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Between the whirling waters of the Indian Ocean and the Philippine Sea, the Southeast Asian landscape provides rich and diverse contexts for dance creation. The classical and traditional dances here offer the foundation of varied movement vocabularies that feed into contemporary choreographies.
Female dance makers in the region take inspiration from the social and political landscape, but also reach beyond that into philosophical musings. Their dance becomes their commentary. They break notions of how female bodies may present themselves, and further question prevailing ideas of identity, sexuality, gender and labour.
Here are five female dance makers whose dancing feet are leaving a fierce trail among the salty seas of Southeast Asia:
Indonesian artist Melati Suryodarmo’s vast oeuvre of work spans nearly three decades across performance, photography and video installations. Teetering on the border between performance and visual arts, her works often engage the body in radical conditions where the entire space becomes the canvas. Born in 1969, Suryodarmo’s tryst with performance began with her early training in Javanese dance, and her exposure to Amerta Movement (a form created by her father Suprapto Suryodarmo) and Sumarah meditation. Going on to learn from butoh dancer Anzu Furukawa and iconic performance artist Marina Abramović at the Hochschule fuer Bildende Kunste in Braunschweig (Germany) in the late 1990s, Suryadarmo entered the realm of performance art.
They may become aware of their own bodies, alive and breathing, as they witness the artist in movement. For instance, in her 12-hour solo I’m a ghost in my own house (2012), Suryodarmo laboriously crushes a room full of charcoal blocks with a rolling pin. Exhaustion and soot hang in the air, taint her skin and touch all those present. Through such exploration of rasa, audiences may be touched by the visceral emotions of love, disgust, surprise, rage or despondency in her performances.
Suryodarmo works with diverse materials in her works such as blocks of butter (Exergie – Butter Dance), quivers of arrows (Transaction of Hollows), heaps of mass-produced clothes (Passionate Pilgrim) or black ink (Eins und Eins), such that the performances eventually scar the space with a visual aftermath. The setting may be a gallery space or public streets that transgress into the proscenium theatre, as in her most recent performance work Lapse.
Unusual in dance-making, and therefore significant today, Suryodarmo’s work embraces unsteadiness and vulnerability.
The 1988-born Thai performer Kornkarn Rungsawang’s explorations delve into classical practices and contemporary approaches. Trained in Thailand’s traditional court dance khon and popular folk forms among other practices, Rungsawang is equipped with a distinct movement grammar. Since her graduation in Music and Performing Arts, she has been working with the Pichet Klunchun Dance Company.
In her fresh solo choreographic sojourn, Rungsawang is in the process of articulating her own movement techniques such as the Vagina Dance Technique. Using the research for her solo series Organs and Organs#2 (2017-19), she asks how the vagina may contribute to the creation of dance. In this sense, the vagina is displaced from the conservative notions of being only a shrine of the female body, and serves as the root of creativity. The theme of engaging with shrines continues with Rungsawang’s first full-length work Mali Bucha: Dance Offering (2023), inspired by rum kea bon—a ritual performed in shrines across Thailand where dance is used as a tool of negotiation with the higher beings to realise human wishes. The shrine in Mali Bucha: Dance Offering becomes a virtual one, accessible for audiences to make their wishes and offerings through Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). Here the dancing medium is Rungsawang, integrating the material and the virtual worlds.
Kornkarn Rungsawang represents the new generation of choreographers in Southeast Asia who are leaping off the creative potential of traditional practices but also far beyond.
Choreographer and visual artist Eisa Jocson from the Philippines brings forth and challenges the contradictions in Filipino society through her works.
While Jocson has a background in ballet, her choreographic language is far wider. For instance, her early works Stainless Borders (2010), Death of the Pole Dancer (2011) and Up (2012) use techniques from pole dancing and even bring them to outdoor public spaces. Her intricate study of movement patterns and ability to reflect it in her own body are evident in Macho Dancer (2013) and Host (2015). This extends to her ensemble work too, such as in the video-performance Manila Zoo (2021) where the dancers show striking awareness of behaviours of zoo animals.
