|As president of the membership association MyDance Alliance, Bilqis Hijjas has been a leader in promoting contemporary dance in Malaysia through programs such as the artist-in-residence program at the private-sector arts facility Rimbun Dahan, through directing the “Dancing in place” events presenting outdoor dance works, and by conducting projects like ones focusing on female choreographers. In this long interview, she talks about everything from her initial encounter with dance to today’s projects to promote dance in Malaysia.
Interviewer: Mio Yachita
At the very beginning, how did dance come into your life?
I started doing ballet classes when I was six; then I quit and started again when I was 11. I had the good fortune of moving to an international school in Kuala Lumpur when I was about 13 and they had an after-school dance program there which was actually taught by a PE teacher; because she wasn’t trained in dance she would give us a lot of freedom to do whatever we wanted to do. She would audition a small team and then say, “Okay, in three months you are going to have a 20-minute show. You come up with a theme. You choose the music. You do the choreography.” For students that is quite a lot of responsibility and opportunities, but also freedom. That was my first experience of choreography and working in a team to make a production and I found it so amazing that I really wanted to continue doing that for the rest of my life.
I decided that I didn’t want to do dance at university as a major; most of the universities that I applied to did not offer dance as a major. I applied to Harvard and I got in, and Harvard didn’t have a dance degree then. So, I took a different major which was Social Studies; mostly anthropology, gender studies, social theory – and then I did dance as an extracurricular activity quite seriously, joining a lot of campus dance companies.
We had a student contemporary dance company which had two shows a year. Members of the company would just propose, “I want to make a dance, who wants to be in it?” Then you would organize your own rehearsals, find your own studios and use one of the campus theaters [for the production]. My best friend was actually the producer; I was always the choreographer but never the producer. I could have started my production career earlier! After completing my thesis and coming back to Malaysia, I moved to Melbourne and I did a Post-Graduate Diploma in Choreography at Victoria College of the Arts, which was my first experience of doing dance [full time at school].
Was that more practical, actually creating choreography, rather than theory of choreography?
It was both. We had theory classes, although not so much, and also a lot of meetings with other choreographers to talk about their practice which was quite useful, being exposed to other people’s perspectives.
So this was the first time you were actually in the professional art world. Was it difficult to get into the arts school after you graduated in anthropology?
Well, not really because I had quite a big portfolio of work that I had already made during university that I could show them.
But Melbourne’s dance [scene] is very particular. It is quite insular. It is very much about subtleties and physical sensitivities. It is not about spectacle at all.
I actually wanted to make a hip-hop work because a lot of the dancers that I used were undergraduate dancers and they all had done a lot of hip-hop. And I had gone to raves in university, so I wanted to make a sort of anthropological work about the ritual process involved in going to a rave, like the cathartic pattern of it.
I was interested in showing something narrative, in a way, and also quite a lot about the emotional arc. And Melbourne dance is very interested in small, technical, physical qualities and I wasn’t. So, our ideas were just not meeting. It was quite challenging.
After I did the post-graduate degree, I went to work for a non-profit organization supporting women’s development projects in Asia. So, I kept going back and forth between humanities and dancing. I was working on fundraising, which was quite useful also as a skill. Then I decided to do a Masters in Applied International Development, because in my job the cool people who got to go to Papua New Guinea or Bougainville to meet the women there all had to have a Masters. So, I did a Masters, which was also for only one year. All I discovered from the Masters was that I didn’t want to do that. I found that the focus of the whole area was so much about fulfilling funder’s demands and not about really working with the communities to figure out what they wanted. Having an international funding organization tell you, “We have money for this; now go and do a project doing this.” I decided I didn’t want to do that.
Sounds like these experiences definitely help what you are doing right now for the fundraising and stuff.
It does feed into it. Then I went back to work for a community organization doing IT, which was also very useful for my future career; I did a lot of websites and content development. Then at some point I went back to Malaysia on holiday and I saw a work by Malaysian choreographer Low Shee Hoe – he then went on to work for Guangdong Modern Dance Company where he still is the lighting designer – I loved it! After Melbourne’s dance scene which was kind of cold-blooded, I was so amazed by it. It was very theatrical, it was very spectacular, it wasn’t about virtuosity and technique, but it was about very visible theatrical ideas. I was so excited by it.
