Gabbie Chan, Catharsis Beyond the Theatre

Gabbie Chan Hiu-ling’s From Scratch;
Dancer: Chan Man-kwan; Photo: Eric

When I first saw Gabbie Chan Hiu-ling’s performance in Passoverdance’s Site Specific Series, Fabric, she gave the impression of being a dancer with strength. Later, she showed other dark and deep qualities in her performances of 37ºC, Croxxing, and Heaven Behind the Door II. In addition to performing, in recent years, she has also choreographed, including works such as The 16th Day and From Scratch. She will present her new work, Lördagsgodis, in the coming ‘New Force in Motion’ Series; she talked about her experiences in my interview with her.

The 16th Day – Sleepless Six Months

In talking with Gabbie about The 16th Day, my memory of this 2016 work is somewhat blurred. I can only recall a dusky space with a hanging light bulb, a mixture of electronic noises, a dark atmosphere.

I once thought The 16th Day was only a response on Haruki Murakami’s short story, Sleep. Yet Chan “was experiencing an inhuman life without sleep for half of a year … living the 24 hours of every day with eyes opened … getting used to this sleepless state and searching for something to do.” Then, she read Sleep. She describes the story as making a point about how our values and choices are affected. From here, she created The 16th Day.

The 16th Day does not only respond to her state, but everything happening around her. One of the movement motifs in The 16th Day comes from an ADHD student in her creative movement classes. She found that on somedays, the student would involuntarily have episodes of head twitching during the lesson. When she mentioned the student’s behavior to other teachers, none of them had noticed it. Chan started to think about what caused the student’s body to react as it did. During her sleepless days, her mind functioned around the clock like a nonstop engine, With every single perception, Chan attempted to figure out and question what was causing this to happen.

After half a year of sleepless days and nights, her continuous insomnia faded with the completion of the piece.


To Think, to Choreograph

Although she was mentally awake during her bout of sleeplessness, I asked if there were any changes in her body? Her response was “Yes!”. Other than getting thinner, she once felt paralyzed and had a diminished sensation of her body as if she “were wearing a down jacket”. That weakened sense of one’s body is really distressing for a dancer, but Chan tried to adapt to it. She bluntly acknowledges that she doesn’t long to dance as she did before. Instead, she enjoys the research process when choreographing a work. “I like to think.” As she has already become accomplished as a dancer, she hopes to find another side of herself as a choreographer.

Still, Chan works closely with a few choreographers, such as Pewan Chow and Chloe Wong. She appreciates that despite their unique artistic choices, they are very open to different dancers’ opinions during the creative process. In collaboration, Chan sees not only how they develop their original ideas, but also how they try and absorb new elements. She was stimulated by how they think.

In my opinion, Chan is discovering her choreographer-self even while she works as a dancer.

When thoughts are evoked through research, how does she synchronize these with the movements in her work? She admits that she is better at guiding dancers to improvise according to certain states and emotions. Movements discovered in this way carry the story and meaning of the dancers. On the other hand, even when she gives meanings to pure movements, she finds it hard to put these movements into her choreography


Out of Sight, Out of Mind

The 16th Day was re-run in the City Contemporary Dance Festival last November, but Chan was more satisfied with the original version. She couldn’t find, or didn’t try hard enough to recapture the original state. After creating The 16th Day, she is no longer interested in exploring the topic of insomnia, but instead wants to investigate memory. To be exact, she described it is those memories that seem to be “out of sight, out of mind”. However, she believes that the idea of “out of sight, out of mind” is impossible. When one refuses to see something so as not to recall a memory, it is just because one remembers it. She thinks that memory seems to be reliable but actually is not. For example, if one says, “I have done it,” 300 times, one will believe it and create a false memory, “I have done it. I am developing in this direction: Is it true that a certain memory belongs to me? Will a memory be remembered after setting it aside? Out of sight, then out of mind?” she mused.

Chan looks into how loss or confusion of memory happen and she comes across different examples of patients with dementia and memory loss due to self-protection mechanisms. One example is of a patient who was so startled one Christmas that she could not bear the emotion and deleted its memory. Still, her body “remembers”. Every Christmas, the patient panicked without reason until she sought psychological counseling to trace the memory.

She attempts to transform these investigations into movements and present them in her work.

Why do these disappearing memories interest her? Chan revealed that she recalled some “out of sight” memories during the creative process for The 16th Day. Without realizing it, these memories affected her and her ways of seeing. When these memories were recalled, they resolved some of her problems. That’s why she is interested in them.

The name of Chan’s forthcoming work Lördagsgodis means Saturday candy in Swedish. Saturday is the only day that Swedish children can buy and eat candies. They will visit the local store and buy a bag of ‘pick and mix’ candy. It is the highlight of the week. Some research has shown that people experience memory loss and reduced memory when absorbing too much sugar.[1] Candy packages may look lovely and great but they harm one’s teeth and memory. Similarly, some childhood memories may be pleasant but may unconsciously affect our values and thoughts.

Gabbie Chan’s The 16th Day (2016); Dancer: Skinny Ng; Photo: Keith Hiro

Creative Movement, Arts Therapy

Chan continues, “This is also related to my concerns and why I will start to study expressive art therapy.” As a result of being a choreographer, she has questioned herself about what she wants to do, and has decided to study a three year Master’s degree program in expressive art therapy starting this September.

She believes that the experiences a person accumulates affect character and values. Chan has been teaching creative movement in schools for eight years. She has shared her recent interest in evoking children’s creativity. Their creativity can tell her a lot of things nonverbally. She finds this interesting. She hopes that art can help children avoid the tactic of pushing memories “out of sight” and prevent them from developing mood disorders.

She suggests that dance education today should open children’s minds and let them see dance differently. She describes herself as an unpredictable teacher. She will develop the lesson according to reactions of the children. She is unpredictable because children are always unpredictable. She shared one of her lessons: children begin playing with newspapers – playing under the newspapers – then the newspapers are removed and the children have to continue moving as if the newspapers were still there. It was surprising that the children exclaimed, “She is dancing! He is dancing!” This reminded her that children are already very open-minded. Compared to current lessons that are still ‘dance’ oriented, she wishes to be more open-minded as well, “As long as the children know that they can actually move their bodies, or can move them more, that will be good enough.”

In the past two years, Chan has tried to contact some schools to conduct creative movement workshops as post-examination activities. She hopes to develop creative movement and combine it with art therapy in the coming three years. And she will continue holding creative movement workshops for the schools to let them see how arts can influence students.

When the conversation comes to an end, Chan shared that not only The 16th Day, but also others of her works, in fact, reflect her different emotions including depression, and, through the process of creating them, they healed her in different senses. After the ‘New Force in Motion’ Series in September, Chan may concentrate on her studies over the next three years. Although there may not be catharsis from creation, she will explore other kinds of catharsis beyond the theatre.

  1. Alice G. Walton (2017). “Too Much Sugar Linked To Reduced Memory, Brain Volume”, Forbes.
    David DiSalvo (2012). “What Eating Too Much Sugar Does to Your Brain”, Psychology Today.


Program Detail
‘New Force in Motion’ Series
Gabbie Chan Hiu-ling, Lördagsgodis

Dancers: Chan Lok-hin, Cyrus Hui
28* – 29/9 (8pm) ; 29 – 30/9 (3pm)
* With Meet-the-artist Session
Black Box Theatre, Kwai Tsing Theatre
Program Detail:


Hin-fung Fung

Published in dance/journal hk 20-4, 2018 Aug.

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