’t find something, create your own opportunity!
"Every experience enhances you as an artist. Don’t be afraid of failure as this is a step in the process of finding out who you are... This is all part of finding your place in the world."
Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world?
Appreciate the people around you and be kind.
For me, having moved from another country, the distance has made me care more for those that are far away. It’s important to keep those connections going and checking in with them.
Rachel's Book List:
1. Do What You Love, Love What You Do by Holly Tucker
This book has really good advice for creating your own business, which often takes inspiration from art industries. There are a lot of motivational strategies too.
2. Factfulness: Ten Reasons Why We’re Wrong About the World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling
I recently picked this book up from a festival in Manchester, which including a huge exhibition with over 2,000 political books. I’m looking forward to reading this one!
3. Dance and Politics: Moving Beyond Boundaries by Dana Mills
This is an important book for my research at the moment.
To see more of Rachel's work, head over to her Instagram @rachelyantingli.dance
Image 1: Josh Tomalin
Images 2, 6: Josh Hawkins
Images 3, 4: Artist's Own
Image 5: Jim Chan
Image 7: Nicole Guarino