When I went back to Melbourne, I found a book in a bookstore by the Australian-Malaysian photographer Simryn Gill. It was photos of buildings in Malaysia that had been abandoned during the financial crisis because they couldn’t be finished. I was just looking through it and I thought, “That is Malaysia.” I suddenly felt so homesick by looking at all of these abandoned buildings, there and then I was like, “I am going home.”
I would like to move on to what you do now and how you started doing it. So, I think that would be starting after you came back to Malaysia. What would you say your main job is now?
I have something like four jobs. One that I spend the most time on is running MyDance Alliance which is a support organization largely for the contemporary dance community in the Klang Valley. For that we do information sharing, we have a newsletter, we run informal performance platforms [called Dancebox] a few times a year, we have a festival for mostly Malaysian dancers every few years, which is the MyDance Festival, and we do other choreographic mentoring projects, workshops, publications – all sorts of things that have to do with contemporary dance.
Then I run the Dance Program at Rimbun Dahan, which is the residency that my family owns. The dance program is not very developed. My job is to facilitate residencies [of contemporary dance choreographers] which are usually one month to three months, and if they want to do a production at the end then I produce the production. We also have the Southeast Asian Choreolab, which happens every year, and Dancing in Place which is also under Rimbun Dahan, partnered with My Dance. That is my second job.
My third job: I teach part-time at University Malaya in the Dance Department. I teach only classroom classes so at the moment I teach Dance Criticism. I used to teach performing arts theory, dance history, dance cultures. My last job is running Critics Republic, which is a website for written criticism of Malaysian performing arts. I write for it and I also commission other people to write for it, publish their work and try to promote it a bit on Facebook.
Can you give us a brief explanation of what MyDance Alliance is?
It is a non-profit volunteer membership organization. We have members who pay a small fee every year: the members vote for the committee and then the committee spearheads the projects that the organization runs. We are not funded; sometimes we get project funding but most of the time a lot of the things that we do are volunteer. So, I don’t get paid for my time that I spend working for MyDance. Most of the time, none of us get paid unless there are special grants.
Anybody can be a member, but they are mostly dancers, choreographers and other practitioners involved in dance production, and sometimes fans and enthusiastic audience members. Really only those people who are interested. They are not many, probably about 50 people at any one time. They pay MYR50 a year, or MYR20 if they are students, which is really not much, or MYR100 if they are an organization. We have a few organizations, mostly the dance departments in the universities: UM, ASWARA, UPSI.
If you are a member you get free admission as audience to Dancebox, which happens twice or thrice a year. You can be in Dancebox if you want to present a work. Sometimes, when we have a little bit of money, we give out a small grant from MYR500 to MYR1500. So, if you are a member you can apply for that.
The organization was founded in 2001 and I think I am the fifth president.
A coalition of people stated it – Joseph Gonzales, Professor Mohd Anis Md Nor, Lee Lan who was the founder of the Federal Academy of Ballet. Choreographer Mew Chang Tsing was the president before me.
I inherited the idea of Dancebox but not really the format of it, and I inherited the idea of the MyDance Festival, which is supposed to be every two years.
MyDance is part of World Dance Alliance – Asia Pacific. Sadly, we do not have a working chapter in Japan, although we have tried many times. But, we have contemporaries in a lot of other countries – AusDance in Australia, Hong Kong Dance Alliance, World Dance Alliance Taiwan, Dance Alliance Philippines. All the chapters operate individually. We come together for a meeting and a conference once a year and then a global summit with WDA-Americas and WDA-Europe every three years.
Can you tell us about Dancebox?
