There’s a lot of nervous laughter in the room as Southernmost’s featured artists meet each other for the first time in the Centre 42 rehearsal room, our home for the week. They’ve been asked to prepare a five-minute physical introduction to their practice, as well as a ten-minute verbal introduction, which will be followed by a Q&A session. All of us are getting a lay of the land, a sense of how our cultural and aesthetic topographies overlap and intersect.
Elizabeth Chan (Singapore; Chinese dance)
Elizabeth’s the first to start and she introduces us to two character types – the “generic damsel in distress” and the young male scholar – as well as the hanzu yangge or the Han ethnic folk dance. There’s a lot of coquettish fan work: she hides behind her unfurled paper fan and gives us lots of playful sideways glances in-between billowy arcs and balletic turns. She admits she gave her “young male scholar” more femininity than sticklers for tradition might have liked, but hey, these sensitive scholar types were all rather 清秀 (qing xiu; delicate, pretty – think Jia Baoyu in Dream of the Red Chamber).
Still panting after her dance demonstration, Elizabeth’s hot-seated by us on a chair in the centre of the room (“like a job interview!”), and we get a crash course in Chinese dance, which isn’t the monolithic bloc its umbrella term might suggest. It helps that Elizabeth’s currently doing her PhD at NUS on Chinese dance in Singapore and the region. In China, Chinese dance is very much part of the national project, riddled with notions of “national legacy”. It doesn’t only incorporate Chinese classical dance, which draws some influence from ballet, Chinese opera, as well as Tang dynasty sculptures and images, but also the ethnic folkdances of the 56 recognised ethnic groups (including contestable ones such as Tibet and Xinjiang). In Singapore, Chinese dance has been swallowed up by the C-M-I-O structure and there are plenty of assumptions about its function as a “cultural” or “traditional” form.
There’s a question from Amin (who collaborated with Elizabeth earlier this year on a performance lecture called Intersections) about whether Elizabeth feels any sort of affiliation with China, or if Chinese dancers look to China for trends and permissibility. Elizabeth emphasises the enormous cultural chasm between Singapore and China and her own identity as a jiak kentang (Hokkien-Malay hybrid slang for “someone who eats potatoes”, i.e. a westernised person) – but yep, China’s still the place to get respectability and legitimacy. That also means there’s a lot more experimentation and invention there, and that what is “popular” or “correct” in China is also rapidly changing through social media and viral Chinese dance videos.
Nget Rady (Phnom Penh; Lakhaon Khaol)
Rady begins his demonstration with a guttural, soul-puncturing set of yips and howls, coming from somewhere so deep within his diaphragm you can actually feel the molecules reverberating in the room. He drops to his knees and into a loping walk across the room, scratching himself and sniffing the air. You can see him making the transition from monkey to human and back again, as he straightens up into a slow, sashaying strut; then into an angular, wide stance; then back into the monkey as he gambols off stage. They’re the character archetypes of Lakhaon Khaol, the Cambodian masked dance form for male performers: the monkey, the woman, the man and the giant – but he was improvising each of their movements. The dance form possibly dates back to the 9th century, but it’s a form riven by war and civil conflict, and they had to “start from zero” in the 1970s to reclaim their art: “We stole from our neighbours – we were influenced by our neighbours. But they also stole and were influenced by us.” He’s referring here to the artistic practices of Cambodia’s neighbouring countries – Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar – but I’m pretty certain, as with all tussles over what is originary, that practitioners from each of those countries will probably tell you a different story. There’s also a discussion about funding and if the various arts schools in Cambodia are supported by the state (you guessed it: not very much; or not as much as they need it to be).
Rady graduated from the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh and is currently teaching there, and he also works with Amrita Performing Arts. He’s fresh from a seven-month residency in New York last year and has been thinking about how to reinvent how traditional dance is conventionally taught – which is basically by mimicry and rote learning. The teacher performs an action, the students copy him, and he adjusts them in turn without much explanation about, as Rady puts it, “what is behind the movement”, what comes between the movement and the inner workings of the body and mind. You might also go to two separate masters who will teach you completely different approaches to the same gesture (even the gesture itself might be contested). There’s an empathetic chorus from the other Southernmost artists who were taught their art forms in exactly the same way. This master-disciple structure is prevalent throughout Asia, Amin points out, but it seems as though the younger generation of practitioners are acquiring and giving their students more agency. (Didik Nini Thowok giggles: “Sometimes the teacher doesn’t give his students all the knowledge or secrets. If they know ten things, maybe they only teach eight! But I’m lucky my teacher liked me and told me everything!”)
