——— Reflections on champions of Singapore’s contemporary dance scene, and why we can do more for companies and independent practitioners.
Bold, brash and brave. The performance platform DiverCity has been part of the M1 CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival since the inaugural 2010 edition. Transforming through various configurations the essence has been the same: to open the creative space to Singaporean contemporary dance companies and independents with a mission to innovate, take risks, move out of their physical, emotional and past-practice comfort zones. Once a melange of time slots in a small company showcase format, the 2014 edition powered into the present gaining currency through the collision course of four of Singapore’s most respected female dancers. Yarra Ileto, Jessica Christina, Sheriden Newman, and Wang Wei Wei presented Noted with Thanks about identity, being foreigners and working in Singapore. Exposing their thoughts and feelings about staying or leaving with engaging humour and raw honesty, it unleashed a creative force fuelled by diverse backgrounds and dance ideologies. The show heralded a turning point for the notion of DiverCity as a springboard to voice individuality, and push boundaries.
Conceptualised by Festival Director Kuik Swee Boon, he stresses DiverCity’s long term vision is “to highlight and support the works of local dance companies and artists – sharing resources and collectively building audiences, being versatile as a platform for revisiting past works and showcasing new creations.” This year (2015) takes yet another new path. It is co-presented by the National Arts Council and T.H.E Dance Company, in conjunction with M1 CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival 2015. Taking an arms-length stance, participants were selected by an independent panel with T.H.E as the producers of the event. In part a response to Singaporeans visiting Dance Massive in Melbourne earlier in the year, the local companies and independents will not only perform for local audiences but also to an international delegation of Australian artists, producers, and presenters.
Once seen as an emerging contemporary dance scene, some of the current group of Singapore companies and independents now have up to 20 years under their belts. As the second wave of artists after the pioneers of the post colonial independence era, expectations were high as many embarked on dance journeys that took them overseas for training, to gain academic qualifications and dance experience. Returning home, the ground work was laid with a broad base to allow growth and development across the sector including financial support, international performing opportunities, cultural exchange programmes, emerging choreographic opportunities and more.
Some groups maintain strong links with the traditional dance arts like Malay-based Era Dance Theatre and Chinese-based Hokkien Huay Kuan Arts & Cultural Troupe, while testing the waters with a hybrid mix of east/west dance vocabulary. Others create with western techniques and incorporate local narratives, imagery and thematic material. Most take on the serious business of dance education encompassing outreach programmes to schools and communities to build audiences and interest the next generation in contemporary dance. Vibrant, committed and resilient the Singapore contemporary dance community is active and participatory.
So what are some challenges? Generally the standard of dance technique in Singapore has some way to go to match their counterparts in countries like Australia, New Zealand, the UK and U.S. Tertiary training schools such as LASALLE and NAFA offer comprehensive degree programmes without separate course options for intensive ballet training, teacher education, community dance, dramaturgy, research and more. Students often come to dance through a background of mixed physical training including traditional dance forms, ballet, contemporary, hip hop and more – while this diversity contributes to an eclectic choreographic palette it subjugates the attainment of virtuosic complexity in a particular form.
Singaporeans also favour product over process and the number of productions each group presents each year is excessive. Quantity rather than quality is a result and the country is left with a dizzying amount of new choreography. Many companies have an annual calendar packed with new full-length works, emerging choreographer platforms, company choreographic seasons plus touring and cultural exchange. There is definitely a need to slow down, reflect, revisit and revitalise.
In this maelstrom of activity it is not surprising that over the last five years or so few pieces come readily to mind. Kuik Swee Boon’s As It Fades for T.H.E Dance Company looks at loss of cultural heritage through diminished use of dialects and local customs is one that has been remounted – a test of a sustainable dance work. Some of Raka Maitra’s work with CHOWK shows evidence of deep thought and exploration; for instance the interdisciplinary work From Another Land uses the poetry of Singapore’s migrant workers as inspiration. Independent artist Christina Chan, formerly from Frontier Danceland, continues to make her choreographic mark – her collaboration with Aymeric Bichon (France), Midlight explored sensuality in a deeply connected way through in a fluid, elegant work created by generating new points of interconnection and balance. Angela Liong helming The Arts Fission continues to contribute a distinctive voice through site-specific works and community engagements. A standout in 2015 was a dance created on a caged in, fire escape stairwell the height of the National Design Centre as part of the company’s twentieth birthday celebrations. Dapheny Chen’s A Box Full of This for Re:Dance Theatre was an exceptional full-length work for a young choreographer exploring the duality of being confined physically as well as emotionally through the prohibition of space as is the case with apartment living in Singapore. RAW Moves led by Ricky Sim often provoke audience reactions in ways reminiscent of the 70’s post modern era where they are asked to be equal partners in the dance. Independents like Ming Poon, Daniel K and Joavien Ng are at the cutting edge of the dance spectrum and add maturity to the local ecology with provocative, thought provoking performances.
Singapore is part of the evolution of Asian contemporary dance that is burgeoning throughout the region. In the local context, storytelling, personal reflections, memories and local histories have been the basis for most dance pieces. Generally the choreographers work from a western contemporary movement base and use this vocabulary to support the themes in the works. DiverCity is not only a generous opening of the performance space to share with fellow local performers and choreographers but a litmus test of the contemporary dance scene in Singapore.
This article is in collaboration with M1 CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival.
Written by Stephanie Burridge
The writer is a leading dance academic, critic and lecturer at institutions such as LASALLE and Singapore Management University (SMU) in Singapore. This article was commissioned by the M1 CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival for its 2015 festival magazine.
Photography credits: Bernie Ng and Joie Koo