Dancebox is a partnership with The Actor’s Studio, which is the resident theater company currently at Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre. The Actor’s Studio has had various different venues before KLPAC
was built. MyDance has been partnering with them in doing Dancebox since 1999. Actually, it was before the organization was incorporated. It started in Dataran Merdeka but it was in a different format then – one choreographer was in charge of one night – so it was different from what it is now. [In 2003] Dataran Merdeka was flooded and they closed it down. Much later they had another theater at Lot 10 Shopping Center and that is when they asked MyDance if we would like to do this again? Because they didn’t have very much programming, and they wanted to bring in dance, I was very happy to do it. So from 2009 is when we started the new version of Dancebox. Then, that theater closed. [Eventually] they moved us to Pentas 2 (at KLPAC), which is where we are now.
How does it work? KLPAC gives us the theater for free for one day. They choose the date, depending on when they have one day free that they have no other programming. They also give us some technicians – lighting designers, sound operators and backstage personnel – for one day. We come in the morning, we do rehearsals through the day, and then we do the show. One show, and that is it. Then we go home. I love it because it gives [local choreographers] a way to use a professional theater for one night with professional tech crew and lights and take a video of it, and they don’t really need to shell out a lot of resources to do this. Therefore, they don’t burn out, and it is easy for all of us.
Usually [one night’s program] is about eight pieces, and each piece is between seven to 15 minutes. For this it can be any genre of dance, but I try to keep it to a pre-professional to professional standard. I program in a very flexible Malaysian way. Most of the programming is people coming up to me and saying, “When is the next Dancebox?” I tell them and they say, “Yes, I want to be in it!” – and that is it. Sometimes, if the Dancebox is coming closer and we don’t have enough pieces then we will have an open call, and get two or three pieces to fill in the empty slots.
Mostly, the dancers are from the usual contemporary dance community. Often people do Dancebox repeatedly, maybe once a year or once every 2 years. They tend to be younger, like just out of university. We often take university students as well if they want to make works.
Sometimes we will restage works from shows that not a lot of people have seen. Mostly Malaysian shows are mixed bills; maybe there was one piece in a show that I think, “People should really see that!” So I will ask them, “Could you restage that one piece for Dancebox?” Which is also nice because in Malaysia we have no touring circuit; people make a dance work and perform it once for a very short run – maybe three days – and then it is never performed again. So, the chance to put it into Dancebox gives the work a different audience and also it at least gives the dancers the opportunity to use it just one more time.
We have visiting choreographers, and some are quite established. We have a lot of dancers who come to Malaysia, hopping through from other countries, and they often say, “Oh, we would like to perform a short work!” But there is no platform to perform a short work except for Dancebox. So, we often have quite senior people and interesting international artists in Dancebox, like Riki von Falken (Germany), Cynthia Ling Lee (USA/Taiwan), Mcebisi Bhayi (South Africa), and Kim-Sanh Chau (Canada).
What would you say is the role that MyDance Alliance plays in the Malaysian dance scene? Are there any similar networks, or are you the only one?
It is the only network for contemporary dance in Malaysia. It is also the only [dance] organization that I feel is dedicated to bridging the gaps between language groups. Because Malaysia is multi-cultural the dance community is often restricted and siloed by language and culture. There is a very active Chinese-Malaysian contemporary dance community. They are Chinese-speaking, but they tend to be insular, and because they also have a good audience [from their own community] they don’t feel the need to reach out to other people to bring them in as audience. Unless you reach out to them, they just operate in their own little world.
There is also a very big Indian-Malaysian traditional dance community which also occasionally creates contemporary works. They are also well-supported by their community, who often only see their own shows, and not many people from outside the community see their shows. There is not so much Malay contemporary dance, but whatever there is we have it [in our projects]. MyDance is really the only platform that brings together contemporary dancers from all of the different communities on a single stage so they can see each other’s work, meet each other, [and sometimes] decide to work together.
Now I am trying to put in place a succession plan at MyDance Alliance. So I am trying to train the younger committee members to be the main producers of Dancebox, which involves doing the programming. Because they mostly come from one of these communities, I am always trying to encourage them to look outside their own communities for programming for Dancebox, and to go to lots of shows so that you know what is happening across different communities.
