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Dance can meet politics – this could be the politics at the macro level of nations, history and global crisis, or at the micro level of social conventions that shape our lives and our bodies. As illustrated by programmes at Esplanade’s da:ns festival over the years, a choreographic work might portray a (macro or micro) political situation, comment on it in support or in protest, or call upon the bodies of the performers or even the audience to subvert an existing situation.
The evocative power of the body in movement has long been recruited to convey the grandeur or ideology of its patrons – from the French court ballets of King Louis XIV to the Russian classical ballets and the revolutionary ballets of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Mass choreographic displays are also widely used to inspire and unite, whether for notions of world harmony and celebration of a common ethos (e.g. Olympic Games’ opening ceremonies), displays of national unity (e.g. independence celebrations) or promotion of social values (e.g. The Great Singapore Workout of 1993, Singapore’s 1980s ‘cimo-cimo’ folk dance for ethnic harmony).
Artists who bring together art and politics to challenge the status quo can cause unease among dancers and dance lovers whose taste leans towards the conservative -- dance which should remain a familiar expression of beauty. Bold statements and aesthetic experiments can however inspire innovation and change. The most famous dance riot is probably that of the Ballets Russes’ Rite of Spring performed in Paris in 1913, where the offence was primarily a question of the politics of aesthetics: either because of the outrageous “ugliness” of Vaslav Nijinsky’s unconventional stamping choreography, or the startling musical score by Igor Stravinsky. Reports also say that the performance ended with a standing ovation – and the opening of a modernist era in dance.
The “mother of modern dance” Isadora Duncan’s lesser known later works of the 1920s expressed her fervent support for socialist ideology and Soviet Russia. Other well-known European and American dance artists who have used dance to protest human suffering and war are the pioneer of German dance theatre Kurt Jooss (1901–1979) and Jewish-American dancer Anna Sokolow (1910–2000). More recently in the United States, the Urban Bush Women dance company (1984–present) bases its work on a manifesto to tell the stories of the disenfranchised from a feminist and Afro-centric point of view, while the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane company is dedicated to questioning society’s perspectives on HIV/AIDS, sexuality and American history.
Dance can also play a powerful role in acts of protest off stage – playwright and activist Eve Ensler’s 2012 One Billion Rising was a worldwide dancing protest against violence against women. Nearer to home there were the 2014 mass dance performances of the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement.
Several prominent philosophers and dance theorists since the 1990s have suggested that choreographic practices could have the greatest potential of all arts for inspiring social change because of the way choreography mobilises human bodies—both those of the performers and sometimes those of the audience—making us aware of our embodied positions/ roles/expectations/subjectivities.
Dance can offer a way to rethink social relationships and even the system of neoliberal capitalism i.e. the free market economy and the vast power it has over our lives. Often-cited examples of this conceptual approach are the works of French choreographers Jérôme Bel and Xavier le Roy, which often challenge expectations of dance as an art form and the relations that it creates between author, performer and audience.
Discussions on dance and politics tend to be dominated by these examples from Europe and America. Naturally, Asian choreographers were drawn to themes of politics and social change throughout the currents of decolonisation and the search for new national identities, and later currents of globalisation and climate change. The list of works below highlights just a few of many dancers and companies across the region who have responded to their contexts through movement.
A pioneering modern dancer and choreographer, Goh Lay Kuan integrated ballet with Malay, Chinese and Indian traditional forms, while being informed by a strong social consciousness. Dubbed “the red ballerina”, she was detained in 1976 along with her husband Kuo Pao Kun for suspected communist activities, then released after a public confession. She was later accorded the Singapore Cultural Medallion for her work in arts education for children and people with disabilities. Less known are her banned works, which were deemed to have touched on issues too sensitive to be staged. Evergreen told the story of people who protected a Malayan freedom fighter in spite of the Japanese army’s threats of death to the family of whoever harboured him. The performance was apparently banned just prior to the Japanese Emperor’s state visit to Singapore.
