Dancers of Our Decade
#DOOD is an ongoing social campaign that aims to humanise dancers by sharing their stories with the public. TFC speaks to a wide portfolio of dancers to learn about their motivations, aspirations and the influences that have made them who they are today.
Could you tell us abit about your dance career?
I started dancing because I wanted to be cool. It was the thing to do, at Scouts’ gatherings back in Ipoh, to show off to the girls, obviously. I never got to go to a gathering though, so much for that.
But I continued to pick up stuff, by patiently waiting for a music video with cool moves to replay on TV (this was before YouTube and VOD), and learning from friends, and later in the dance ensemble in VJ. After JC, I took a gap year to figure out what I wanted to do with my life (instead of jumping straight into uni to study something I wasn't sure I wanted to do - also, being Malaysian, I didn't have to serve NS), and decided that I wanted to study dance, so I enrolled in NAFA.
I was pretty lucky, I must say, and managed to Land a position with Frontier Danceland right after completing my time at NAFA, and I danced with Frontier for approximately four years. It was a great time, and I got to travel to Europe and around Asia during my time with Frontier.
Some of the awesome people I've had the chance to dance for over the past years are Pichet Klunchun, Wu Chien-Wei, Olé Khamchanla, Christina Chan, Lee Mun Wai, Noa Zuk and Ohad Fishof, Shahar Binyamini, Kate Prince, Gabrielle Nankivell and Luke Smiles and Sita Ostheimer.
What led to your decision in becoming a full time dancer?
I decided to dance simply because I enjoyed it, and I didn't know what else I would actually be willing to do with my life.
Also, as a Christian, I believe that God shows us what he wants us to do partially by his provision for us. In the rare moments when I looked at my abilities honestly, I never considered myself a great dancer, and yet I was given opportunities that were to me, quite mind-blowing. In particular, back in 2009 when I was trying to make up my mind about what I wanted to do, I was given the chance to perform for Celebrate Christmas in Singapore with a cast of dancers from Mosaic Church in LA that included professional dancers who had graced the stages of the So You Think You Can Dance finals and Cirque du Soleil. What in the world was I doing in that production? It didn't make any sense, and yet there I was, on stage with them.
This was just one story, among many that came both before and after. And yes, you may call such events fortuitous or karmic or random happenstance, but I see them as the providence of God.
Today, I choose to continue dancing because I still love what I do. As an independent artist, I struggle a lot more with finding purpose and meaning in dance because now I actually need to find that for myself instead of just “doing my job”, but I believe there are many valuable things about dancing, whether it be in the messages and ideas to be shared through performance, or lessons to be taught through teaching dance and movement classes, that need to be shared with the world.
And at the end of the day, I just enjoy what I do. And that's truly, deeply valuable and powerful, affirming of the very nature of life itself.
What is it like being in an industry that has a demographic with significantly more females than males?
Absolutely terrible. Haha! I kid.
It's a difficult question to answer, because my experiences with different ladies, whether fellow dancers or choreographers or students, have been vastly different.
I've had the chance to work with some female choreographers who have provided the opportunity to work in a style of movement that I really enjoy, a style of leadership that is easy to respect and concepts or stories that I can appreciate. There have also been colleagues who have encouraged me to push myself and try dangerous things, and then also acted as the voice of reason when performances drew near and safety and consistency became the primary concerns. I had a great time working with and for these ladies, and would be thrilled to do so again.
And sometimes, I've had dance experiences with other ladies that didn't make for fond memories.
That is, I believe, the nature of work. Whatever you do and wherever you go, there will be people you vibe with and people with whom you don't.
The difficulty, specific to studying in a conservatory or working in a full-time dance company, is that virtually everything you do is group work. There is homework that you can do to perform better individually, but ultimately, the group must come together as a whole, and both men and women can help or hinder that process.
That being said, in my personal experience, many ladies in contemporary dance come from relatively similar backgrounds, beginning training in ballet from a very young age, and being shaped in taste, thought and mannerisms by that experience. The men I have encountered, on the other hand, come from a wider range of backgrounds, and began formal dance training later in life. This results in greater similarities of preferences between the ladies, and a less united voice among the men, and when there are already more ladies than men, it means the men often get outvoted when it comes to what kind of class we do in the mornings, or on the issue of choreographic details that need to be standardised when a choreographer or rehearsal director isn't around. In the long run, this can feel like a kind of bias against men and our opinions is taking place, whether or not that's actually happening.
Whoever you work with, male or female, though, you have to remember that the individual ego must be in submission to the work that is being created. And that's always hard, whoever you're engaging with and whatever capacity you're engaged in for a project.