There are a lot of artists and choreographers in the scene who might do similar things, but it seems there are not enough people who are purely producers?
Very few only producers. Everyone else on my committee of 10 people is also a dancer or a choreographer and a teacher.
There aren’t any other producers solely in dance. There are a few producers who work across the performing arts. They are not focused on dance and they can’t really do dance programming because they don’t really know what is going on.
I want to hear about your teaching and Critics Republic briefly because I feel that your role is not only as a producer—as some sort of like intermediary person—but also that you are setting a standard.
From a critical perspective I don’t believe in objectivity and I don’t believe in a single sense of what is good. Actually, a lot of the work that I do with my students is trying to get them to understand that there is no objective good, and that every good is couched within a particular context. It is good because in that context it is meaningful. So a 3-year-old wearing a little tutu and putting her hands above her head and going round [in a circle] is good in the context that she is performing in a kindergarten show and her parents are there. Every context creates a different space for meaning. There is space to say that every
dance is good within a particular context, and if it is not good and not working it is because the context is wrong.
For Malaysian students it is all about what the authority figure says. [To them] whatever the authority figure says is correct and true. For them it is extremely difficult because the educational system is based upon rote learning in which you are just learning facts, not about analysis, interpretation, finding meaning. They are very used to the idea of just regurgitating what the authorities say.
I try not to impose my own preferences about dance upon them and let them express what they feel about a work. But you can tell that they are always trying to guess, “What does she really think about this work? As soon as I have guessed it, that is what I am going to say” – because they want to be right!
For me, it is not about being right, it is about looking at the work for yourself from your own perspective in a particular context, and finding that work’s meaning for yourself. And then explaining it in a way that will then provide a level of appreciation for other people, one that can offer not the
single correct way of looking at a work but a
way of looking at a work – a perspective, a certain direction with which to navigate understanding what a work is. But not the
single way because I don’t believe there is a single way.
I remember that you had your own dance blog before Critics Republic. How did you develop yourself as a dance critic, and what would be your perspective?
The first training as a dance critic I did was a one-week intensive that was sponsored by Goethe-Institut in Jakarta at the Indonesian Dance Festival in 2010. It was very intensive and interesting. We were with lots of other Southeast Asians – some people who became critics and some people who didn’t. We basically would go to a show every day and after the show we would write a short review. In the morning we would read it [in the group], we would critique each other’s reviews. It was led by Keith Gallasch, who ran the online multidisciplinary review site RealTime in Australia, which has been going on for a very long time. He would give us feedback on the writing and on critical perspectives, so we did a lot within that very short amount of time.
Reading a lot of criticisms is actually what made me want to write about dance – I was reading a selection of dance writing by the American critic Joan Acocella, who writes for the New Yorker
. The idea that you could use writing to provide people access to dance was very inviting to me, because I often find that with contemporary dance many people say, “Oh, I find it so difficult. I don’t understand what it means. Because I don’t know what it means I can’t like it.” I felt that in order for people to be able to not know what it means exactly
, but to feel like they could handle it more comfortably, it needed some kind of voice in between. Recently, I did another Masters in New York City at NYU and I did a dance writing class there where we also did quite a lot of criticism.
So you look like you are trying to be a producer and at the same time create a legacy of how to be a producer, and also at the same time sort of cultivating a whole ecosystem of dance where there is an audience and there is a performer, there is a producer and then there is a critic. Let us talk about Rimbun Dahan. How does Rimbun Dahan fit into this scheme of your multiple endeavors?
I feel Rimbun Dahan is the concrete resource that I can provide. It is owned by my family. We have a studio, we have a lot of accommodations, we have the garden.
But because it is little way outside Kuala Lumpur, a lot of local dancers actually don’t feel interested to use it. The ironic and interesting thing about the Malaysian dance community as opposed to a more supported dance community like Japan or Australia is that we in Malaysia have no problem finding studio space. Everyone who is working as a dancer is also working as a teacher, so everyone has access to their schools’ studio space and can use it for rehearsals and to make their own work outside of hours. So, you never have to find money to pay for somewhere to rehearse, to make your own work – so in Japan, and particularly in Australia, all the dancers are like, “I can’t believe that.”
