What does it take to be a choreographer in Singapore? Try anything and everything, say some of Singapore’s contemporary dance choreographers.
BY MELANIE LEE
Published on 9 May 2016
BY MELANIE LEE
There are dancers who are happy to dance as long as their legs can carry them, and then there are the dancers who decide they want to go into choreography.
For some, it’s a natural evolution. “As I grew older, I didn’t just want to perform something that was perfect and not related to my life. I wanted to discover more,” says Kuik Swee Boon, who had a stellar dancing career with Singapore Dance Theatre and Spanish dance troupe Compania Nacional de Danza before deciding to set up his own T.H.E Dance Company in 2008.
For others, it’s an opportunity. Raka Maitra, artistic director of CHOWK, was classically trained in Odissi, the oldest Indian dance form. When her husband got a job here in 2004, she decided that the arts scene in Singapore could potentially give her the capacity to experiment. “I was given a space at The Substation, where for the next few years I started developing my own vocabulary of contemporary dance work based on the Odissi classical dance,” she recounts.
Whatever the case, being a choreographer is not for the faint-hearted. It’s not just about designing steps to a dance. A choreographer is also often involved in music, lighting and costumes to ensure everything comes together for a successful performance. Last year, Christina Chan, a full-time artist with Frontier Danceland, collaborated with composer Ho Wen Yang and Ding Yi Music Company to create a score of contemporary music played by traditional Chinese instruments to complement her work themed on generation gaps.
Kavitha Krishnan, creative director and choreographer of Maya Dance Theatre, expands on the idea by exploring alternative performing spaces besides the stage or the black box. In 2013, her company performed outdoors on a rooftop at Little India. “Our objective is to transport the audience to our world and give them a new experience,” she explains.
The additional challenge for these choreographers is the genre they are working with: contemporary dance — a loaded and subjective genre to both dancers and audience alike.
Chan, who has choreographed 12 works since 2011 (while still dancing full-time), believes that contemporary dance gives her creative freedom. “Everything is at your disposal and this dance form can be relevant in any part of the world. I make it a point to work with different dance companies as I don’t want to be labelled into anything.”
Meanwhile, Maitra grapples with what is considered ‘contemporary dance’ in Singapore. “There’s a lot of new work coming out but most of it feels very Westernised… meanwhile, some people don’t quite know what to make of my Asian contemporary work and label me ‘traditional’. It would be good to see more local contemporary works that are better suited for Asian bodies.”
From Krishnan’s point of view, contemporary dance choreography in Singapore is bustling with creativity and the healthy competition is motivating. “At Maya Dance Theatre, we embrace collaboration with independent artists through residencies. We believe this cross-pollination brings something more interesting and holistic.” Her company recently worked with choreographers and dancers from Indonesia, Portugal, the US, Denmark, Germany, Norway and Israel (along with emerging local dance talents) for their recent RELEASE 5.0 productions in early March.
As for Kuik, who presents his company’s new production Helix this month, he’s just glad contemporary dance is a lot more popular now than before.
“Eight years ago, people did not even want to understand this form of dance. But now, there’s this realisation that it is accessible. You may not understand it, but you can still like it. Contemporary dance is actually perfect for a multicultural, migrant country like Singapore. It allows different dance elements to come together to reflect living experiences. And the audience is free to interpret it however they want.”
How do Singapore contemporary dance choreographers find their groove when creating new dance works?
CHRISTINA CHAN, 28
Rehearsal head & full-time artist, Frontier Danceland
“My first collaboration with French artist Aymeric Bichon was semi-terrifying as I’m used to being in control. We’d just roll around together without splitting and see where that would go. Somehow, Midlight, the piece that came out of this, has been quite popular.”
KAVITHA KRISHNAN, 44
Creative director & choreographer, Maya Dance Theatre
“I approach choreography like occupational therapy (what I was trained in) and work out the movements with the dancers. I articulate my ideas to the principal dancer, Shahrin Johry, who then teaches the movements to the rest of the dancers.”
RAKA MAITRA, 45
Artistic director, CHOWK
“As an avid reader, my dances are usually inspired by literature. In the past, I’ve done work based on the writings of Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, Sri Lankan Tamil poet Cheran, and Persian poet and astronomer Omar Khayyam.”
KUIK SWEE BOON, 43
Artistic director & choreographer, T.H.E Dance Company
“Before I begin anything, I will ask myself what I need. This is because dance is essentially my way of communicating to the world. What do I have to say? What does my body want to express?”