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ACTY TANG (article first published : 2006-12-25)

Acty Tang (27), winner of the 2007 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Dance, is an avant-garde performer/choreographer who was born in Hong Kong, where he spent his childhood.

His work disturbs and provokes, often venturing into the deep, strange places of the psyche that words cannot risk. His signature is a refinement and a delicacy that pervades his work and his persona, even when you meet for a chat over coffee. Love is a central theme, "But not love as romance, rather a sense of belonging, or connection and identity," he says. His fluent, alabaster body speaks the language of improvisation, with layer upon layer of eddying influences from the universe of contemporary movement. The music he uses ranges from Tom Waits, through Xhosa gospel-rock to Janáček.

Acty Tang made his commitment when he was just 11 years old. The family was still living in Hong Kong. He was chosen as one of a small group of children sent on a school exchange to Japan. They were well-rehearsed so they would be proud ambassadors for Hong Kong. When it came to Acty's turn to introduce himself, he found himself saying, "I love theatre." He says now, "I hadn't planned to say it. The words just popped out." He has never wavered, taking extra-mural drama classes during his high school years at Sandringham (Johannesburg) and completing BA (Hons) and Master degrees in Drama at Rhodes University, where he now lectures.

His connection with Japan continues today as Acty's work resonates with butoh, the avant-garde performance art that first scandalized the public in post World War II Japan. Once known as the "dance of darkness", butoh came out of a rebellious impulse to "empty" the body of cultural preconceptions and allow movement to come from the unknowable depths of the subconscious. This is exciting and dangerous performance territory where conventional ideas about beauty and dance are stripped away, replaced by improvisation and often grotesque and trance-like gestures. As in some African traditions, the performer's body is painted chalky white.

Inner space is a pre-occupation with butoh, so it is no surprise that performance often takes place in unusual places. In an SABCTV1 dance programme this year, Acty took butoh to Hamburg, a small rural village in the Eastern Cape where he interacted with young Capoeira dancers. Appropriately for Acty, butoh came out of a hybrid world and almost immediately became a diasporic form of expression.

The sense of being a member of a Diaspora, never really belonging, but attempting to make a kind of emotional home on foreign soil, is strong in Acty's creative psyche. Ironically, even Hong Kong culture is seen as hybrid, diluted, diasporic by mainland China, so you could say Acty was born "on the road" with no single-culture homeground. This makes him, in a sense, the archetypal artist for the global village where mobility and an almost a-cultural fusion are the norm. He notes that Chinese people have moved and found a way to settle and put down roots all over the world, proving that there are strong aspects of the culture that are portable.

Acty Tang moved to Johannesburg with his parents as a pre-teenager, and has never returned to the East. He is a naturalised South African of 16 years standing, but he says, "Snatches of memories, sounds and ways of moving were embedded in me while I was young. So, as an adult, when I encountered Eastern traditions like Chinese opera and Thai Chi there were special resonances."

His home language is Cantonese and he still speaks with a slight drag on some consonants. He has two sisters and the older one lives in Hong Kong. He would dearly love to visit her there. His experience of not fitting in is echoed in the recurring feeling of being a stranger which is common to creative people. The artist often feels alienated, without a comfortable home within a culture or a socio-political system. Acty's way of putting it: "Artists always have another allegiance. The muse, if you wish. Even those who profess to be fully committed to political or didactic causes."

From 1999, Acty performed with the First Physical Theatre Company alongside people like Gary Gordon and Juanita Finestone-Praeg. In 2003 he was a finalist for a Daimler Chrysler Award. That same year he suffered an injury which saw him focusing on choreography and directing. He believes the injury was partly psychosomatic and related to his issues with personal identity. Significantly healed, he returned to the performance space during the National Arts Festival in 2005.

As a Young Artist award-winner, he will create and perform a celebratory piece for the 2007 Festival. It is a work that has been maturing for a long time in his imagination and the Award makes its realisation possible. Acknowledging his gratitude for this life-changing opportunity, Acty also says, "I feel it was a brave award that recognises the diversity of dance forms and dancers who don't fit into the existing concepts of culture, politics or artistic form."

Essentially the Award recognises the increasing depth and maturity of his work which could be partly attributable to his increasingly complex engagement with the sense of belonging, of being at home, of synergy. Part of this enquiry was conducted through the rigorous academic research that culminated in his MA thesis. The topic had to do with the interface between the language of the body and the logic of words, between physicality and logos. He observes with gentle irony that many theorists argue there is no pre-logical or pre-cultural state. Yes, intellect is the crouching tiger under the supremely fit, silken surface of his startling talent.

The National Arts Festival takes place in Grahamstown between 28 June and 7 July 2007. The Young Artist Awards were started in 1981 by the National Arts Festival to recognise emerging, relatively young South African artists who have demonstrated exceptional ability in their chosen field. These prestigious awards are presented annually to deserving artists in three to four arts disciplines, affording them national exposure and acclaim. Winning artists, as part of their award, are given the opportunity to perform, direct or exhibit on the National Arts Festival's main programme. Standard Bank took over the sponsorship of the awards in 1984 and has presented Young Artist Awards in all the major arts disciplines over their 23-year sponsorship, as well as posthumous and special recognition awards.




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