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Manifestations: Lion Dance & I

Manifestations: Lion Dance & I is a collaborative multimedia project between Rebecca Jeffree and Kelvin Chan. It goes under the skin of performance dance, exploring the changing psychological state and energy of the performers themselves, and the personal meanings attached to the art, through the experience of London-based kung fu and lion dance club Tang Cho Tak Pak Mei. The work consists of analogue and digital stills, and film.

Southern Lion Dance is a traditional Cantonese art form with roots in martial arts, Chinese metaphysics and religion. It is often performed ritualistically to energise and bring good fortune at Chinese New Year and other significant events. While its charismatic two-person lion costume makes it recognisable to many, it is at the same time enigmatic and elusive, mastered over years of hard study by its performers, who learn from teachings passed to them over generations. In Manifestations, Lion Dance & I, the viewer goes inside, beyond the colourful costumes and dizzying display, diving deeper into the ritualistic symbolism within, the performer’s transformation and emotional state, and personal effort and strive for true mastery.

Taking a novel perspective to documenting this mystical dance, this work moves beyond the more familiar street view of the performance, aiming, through creating a trance-like quality, to go deeper into what is less easily seen: the feelings and experiences of the people who bring the lion to life. The dance is a manifestation of this internal experience.

The project honours the deeper aspects of the ethereal concept of what it is to make art. Rather than revealing the art to the world by understanding all its rules and technical details, it is proposed that to truly understand dance we must be open to looking in slower time at the less defined, more ambiguous picture of human experience at the dance’s core. The project’s approach draws inspiration from the film-maker Andrey Tarkovsky’s ethos of documenting the world: “To be faithful to life, intrinsically truthful, a work has for me to be at once an exact factual account and a true communication of feelings”.

Images and film, with drums playing in slow time, respond to the writings of one lion dancer, Kelvin Chan, as he explores his personal journey of mastery and identity. The story of how the dance transforms the individual, while connecting them to their roots, is told through the combination of images, sounds, movement, Kelvin’s narration, and the voices of the artists from the group transcribed from audio interviews.

This project originated from Rebecca’s own deeply personal relationship with dance as a self-defining and healing influence, and also her family origins in Fahtsāan in China, which holds particular significance for the history of the Chinese Lion Dance. Rebecca wanted these two interests to come together into one exploratory and celebratory work that simultaneously makes a record of a disappearing traditional art that is important to a British-Chinese audience, and honours its emotional and spiritual significance to its performers.

Photos from installation at Charing Cross Library, London, September 2023

Editing support by Tim Jeffree