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Boundary-crossing in Art as in Life

Maurice Lai

1 Jul 2020

New York Times columnist Marci Alboher proposed the concept of "slash" in 2007 on the basis that a person can have several identities and careers, develop expertise in different areas simultaneously and lead a life of plurality. It may now be seen as a trend of our times. As video director/ founder and producer of a Cantonese opera troupe/ lecturer/ managing director of a Cantonese restaurant group, Maurice Lai has lived this kind of life since the 1990s. There are no boundaries in the arts, where the first step to creativity is to venture out of the box.


Maurice, who grew up watching films and Cantonese operas with his parents, has always loved the performing arts. He entered the Academy in 1994 after finishing secondary school. "I enrolled in the School of Technical Arts (TV/Film), as was. We didn't pursue a major in the first year, so we studied different subjects, including costume, lighting, props, and stage management. I enjoyed it thoroughly, getting to know classmates with different fortes. Some have become my collaborators, with whom I maintain a mutually supportive relationship in the performing arts. My time at the Academy has had a far-reaching impact on my career." Maurice's first job after graduation was as an audio-visual technician at the Vocational Training Council, making him a quasi-civil servant with stable working hours and a steady income. He also worked as a full-time producer for the Creative Imaging Departments of ATV and then TVB.


Few creative people are willing to tie themselves down to a monotonous life and Maurice is no exception. In 2001, he met his wife, a dancer at the City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC). She showed him fascinating dance videos from overseas that piqued his interest. "In Europe and the US, dance video production started in the 1960s and 1970s. But in Hong Kong and the rest of Asia, dance was rarely showcased in such a form. I began to shoot promos and performances for dance troupes, and gradually I have developed a strong interest in the dynamic between dance movement and the camera."


Exploring Art-on-Video
But it was a dance video exhibition in Hong Kong in 2002 that made Maurice commit full time to the art. "The exhibition simply presented collages from dance promos and performance footage. To say these fragments were representative of the state of dance videos in Hong Kong would be unfair. Most dance videographers at that time had a dance background and had not yet mastered filmic language. I therefore decided to leverage my professional knowledge in television and film and teamed up with choreographer Yuri Ng. We extracted about seven minutes from the two-hour theatrical dance A Brave New World of Suzie Wong, and turned it into A Cup of Tea." Released in 2004, the short film wowed critics and audiences, winning a number of awards, including the First Hong Kong Jumping Frames International Dance Video Competition 2004 and a special mention in Il Coreografo Elettronico and XIV Festival Internazionale di Videodanza 2006 in Naples. In 2012, the piece was archived in the ReelDance Moving Image Collection at the University of New South Wales.


Maurice has done directing, photography and editing for the performing arts, cinema, television, advertising and music videos, but remains partial to dance videos. "The combination of video and dance opens up infinite possibilities. Dance may not have the expressive power of words, but it can be even more captivating because it leaves room for the imagination." With close to two decades of experience in artistic videos, Maurice is happy that his passion has received recognition commercially and artistically. Honours include the Gold Award for the Best Holiday/Seasonal Promo in Promax Asia 2005; the Hong Kong Dance Award for Outstanding Achievement in Video and Photography for Dance, as well as Outstanding Visual Design, both from the Hong Kong Dance Alliance; and the CCDC's City Contemporary Dance Laureate.

Promulgating Cantonese Opera
Besides video, Maurice is ardent about Chinese opera. In 1999, he founded the Utopia Cantonese Opera Workshop with opera-loving friends. When the Academy launched the Advanced Diploma in Cantonese Opera in 2001, he immediately applied for the course. Senior lecturer at the School of Chinese Opera, Hong Hai, and famous Cantonese opera artist Susanna Cheng were in his class. "I keep in touch with my teachers and classmates. We meet from time to time to share ideas, working together sometimes to promote Cantonese operatic culture." In 2014, at the Academy's 30th anniversary, Maurice took part in an international seminar at the Academy premises as Utopia's deputy director to discuss innovations in and the passing on of Chinese opera with representatives from Hong Kong and the Mainland.


Maurice has also introduced Chinese operatic elements into his family's Cantonese restaurant. The establishment's interior, which he designed, features Cantonese opera stills, costumes and accessories. Before the establishment of the Xiqu Centre, the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority organised a Teahouse Theatre Mock-up Presentation at the Academy. Maurice had a hand in that too. "Our restaurant provided the theatre with dim sum. I designed the menu and the presentation of the food." Maurice believes that the connections he builds with different people at different stages of his life help open up new vistas.


Learning is a Never-ending Process
When it comes to photography, Maurice's style leans towards artistic. Two years ago he returned to academia to consolidate his years of hands-on experience. With the encouragement of Helen Ko, former Head of Screen Production, Projects and Partnerships at the School of Film and Television, he enrolled in the Academy's MFA in Cinema Production in 2017. "Over the years I've been involved in various aspects of art, so a more generic Master's in film production wouldn't have been suitable for me. The Academy's diversified artistic milieu allows me the freedom to deep-dive into crossover possibilities between film and television and other performing arts."


Maurice quips that his teachers were his age and his classmates young enough to be his children. "When you go back to school at my age, you're clear about what you want. One of the things I most wish to learn is teaching methodology. I often give talks and workshops at other academic institutions and organisations. They're usually condensed sharing sessions of not more than two hours. Something I really want to learn from my teachers is how to arrange one's personal experience systematically into a series of 10-plus classes; it requires strong analytical skills and academic knowledge."


Maurice's graduation project was a joint production with six teammates, in which he acted as the director. Named The Smoke that Blinds Us , the short film was based on a classmate's real-life story about the contradiction-riddled relationship between a mother and son. Being more experienced in filming than his peers, Maurice learnt how to compromise during production. "I didn't just handle the filming, but also young people's emotional issues. On the other hand, I had to refrain from interfering too much and risk depriving them of opportunities for learning or expressing themselves. I had to learn to take a step back and respect other views and creative styles. The process was most enlightening."


Most of Maurice's current work in Hong Kong has been postponed or cancelled due to the coronavirus. "All jobs in film creation and performing arts have come to an almost complete halt. The industry has been hit hard. But this is a global problem; no one is unaffected. Rather than complain, why don't we use this time to gather our thoughts and contemplate our creative direction or plan our next move?" They say there's opportunity in every challenge. Perhaps now is the time to reflect on our career and life, so we can emerge from this crisis full of renewed energy.


(The article was published in the July 2020 issue of Academy News. Click here to read the original story.)

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