Reyes is a respected choreographer and mentor, among a generation of Filipino modern dance pioneers who took up socio-political themes. Te Deum is an iconic work that expressed the struggles and aspirations of the Filipino people during the People Power revolution. It is still staged by Ballet Philippines today and finds resonance amidst contemporary political and social turbulence.
Sardono is known for his work blending Javanese, Balinese dance and modern dance, as well as his films and environmental activism. This work called awareness of city audiences in Jakarta to a Kalimantan forest fire disaster and the damage done to the environment and the livelihoods of the indigenous Dayak people. The performance featured Dayak dancers performing their traditional dances and songs of lament alongside Sardono and dancers from the Jakarta Art Institute. Sardono also started fundraising and other initiatives to support the Dayak tribes.
Tsao is regarded as one of the fathers of Chinese modern dance. 365 Ways was his response to “the West’s fascination with the Orient”, giving a twist to many stereotyped objects, customs and gender roles in Chinese culture, their exoticisation by outsiders but also self-exoticisation by Chinese people.
D’Cruz’s trajectory as a choreographer and performer (alongside her theatre director husband Krishen Jit) saw her engaged with gender politics, the Japanese occupation of Malaya, and migrant workers’ rights. Bunga Manggar, Bunga Raya comes from D’Cruz’s later phase of works focusing on the state of the nation. A 22-performer, whimsical and critical take on the difficult contradictions of Malaysian identity and multicultural society, the work brought up rising crime rates and corruption, and parodied the state’s essentialist racial identity politics.
Amrita is a unique company whose classically-trained dancers experiment with contemporary dance vocabularies and collaborate with international choreographers. In Breaking the Silence, stories of survivors of the Khmer Rouge massacres take centre stage through monologues and movement. This powerful work toured Cambodian villages to open up dialogues of history and healing. Touring abroad to venues including the Esplanade, this work raised awareness of a painful period in history but also raised universal questions of judgement and ethics in the face of chaos.
A firebrand of South Korean dance, Ahn toured the country requesting grandmothers in rural areas to dance for her. She created an exuberant work that brought them onstage to defy expectations of what the performing body should be, and to create space for compelling stories which would otherwise be untold and unappreciated. She subsequently went on to create works with other groups rarely seen as dancing bodies: the blind, individuals with dwarfism, transgendered people, middle-aged men and mothers who had lost a child in the military.
Wen Hui is a pioneering independent modern dancer in China whose work is characterised by social intervention and commentary. Her latest production looks back at the legacy and lived memories of dancers of the revolutionary ballet The Red Detachment of Women.
Jocson questions the uncomfortable racial politics and economic disparities embedded in the fact that Hong Kong Disneyland is one of the biggest overseas employers of Filipino performers, yet the latter are never cast in leading roles such as the princesses because of their dark skin colour. If the Filipino body takes centrestage, what identities are possible? See when it's on
Both Raka and Pichet are considered iconoclasts in their traditional forms (Odissi classical indian dance and Khon classical Thai dance) for reformulating classical repertory and movement to question its construction and bring it to address new themes. Ming Poon’s work is based on an invitation to the audience to dance with him, and thereby discover dance as a shared act and intimacy as empowerment. See when it's on
A vision of a post-apocalyptic society, capturing the contemporary global mood of crisis and foreboding. Think of this as a follow up from Schechter’s 2010 Political Mother, his acclaimed work about indoctrination and totalitarianism. See when it's on
Deepest thanks to friends who contributed Asian examples for this article: Bilqis Hijjas, June Tan, Kare Adea, Elizabeth Chan.
Chan Sze-Wei is a Singapore-based choreographer and film-maker. Her work blends conceptual, interactive, improvisatory and cross-cultural approaches for theatres, public spaces, video installation and film. She is also a journalist with ArtsEquator, and an advocate for sustainable dance careers in Singapore and artistic networks in Southeast Asia.