We Like to Move It, Move It!

Published on 21 July 2015

Pioneers Goh Lay Kuan, Santha Bhaskar and Som Said aren’t hanging up their dancing shoes anytime soon. All three Cultural Medallion recipients are hard at work on a collaborative cross-cultural project that promises to be groundbreaking.

TEXT BY PAMELA HO

It hit her like a brick wall during Christmas in Australia in the 1960s. The talented ballet dancer was then in her early 20s, having worked several jobs to afford her training in Melbourne. That Christmas, in the company of international students, Goh Lay Kuan had to put up an item reflecting her country’s culture.

“We saw the Chinese preparing a Chinese dance — we could never be better than them! The Indians were doing an Indian dance — we couldn’t do that. What were we going to do? We realised we didn’t have a solid culture we could say was Singaporean,” she exclaims. “How can we have no culture? Who are we?

“We all felt terrible. That was when I understood the link between culture and identity — I felt it very, very strongly.”

Now 76, the ballet doyenne attributes her relentless drive to develop the performing arts to her experiences in the 1950s and ’60s. Fuelled by the student movement of the ’50s, which opened her eyes to Singapore’s multiculturalism, then witnessing the racial riots, she saw the potential of dance to pull diverse groups together.

When she and her late husband, theatre pioneer and fellow Cultural Medallion recipient Kuo Pao Kun, returned to Singapore, they knew they had a lot of creative work to do. “Because only when it’s creative does it belong to us: it’s our life, it’s our expression, it’s us. Then it’s Singapore.”

THE EARLY YEARS

“Pao Kun and I made an agreement that no matter how successful we were in Australia, we would return to Singapore,” reveals Mdm Goh. “It was a huge struggle for me because I was at my peak as a principal dancer there. I had to come back and run a school.”

In 1965, the couple set up the Practice Performing Arts School (forerunner of The Theatre Practice) to train dancers and theatre practitioners not just in techniques, but in the values of inter-cultural collaboration.

But in those early years, the largely uneducated population had little to no disposable income for arts training or concerts. With no government funding and a limited pool of students and audiences, being a dancer was far from an easy or glamorous life.

Mrs Santha Bhaskar, founder and artistic director of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy, a leading Indian performing arts group, remembers having to drive to Malaysia to find work. Sometimes, they were not even paid.

The Classical Muse

Santha Bhaskar’s wondrous journey.

In 1954, Kerala Kalamandalam (a top performing arts university in Kerala) sent a team of Indian classical dancers to Singapore to perform at the Victoria Theatre, under the invitation of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy. Sixty years on, Singapore sends Mrs Santha Bhaskar back to her Motherland to choreograph that same piece, Dussasana Vadham, for this year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA).

As part of the Indian diaspora, Mrs Bhaskar has spent the last six decades learning from Chinese and Malay communities here. She has also travelled to Thailand to immerse herself in Thai culture and dance. Through the years, she has choreographed Indian classical dance based on Chinese epics (Journey to the West and Butterfly Lovers), poems in Malay, Tamil, Chinese, and even works by Shakespeare.

Mrs Bhaskar was conferred the Cultural Medallion in 1990. 

With this SIFA-commissioned piece, Smriti Padha (Memory Route), she presents Kathakali, Mohiniyattam and Kalaripayattu on stage together for the first time, incorporating different cultural elements in the choreography of the prologue and epilogue. “At first, the masters were suspicious of me, and sat in to see if I was doing the right thing,” she says with a chuckle. They ended up being impressed and enlightened by
her ingenuity.

THE MORE WE ARE TOGETHER

Mrs Bhaskar’s late husband, dance pioneer Mr K P Bhaskar, had set up an Indian classical dance academy in 1952. When she arrived by boat from Kerala in 1955, she was instantly mesmerised by the cultural diversity of her new home. The couple sought out friends from other ethnic communities from whom to learn dance.

It was then that Mrs Bhaskar and Mdm Goh forged a friendship. “No one told us to do it. We did it because we wanted to, because we’re friends,” says Mrs Bhaskar, 76, with a smile. “I used to go to her house two or three times a week to teach and learn dance, it was cultural exchange.”

“You see, unless we are together and learn from each other, we cannot create a culture. Culture doesn’t develop overnight, it takes time,” Mdm Goh explains. “If these cultures are in my blood, when I choreograph, ideas will flow out naturally. Multiculturalism is not cut-and-paste, it’s not wearing a Malay costume, doing an Indian dance and singing in Chinese.”