Rady’s also a contemporary dance practitioner (and I’m using the terms “traditional” and “contemporary” really loosely here, because as the day progresses they really just become easy, reductive handles for what is terrifyingly complex), and he’s been looking at what he can borrow from contemporary practice that might be useful for traditional forms, including their philosophies and theories of aesthetics and movement and how techniques are taught. (Elizabeth: “I think contemporary dance teaches you how to feel… You can feel the blood under your skin, the muscles, all these sensations.”)
Soultari Amin Farid (Singapore; Malay dance)
Amin gives us a short performative introduction to Malay dance forms before his demonstration (so he won’t be out of breath after!). He moves around a bench, demonstrating snippets from the five key Malay dance forms (asli, inang, joget, zapin, masri), rocking back and forth lightly on his feet, or dipping and tilting his entire body at an angle to the ground – and then he sits on the bench, moving across it as reels off his five identities: Javanese, Minangkabau, Baweanese, Bugis, Banjarese. He questions notions of “indigeneity”: Singapore’s sandwiched between Malaysia and Indonesia and their culture wars. “But this identity crisis is okay,” he grins, “I’m just going to dance.” He whips and whirls across the room to an upbeat score, moving so quickly that this photographic still above – which is still a blur – is the only reasonably clear picture I could capture of him (WordPress won’t let me upload videos unless I upgrade to premium, ugh).
Amin’s also doing his PhD – we happened to get two dancer PhDs in the same room! – at Royal Holloway in the UK, and is back in Singapore for the year to do his fieldwork. Like Rady, he’s a sojourner between that well-crossed border of the traditional and the contemporary, where he can mould himself to what the traditional dance community wants, but also to the demands of contemporary practice (you’ll see him performing at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in January). But he also feels the pressure, as a minority practitioner in Singapore, to constantly safeguard or preserve a traditional practice, this inescapable “minority complex”: “It feels like we either have to be the best or be invisible!” Elizabeth echoes this, adding: “Do you know who never needs to define themselves? Contemporary dance. They don’t have this cultural baggage.” I suppose it’s true, that when what’s perceived as a “traditional” dance form experiments, it’s declared either apostasy or radical innovation, but experimentation in “contemporary” dance never shoulders the same burden.
Didik is all for this border-crossing, this liminality – he’s one of Amin’s idols, and the two had a lovely conversation about the deep connections of maritime Nusantara (the Malay archipelago) and their own textured origins: Amin’s family arrived in Singapore by way of Padang (Sumatra) and Negri Sembilan (Malaysia); Didik is 15th-generation Fujian on his father’s side and Javanese on his mother’s side. Already we’re forming nodes and paths to each other from across the region.
Jing Ng (Singapore; sound design)
Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of Jing because he did his demonstration in the dark. There happened to be a piano in the Centre 42 rehearsal room, and Jing promptly removed the exterior panelling, revealing the intricate soundboard, hammers and string beneath. He repeatedly struck the middle C key – you could see the hammer rise and fall, making a soft tok-tok sound – while playing with the different effects of the piano’s three pedals: the soft pedal, the sostenuto pedal and the damper pedal. This experiment didn’t work as well as he might have liked because of the quality of the piano, but it gave a sense of how one might bring out various textures from an instrument with a taken-for-granted timbre. Jing said that he loved opening up the piano like this because ” to me, the hammers are the breath of the piano – it’s like breathing without making a sound.”
We had a brief discussion with him about the “invisible” sound designer in the theatre, and how he resists the dichotomy of “sound artist” and “sound designer” by simply saying “I do sound” the way a dancer, to him, might “do body movement” (Amin promptly pointed out how inscribed bodies are by their race). It was striking to Jing to see all the performers enter without instruments and use the instrument of their bodies; what might happen if a musician entered a space without his instrument? (He said he might have used the sound system and played with concept of feedback.) (At that point, liuqin musician Ee Vian Loi happened to enter the room with her instrument.)
One of the pleasures of doing sound for performance, he felt, is that “sound design isn’t about how I feel, it’s about how the piece feels.” Xiaoyi said his favourite bit of sound design from Jing was from 11: Kuo Pao Kun Devised where Jing turned on an enormous industrial fan, which roared to life, then turned it off again to a profound silence.