Mostly, the Dance Program at Rimbun Dahan is international choreographers either making their own work or making work with local dancers. There is also Dancing in Place, which is site-specific performances in the garden and short works by both local and international choreographers. Mostly, for me the importance of Rimbun Dahan is giving people the opportunity to be in this space which is very different from being in KL. It is very green, sort of quiet. It really takes you into another mode of production. A lot of resident artists come and don’t do any production. We don’t require them to create something specific at the end, so however the residency feeds into their personal practice at that moment is fine. Maybe what they need is to spend a month lying on the floor doing nothing and staring at the ceiling, in which case they can do it with us!
We have a partnership with Asialink in Australia and they provide us with a choreographer as a resident artist maybe every three years or so. From there we have had a couple of people who have become bigger names in the Australian dance scene: Lina Limosani, Daniel Jaber... We also had Angela Goh, who is a well-known up-and-coming choreographer, although she didn’t come with Asialink. So, we have a lot of Australians; part of our focus is also to provide access to Australians [who want to explore Southeast Asia, because my mother is Australian.]
I would like to hear about Dancing in Place and the Southeast Asian Choreolab.
Dancing in Place I think started in 2009 and it is usually held every year. I don’t know where the idea came from. Every time people come to Rimbun Dahan they see all these nice spaces, with the waterfall and a bridge and the pool and they think, “Oh, I would like to dance there, I would like to dance here!” so it probably came about like that.
With Dancing in Place nobody gets paid. The choreographers do not get paid, the dancers don’t get paid, and the volunteers don’t get paid. It is a wonderful project because, although there are no resources, we can just do it on our own.
Every Dancing in Place is about 13 works every year. Each work is, again, seven to 15 minutes, so the whole show is longer than Dancebox. People come for the whole afternoon. You can bring your family and a picnic. There is a break in the middle when you can eat.
I usually pick the choreographers, they come to Rimbun Dahan and see the different sites, and then negotiate with me which site they want. “I want to do the forest” or, “I want to do the poolside.” They usually will come and rehearse on-site, and then we do two days of performance. Now, because of Dancing in Place, there is a lot of site-specific work in Malaysia. There has always been some site-specific work, but now there is quite a bit more.
Dancing in Place expanded from Rimbun Dahan and we did it at Damansara Performing Arts Center (DPAC) twice, two years in a row. It was outside in the shopping center space, in the walkways and on the lawn and up on the staircases; they have these nice wrought-iron spiral staircases. It was by invitation, when JS was Director of DPAC. Dancing in Place is cheap and easy to do, and they had a bit of money for paying the choreographers, which was nice.
Then we did one edition of Dancing in Place at the creative arts and music festival Urbanscapes, which was in Chinatown City Center. They also approached me when they wanted some dance programming. I was very interested to be able to dance in the public space, because in Malaysia it is very difficult to get authorization from city government to be able to do this. But because Urbanscapes was the intermediary and the umbrella event, they were able to negotiate with the city council, and I just handled the production.
It rained torrentially during every single performance. We all had little plastic ponchos on and the audience were watching with umbrellas, but they were so good. I said, “Okay, I understand because it is raining, maybe you don’t want to come.” But they were okay with it and they watched the whole program!
Dancing in Place will continue, I think. I am getting a little bit bored of the works that people are making. It is not their fault. If your space is the fountain, then every piece you make for the fountain will be somewhat the same. If it is the same spaces that you have to offer, there is a certain degree of repetition. But because Rimbun Dahan is the space that I can fully control, it is so much easier to do the production there than somewhere else. Maybe we will do it at night; that would be fun!
I will have to go to Kuala Lumpur and see it. How did the Southeast Asian Choreolab start? What is the project about?
The project is an annual intensive for about 14 emerging contemporary dance choreographers from the Southeast Asian region who come together to live and work in the studio at Rimbun Dahan, with the help of an international facilitator who is an established choreographer. They range between fresh graduates to mid-30s. We ask that they are within five years of having started their professional choreographic practice.