DIVERSIFIED STEPS

“Even for us Malays, our dance roots are from Indonesia,” says Mdm Som Said, founder and artistic director of Sri Warisan Som Said Performing Arts Limited. “Around 1957, two instructors from Indonesia came to teach us the five basic components of Malay folk dance — Asli, Inang, Masri, Zapin and Ronggeng (Joget).

But seeing how Singaporean Malay dancers kept falling back on Indonesian traditions, Mdm Som felt the need to develop a Singapore Malay dance.

Inspired by weddings and the symbolism of its props, she researched and choreographed dances incorporating elements of everyday life of Singaporean Malays. “When I look back, I realise it was about our culture; but then, I didn’t think like this. I just felt it was more meaningful to have something that was truly ours.”

This exploration extended beyond individual cultures to cross-cultural collaborations. In 1971, when the-then Ministry of Culture formed the National Dance Company, the various ethnic groups experimented together, from performing separate ethnic dances to integrating them into one (one costume, one song, one dance), to unity in diversity.

In this same spirit of collaboration, the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) 2015 will bring Mdm Goh, Mrs Bhaskar and Mdm Som together to mentor the next generation of multicultural choreographers — Meenakshy Bhaskar, Jenny Neo, Sudirman bin Mohamed, Osman Abdul Hamid, Low Ee Chiang — as they take up the challenge to create a Singapore dance from ground up.

The Dancing Girl

Som Said’s flirtatious affair with dance, 50 years on.

Her love for dance began with Malay movies in the 1950s. “As a child, I had to follow my elder sister because my mother didn’t allow her to go alone,” reveals Mdm Som Said. “I was very attracted to the dance and beautiful costumes. I memorised the steps, went home and danced in front of the mirror!”

At age eight, with no formal training, she was already performing in school. “They called me the mentel [flirtatious] girl because I was always dancing!” she muses.

In 1965, she joined the Sriwana cultural group, eventually becoming its artistic director. She was then invited to join the National Dance Company in 1971, and travelled the world as a cultural ambassador. In 1997, Mdm Som founded Sri Warisan Som Said Performing Arts Limited and is currently its artistic director. This year, she celebrates 50 years of dance.

Mdm Som was conferred the Cultural Medallion in 1987.

AGAINST THE CURRENT

Entitled Returning, this SIFA-commissioned work is inspired by the life cycle of the salmon that swims upstream to return to the waters of its birth to spawn.

“The tough part is making the younger generation understand what we’re trying to do. Once they step into this project, they have to prepare themselves to change,” says Mdm Goh, who helms this labour of love as artistic director.

Production started two years ago and is now at the tail end of preparations. “With this project, it’s not about the end product but the process,” asserts Mdm Som. “What we hope the next generation will take away is the values we’re imparting. We see it as moving forward with tradition.”

“To me, it’s an extension of what we’ve done,” says Mdm Goh, referring to the cross-cultural exchanges and collaborations that started in the 1950s. “In Returning, you’ll see three generations coming together and holding hands, that symbolism is important. These young dancers have journeyed together, learning from each other. They have the techniques, they have the materials, now what do they want to do with it? What do they want to express?”

It will be exciting for us to see what their journey of discovery has spawned.

Returning is on at the Drama Centre Theatre, 13-15 Aug, 8pm. Tickets available via Sistic. For more information, visit www.sifa.sg.

The Driven Ballerina

Goh Lay Kuan, ballet rebel with a cause.

There is almost a shroud of romanticism surrounding this ageless ballerina. At 76, Mdm Goh Lay Kuan still makes heads turn with her cropped hair, lithe frame and immaculate posture.

Forget the fact that she’s the widow of theatre doyen, Kuo Pao Kun, or the fact that they were detained in the 1970s on suspicion of Communist activities, Goh is not one to mince her words. Deemed a rebel, but not without a cause, she’s been known to slam doors and overturn tables in protest.

Goh picked up ballet at 15, training secretly under Goh Soo Nee (sister of the late Goh Choo San). To save up for further training in Australia at 19, she worked as a kindergarten teacher, Chinese tutor and Rediffusion artist. Upon graduating with honours, she became principal dancer with the Victoria Ballet Company.

These days, she devotes her time to educating children in the performing arts through play, and serves as artistic advisor to The Theatre Practice, which she co-founded with Kuo. Her works include Nu Wa – Mender of the Heavens, Om and The Homing Fish.

Mdm Goh was conferred the Cultural Medallion in 1995.
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