In Manila Zoo, created during the Covid-19 pandemic, the human dancers found themselves in the same conditions as the animals they were studying—in confined enclosures of their homes and zoom screens, pinned under the camera’s gaze.
Most recently she won the 2023 Tabori Award International, Germany’s highest awards for independent performing arts.
Interestingly, the choreographer presents her works as a thematically-bound series such as a triptych—something that is otherwise rather characteristic of the visual arts. Such contextualising further complicates the critical frameworks that bind each performance.
Dancer and choreographer Raka Maitra brings a unique grounding to Singapore’s dance-scape with her contemporary creations. This sense of grounding perhaps comes from her works being rooted in the Indian classical dance form odissi. Techniques and vocabulary from the traditional martial art-like dance practice of chhau are also part of her choreographic assertions.
With her early years amid the rhythms and sounds of the Children’s Little Theatre in Kolkata (India), Maitra grew up with training in odissi and chhau. She then began innovating with choreography that played with the tools of this Indian classical practice in a contemporary way. Since moving to Singapore, she has made several solos and ensemble works, eventually going on to set up her dance company Chowk Productions in 2007.
Chowk’s performance works are often inspired by literary works. For instance, Maitra’s first ensemble choreography The Hungry Stones (2011) was a response to Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Kshudhita Pashan. The company attempts to create a rasa—an emotional landscape—in performances such as The Blind Age (2014) and The Second Sunrise (2016). On the other hand, works such as The Pallavi Series (2016-21) allows audiences into the appreciation of odissi’s technical virtuosity. In deconstructing the classical form, the dancers explore the geometry within the footwork, torso movements and gaze.
Maitra’s choreographies search for human interiority within constantly shifting landscapes and multi-cultural polyphonic lands. In that way, her works are a reflection of Singapore itself.
Singapore-based choreographer Hasyimah Harith proudly wears many identities—Malay, Muslim, Female, Mother, Pleasure-seeker, Dancer. In her practice, she demands why these identities may not overlap.
Hasyimah’s training in Malay folk dance forms such as asli, inang, joget and zapin continue to be part of her performance and teaching practice. As a Malay Muslim woman in Singapore, she is aware of the ways her body is governed by the state and society.
This confrontation and reclamation, channelled through dance, has been the starting point for her choreographic works.
In Death of a Malay-Muslim Female Dancer, she questions why many female Malay dancers give up dancing on becoming a mother. By speaking and moving along with former performers, she highlights the missing identities in Malay dance. Hasyimah finds her pregnant body to be the seat of power in Daging—an online work made during the pandemic. Nak Dara—a performance that has been presented as a solo as well as a collective—swims within the themes of female erotic pleasure and desire.
Her practice shows that empowerment is most effective when it opens new channels for the wider community, beyond the individual. In 2016, she co-founded P7:1SMA (pronounced Prisma), a foundation that creates avenues in dance to reimagine the Malay identity.
Catch these upcoming shows at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.
Esplanade will also be presenting Fracture, a visual arts exhibition by Melati Suryodarmo at Jendela (Visual Arts Space) from 29 Sep 2023 – 7 Jan 2024.
Parvathi Ramanathan is a dancer, researcher and writer who has early morning affairs with poetry. She has a foundation in classical Indian dance forms bharatanatyam and odissi and is a certified Dance Movement Therapy Facilitator. In her artistic practice, she engages with the body as a repository of layered identities, immersed in collective political conundrums and affective states. Parvathi holds an MPhil in Theatre and Performance Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Currently based in Berlin, she writes for various dance publications including Tanzschreiber and is a columnist at Tanzraumberlin. She is the co-editor of the journal Indent: the Body and the Performative and designs the Indent Lab.
After 17 years of da:ns festival, Esplanade’s beloved platform transforms into da:ns focus – an exciting year-round season of five themed weekends.