Who have we had as the facilitator before? Akiko Kitamura
, Isabelle Schad, Arco Renz, Janis Claxton. Usually we get funding that comes from the country where the facilitator comes from: Japan, Germany and Britain so far. This is a model that works really well, and I am very pleased with it. I am going back to Britain now; hopefully the next one will be Jasmin Vardimon next year.
I don’t know why I suddenly decided to do these things. I think that there was a great need for Southeast Asian choreographers to connect with each other. Because none of us have any resources, we are often working with other countries like Japan which do
have resources. So, all the Southeast Asian choreographers have worked with someone from Japan, but most have not worked with each other because we have no funding and resources to support that. So, I envisioned this as a platform where they could meet each other and form their own professional network, as they were starting out on their choreographic careers. And also to be able to link to an established choreographer who could give them guidance, tools, a perspective, a way of working.
The format is that for half of the day the participants each have one hour to present their own practice to the group, in a workshop format. Then in the afternoon, the established facilitator shares his or her own practice or perspectives or tools with the group. This has worked out really nicely. We include international facilitators because they bring the resources with them, and also because they provide that kind of stable touchstone: this is what a professional choreographer looks like. Not saying all choreographers are the same but coming from a country which has more established infrastructure, this is how you could consider the goal of becoming a professional choreographer; it might look like this. And it’s not just their career path but also the way that they address work. I think it is important to have an aesthetic viewpoint triangulating from a little bit further away, because otherwise all of us [in Southeast Asia] tend to be a bit similar.
The participants usually come from about eight or nine countries every year. We always have Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, and we usually have Cambodia, we often have Laos and Vietnam. We haven’t had anyone from Myanmar. We once had an American woman from East Timor but not an East Timorese person. Brunei doesn’t have a contemporary dance community.
For the countries with fewer applications, like Laos, I do to try to promote [the Choreolab] through connections that I have made. Also, one of my main interests is to ensure that there is parity with female choreographers. Female choreographers, especially when they are starting out, don’t get as much encouragement, and they need a different kind of encouragement than the men do. Men are much more capable of standing up and going, “Yes, I can do it.” Whereas the woman with the same capacity as the men are less likely to volunteer themselves. So, I find it important to approach stakeholders in the industry, people in positions of leadership, and say, “I am particularly looking for women choreographers. Can you make sure that from among whatever emerging choreographers you know the women apply [for the Choreolab]?”
It is hard to point out really concrete instances [of the impact of this project] but there have been times when participating choreographers have met each other afterwards and then have done small projects together. This year, I am doing a big project pulling back some of those participants: Isabelle Schad’s tour. She was the facilitator in 2018 and she is coming back to stage a big group work, and some of the choreographers who were in her session of the Choreolab will be in that work, which we are touring.
I often bring participants back to be in Dancing in Place as well. I invited those people who had been in Choreolab to make little teams to come back to Dancing in Place to collaborate for a week and make a site-specific work together. That is Part II [in this larger project of connecting Southeast Asian choreographers].
Part III is supposed to be for those people who felt like, “Okay, that kind of worked. We would like to take this a step further, to come back together for a longer residency to really focus on making a much more developed work.” But I haven't done it yet.
So, about your focus on female choreographers and the dancers, I guess that also came from your background, your scholarly research, and your NGO work. And that was the main theme for your project Work It! wasn’t it?
Yes, that is a good segue! Work It! in 2013 was a co-production with Anna Wagner who was at that time with Tanz im August and then moved on to Hebbel am Ufer (HAU), and Fumi Yokobori, who is at Dance Box, Kobe. It was Anna’s idea and we applied to the Asia-Europe Foundation for funding to bring five European independent performer choreographers together with seven Asian women – all women – for a 10-day camp.
