Cultural Moves

Published on 26 March 2017

To veteran choreographer Yan Choong Lian, dance is an art form and a set of values.


“A dancer is a useful member of society,” declares the founder/artistic director of Dance Ensemble Singapore (DES), Yan Choong Lian. Yan has deep belief in the cultivation of dancers as highly disciplined, cultured and respectful individuals who excel both in and out of the studio. Growing up in a time when dance was not perceived as a viable career option, Yan worked at a day job and practised Chinese dance in the evenings. She first developed her art as a teenager with the People’s Association before moving on to the National Dance Company and Practice Theatre School. She received the National Youth Award in 1983, which enabled her to hone her skills at the acclaimed Beijing Dance Academy. Yan helmed her first dance company in 1988, and subsequently founded DES in 1993.

Countless dance enthusiasts, some as young as three years old, have been trained by DES, and promising talents wanting more than classes and non-professional performances are nurtured for more serious pursuit. DES Arts Company (DES Arts) was established in 2009 as an organisation of professional dancers, some of whom have learned and trained under DES.

While she is a staunch believer in tradition and heritage, Yan is also a free spirit open to innovating. Under her tutelage, female dancers train for grace and skill while male dancers are required to learn wushu for agility and strength. Yet, rather than retain the delicacy typical of traditional Chinese dance, Yan’s choreography embraces strong steps, giving the works a more contemporary feel.

“People had commented our pieces were not Chinese dance but modern dance. Then, in 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong praised our work as an example of ‘Nanyang’ culture,” says Yan with pride. And that is the crux of what she works so hard towards. “I want to create a unique dance form that represents Singapore’s culture.” Indeed, DES has represented Singapore in performances in other countries, most recently in Germany and Canada.

Community is foremost in Yan’s world of dance. “A person’s wealth is not measured by their material riches, but in the presence of strong culture in their lives. Culture is embodied in sincerity, honesty, love, and filial piety.” The latter features strongly in the school’s teachings: young students must greet their elders with a gesture of respect, grasping the elder’s hand and bowing.

“I believe that a person who has culture has beauty of heart and mind. They have gratitude, graciousness and sense of responsibility to their family, friends, co-workers and society at large. My passion is to nurture this culture and discipline through dance.”

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