If you could give one piece of advice to male dancers that are keen to become a dancer/are just starting out, what would it be?
Take risks. Don't be too careful, cause what will you learn that way? Sure, you might fail, or get hurt, but that's part of learning and growing. So whether it's learning a move that's potentially dangerous, or a choreographic choice for a school piece or paid work, stretch yourself and take a chance, and learn from the experience.
And with all the information that's available online nowadays, and the people it's so easy to connect to, you don't have to take risks blindly, but can do so in a prepared manner that can truly equip you for amazing things. So figure out what you want to do, do some research, prepare yourself, and then go for it, even if it's risky.
Final year NAFA student
What does dance mean to you?
Dance is a part of me.
I enjoy the kinetic feeling and find pleasure in dancing as I am able always able to derive a satisfactory sense of accomplishment.
I like performing and exploring new ways to move. It is difficult and challenging for me to pursue my passion, but it’s by pushing boundaries and learning through downfalls that motivates me to go further.
There definitely are challenges that come with pursuing art as a career, be it financially or otherwise, which is why I remind myself day in and day out that it is a privilege to be able to pursue a career in what I am passionate about.
Dancer at Frontier Danceland
What inspires you to create?
I feel the urge to create when I find myself pondering over a string of thought again and again. If I can't stop thinking about something, I feel the need to provide for it a tangible, visual outlet, and that is when I decide to use choreography as my tool to create an experience for myself, the performers and the audience.
In my choreography I usually address something that everyone would likely empathise with and relate to on a personal level.
Many feelings are universal, and choreography and dance is, for me, a way to let everyone know that they're not alone in their thoughts and emotions. Along the way, music, visual arts, films, theatre and other types of art inspire me greatly and feed into my work, and often, a piece of art would affect me to a degree where it actually kick-starts one of these recurring strings of thought.
What aspects of choreography do you as a dancer and a creator find the most compelling?
As a choreographer, I am ecstatic when someone tells me that they've made a connection between my piece and their personal experiences. It could be someone from the audience, as well as a performer from the choreography. This always reassures me of the purpose in my work, and in art itself.
As a dancer, my primary focus is on using my physical and mental abilities to transform myself into a vessel to express authentically and genuinely. To me, it's a very different experience from being a choreographer. When I choreograph, my role is physically more removed from the piece itself, similar to that of a director, painter, or author. I currently prefer not to dance in my own work, so that I can allow my ideas and movements to brew and transform within the dancers' own unique bodies.
Was there a particular difficult time/incident in your dance career where you struggled? If so, could you tell us more about it and how you overcame that problem?
My first semester in New Zealand was the toughest. Having started a semester later than my peers, I was thrown into the deep end of things very quickly, and had to figure things out myself. Being young and naive, and having been trained since young to achieve technical mastery and perfection in dance, I expected things to be black and white. However, I struggled when we started venturing into the grey areas. My lecturers in New Zealand would never given me a direct answer, but instead they would constantly provoke me with questions about why I dance, why am I doing a particular movement, how am I doing that particular movement, what are other parts of my body experiencing as I execute that particular movement, how does that particular movement translate to my intentions/concept etc. The questions were overwhelming, and I found myself constantly frustrated. However, once I was able to let go of my narrow mindset and practice flexibility in my thinking, I realised that I experienced a lot more as a dancer, and was more critical and attentive within my dance practices. As much as technicality of dance is important, I think a thinking dancer is equally valuable.
What / who keeps you motivated to dance?
I’ve always had a fascination with the human body, specifically the movement of the human body. I guess that’s what mainly drives me in my exploration and choreography. The humanising aspect of the body makes it so real and engaging. But with that being said, and as cliche as it may sound, my loved ones are also a huge motivating factor when it comes to my dancing, especially when times get tough.
Why did you decide to come back to dance in Singapore? With that being said, what do you think about the dance scene here?
My main reason for returning to Singapore was because of dance research. My time abroad has definitely fuelled my interest in dance research, particularly in research areas such as intercultural dance education and acculturation in dance. Therefore with the intentions of furthering my research in future, I am particularly interested in finding out more about the dance scene in Singapore, and its happenings, as I’ve been away for quite some time.
Since being back, I think the dance scene in Singapore is filled with amazing potential, and it’s very heartening to see so many young and talented individuals getting involved in the dance scene. Although the Singapore dance scene continues to be strong and vibrant, I wonder if there could be more opportunities for dance practitioners to have a open dialogue about dance issues and experiences beyond the four walls of the Singapore dance community.