It was very challenging. I am not sure that it was entirely successful, but it was a very interesting experience. Our intention was really to provide space for women choreographers. But, we also wanted to be as democratic and as non-hierarchical as possible. They did an initial public showing of their work: each of them did 20 minutes just to share with each other their own practice and also to have something to show to the Malaysian audiences. Then they had a week together in the studio and we did not give them any guidance. They could do whatever they wanted to do in that week – and it was really hard for them!
They are all independent choreographers and a lot of their work is solo work; they are used to working on their own. They are all very strong characters and individuals. They all come from very different contexts, and language also is a problem. There was a lot of sitting around talking for hours and hours and hours, at which point I just became... [mimes fainting
It was Anna’s idea, probably, to overturn the idea of the authoritarian creative producers that say, “You will come in, and you will do this
, and you will make this
.” Instead it was: “We are just putting you together and then you can really make whatever you want to make.” We didn’t anticipate how challenging it would be for them!
It emerged that a lot of the Asian choreographers had a reasonably nuanced understanding of Europe – because they are in a contemporary practice that has many links to Europe and many of them had been to Europe, had toured around Europe and been involved in European [arts projects]. So, they had an idea of Europe, but the European choreographers knew nothing about Asia. This was very difficult.
There were participants from Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Un Yamada
was the one from Japan. It was her first trip to Malaysia, and since then she has done so many projects [in Malaysia]. So, I am very happy that actually the best outcome of this Work It! project was that Un Yamada came to it!
What about the relationship between you and Fumi Yokobori and Anna Wagner? I feel like this is a very producer-like idea. It is not choreography, it is not a theater manager idea, but it looks like a pure independent producer approach to do some sort of bold experiment.
I certainly wouldn’t have done it that way if Anna hadn’t been there; conceptually she was the driving force of the work. She was very interested in connecting with Asia; she then went on to do some curatorial work at a festival in Sri Lanka. So, I think she was really the one pulling us together. And then, because we are producers and this is what producers do, we didn’t really talk very much about the process, we were just like, “We are just going to do this. We are going to get it done.” [During the 10 days of the project] Fumi collected the receipts [and did all the accounting], I organized the transportation and the food, and Anna did a lot of the conceptual work in the space, sitting with the conversation and prodding it along if it needed to be prodded along. So, we divided all of our activities [without discussing it] and we worked together fantastically.
I would love to work with Anna and Fumi again because I felt we have compatible personalities. I wouldn’t do this particular project again, of course, given the challenges [but it was a useful experiment]. It was wonderful having such a group of diverse people in the room, but I think more structure needs to be provided.
I think that is the challenge of having a network. I understand you are in multiple networks. A lot of networks expect to prophecy possible collaborations in the future – SEA Choreolab is like that, where you connect people and hope something will bloom. I think Work It! is one of the examples that people might expect after bringing people together, so if TPAM was one of the foundations, then I think TPAM Foundation would be very happy.
Yes, TPAM has definitely had an impact on arts networks in this region. I think I met Anna Wagner in 2010 at the same arts criticism workshop organized by Goethe-Institut. I met Fumi Yokobori in Malaysia in 2008 at a lunch with Seiya Shimada, then the director of JFKL, when she was here doing research on dance in Southeast Asia. I attended TPAM for the first time in 2012, and that is where I first saw Un Yamada – that was why she was invited to Work It!
But also, sometimes a network functions in a different way, more like to have a collective voice and to make change or to advocate for change. I understand that you are here this year for the Asia Network for Dance (AND+).
Asia Network for Dance has many different aims. It is a 15-person closed network by invitation only. It is self-funding, not resourced, so we pay for ourselves. We are all committed to meeting twice a year for 3 years, and then seeing how the network would evolve. So now that it is getting to the end of the second year, we are starting to talk about succession and how the network will continue.
The network has three current topics of exploration: ethical guidelines, residencies for contemporary dance, and encouraging creative practice. We have been talking about developing ethical guidelines for the dance community, on the lines of codes of conduct or the kind of workplace practices which exist in some places like Japan. In Australia, certainly they have very developed ethical guidelines in every institution, but in Southeast Asia we do not at all.
In this network, from Southeast Asia we have people from Singapore – Danny Kok from Dance Nucleus and Faith Tan, who is at the Esplanade, although she wasn’t here this time because she is on secondment to Helsinki – and Jala Adolphus, who is kind of representing Indonesia. Anna Chan from Hong Kong asked me to join.
AND+ is focused on contemporary dance in Asia in a performance aspect. AND+ is focusing on a very high standard of presentation of contemporary dance, because many of the people involved are programmers for very large houses, and so they are working on that level
In this way [being in multiple networks], I do get to connect with the rest of Southeast Asia and Australia, which is also important to me, and with East Asia which we have had a lot of connections with over the years. So it makes sense to commit and to invest in that network. That is where I function. That is also where I can
work. In Southeast Asia, there are many vacuums. There is so much space that needs to be filled, so I can step forward and do those jobs, whereas in another context [in more developed countries or infrastructures] there is not so much of a need for a person like me. This is something that I can do.
So together with all the international networks and your local networks and your own international programs, what sort of change would you have brought to the scene because of your contributions?
A number of us have been working on Southeast Asian-linked projects and I feel now the contemporary dance community in Southeast Asia is better connected than it was 10 years ago. More people are working together, know each other, are aware of each other’s platforms, are traveling, and there is a small amount of touring.
In Malaysia specifically, I think that there is much more awareness of site-specific work. I am not the only one; Melaka Art and Performance Festival has been quite involved in doing that. Site-specific work is a very useful way of taking art outside the city center into rural areas which don’t have theaters, and making work with the resources that we have. I am glad that we are doing more of it; now in Malaysian universities the dance departments have started introducing modules of teaching students how to address making site-specific work.
I haven't been so much a part of it, but I think there is a greater professionalization of contemporary dance in Malaysia. That has come mostly out of the critical mass of graduates from ASWARA, the National Arts Academy.
Criticism I guess I have contributed a little bit to. There wasn’t so much space for that before; now we have Critics Republic. People come up to me and say, “I want to write something about that show,” so then I encourage them because it is also a way of democratizing criticism more widely in the community, and not just having a situation in which you are the critic and only you get to talk.
Everybody can write [for Critics Republic]. I work on a one-to-one basis where they draft it, I give them lots of feedback and we go backwards and forwards until the review gets to a point where it is a bit more shaped – and then we publish it. Because there is never going to be a professional critic situation in Malaysia, if we want discourse around it, we have to feel empowered to be involved in this conversation. So, I think that is happening a bit more.
Final question to wrap up: What kind of dance scene do you want to see? What is your perception as a critic, as a producer that you think is good, that you think works and you want to have in Malaysia?
I don’t necessarily want more touring. This is an unpopular perspective among choreographers and the international dance scene at this moment, but, again, I believe that art works are created with a very specific context in mind and that they make sense within that context. They often don’t
make sense when they are taken out of that context. I think that Malaysian work often doesn’t tour because it doesn’t speak to a wider context than the Malaysian audiences themselves. And I think it is unfair to expect Malaysian dancers to make work that will also travel. But there is a lot of pressure to do that, especially with funders, because a measure of success of the art work is that it was picked up by another festival and it traveled here and there, it went to Japan, to Europe. I feel that that is extremely unfair to the dance practice itself. I think it is justifiable to make local work for local audiences, and to only show it to local audiences.
I am not so interested in more conceptual work – again, I think this is contrary to the international trend. I do value technique and training, and being contextualized within a tradition of work, either classical or some kind of [established] vocabulary of movement. I think that provides an extra layer of meaning. In Malaysia, it is important to have that, in order to reach out to an audience. Otherwise, contemporary dance can seem a little unanchored and inaccessible. In countries where there is a very established dance community and many companies, you get sick of seeing virtuosity, because everybody has it! But in Malaysia it is still something that is very prized, because we don’t have the resources to achieve it. It is very resource-intensive to have virtuosity. I think we deserve our chance to have it and not feel ashamed of wanting it. I think in contemporary dance practice globally, one often does feel ashamed of dancey dance.