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In their stride: Finding rhythm in the new norm

Four Singapore choreographers on a year of change.

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Published: 28 Sep 2021


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It wasn’t too long ago when performance venues and dance studios were forced to shut. Shows were postponed, then cancelled, and the audience stopped coming. Dance practitioners all over scrambled to quickly adapt themselves to the capricious nature of movement restrictions and the uncertainties of the pandemic, even when safe-distancing and working from home seemed to contradict the essence of dance.

Since the start of 2020, the concept of a live performance has also undergone much transformation. These days, shows are marketed with the options to watch in-person or digitally, but given that venues are still capped with a capacity of 150, dance companies still rely a lot on online viewership to reach out to more audiences—but it hasn’t been easy. It’s pretty much a numbers game that commands the tide now, whether it’s the fluctuating number of daily cases, livestreaming, even convincing the casual arts-goer to buy a ticket to watch online. There’s so much to consider when creating dance presentations during this time, and it’s harder than before to stay afloat.

Thankfully, as things are easing up, performers are back in their studios albeit in small numbers and ensemble pieces requiring physical contact are now possible. There’s also a sliver of hope for international productions to return to our shores as more travel lanes open up.

In the age of digital presentations, how has the dance experience changed for performers and audiences, and what are the things creators have to factor in if another lockdown occurs?

Ahead of da:ns festival 2021, choreographers Kuik Swee Boon, Norhaizad Adam and Santha Bhaskar, as well as street dance duo scRach maRcs shed light on how the dance community has been getting by in the past year, creating in the new normal and the contingency plans they have in case things go south again.

Kuik Swee Boon, T.H.E Dance Company

Kuik Swee Boon - dance

The uncertainty of life is what makes it so precious.

What are some of things the dance community has been going through the past year?

The performing arts community is in the same situation as any other industry; we are all trying to survive and find more innovative ways to deal with the hardships of the pandemic. The dilemma we face is that there are not enough people to see us live. At the same time, the digital market is not mature enough to create enough momentum to drive the industry forward.

As soon as the Circuit Breaker started last year, we immediately attempted online training, rehearsals, performances and even touring a programme of digital works. However, the digital market for dance is still young and very hard to navigate, so our progress has been slow. But I believe that if these challenges and stimuli are managed well and properly, it will stimulate our creativity and potential, and ultimately make us better dance companies, artists and people.

Safe-distancing, working from home and having to perform in front of a camera seem antithetical to the dance experience of which space, physical contact and a live audience play a huge part. How have you been navigating the uncertainties and restrictions?

Indeed! Many of the current regulations, restrictions and conditions basically go against the spirit and experience of some of what dance emphasises. The main thing within our dance company is to try to bring the audience back inside the theatre, or rather “virtual” theatre, to enjoy our performances through livestreams and digital works. We hope to create and share digital programmes that retain the irreplaceable characteristics of live performances, and aspire to capture the “real-time” quality of performances. That drives us to continue pushing the limitations and boundaries of livestreams. Digitalisation has the potential to reach out to more audiences and bring them back to the theatre eventually.

In my opinion, digital performance, whether live or pre-recorded, can be treated as another medium. There is no way a purely digital performance can replace the experience of a live performance, but we shouldn’t overlook the potential of hybrid performances.

How has working from home changed the way you rehearse as a group and create dance?

Living Room

Working at home (my workspace as pictured above) is completely different from rehearsing in the studio. I do not really enjoy it, honestly. I sat for so long that it made my back injury flare up and now I can't walk very well.

It is true that not having any physical contact is somehow robbing the dance, but what really kills us, now that we are able to return to the studio, is having to wear a mask to dance. I miss performing to a full-house theatre. In addition to expecting more audiences to return to the theatre, I hope that online viewers will begin to accept buying tickets to see professional online performances instead of just enjoying the free ones.

Now that the restrictions are easing up a little and rehearsals in the studio are possible, what are some of the contingencies you have?

Our current productions are all hybrid performances—we have a physical audience but also our livestreams, so if anything happens, we have that or pre-recorded work to share and fall back on.

Tell us more about "A Beautiful Day".

I'm really excited about this new production because I'm trying out some elements that I would never have used, such as building and exploring our current state of affairs through very cool props, costumes and visual effects. At the same time, this positive work is not all about optimism, but is based on a full understanding and appreciation of the realities of our environment, and still believing in the unlimited and beautiful potential of human beings. While it seems as though there’s no way out of this, A Beautiful Day emphasises the belief that the beauty of life is important. Through this work, I hope to share a message of strength to those in need, to keep going in their current predicament.

Norhaizad Adam, P7:1SMA

Self-isolation and confinement feels like a soul-searching journey, kind of like an ethnic or sentimental trip where I reflect and rediscover my roots as a Malay dancer.

What are some of things the dance community has been going through the past year?

From my observations, more people are using social media to share dancing or exercise videos. It’s a bittersweet feeling. On one hand, there is a freedom for self-reflection. But, there is also isolation from humanity. We are still finding new ways to connect and reach out. It seems like observing another person moving, even if on screen, does feel like a way of offering emotional support to a friend.

When the pandemic hit us, it was important for me to stop the labour of art-making and hold space for others, to quieten down and witness the world slowing down. My biggest challenge was figuring out my motivation to create a digital work. I am still considering the role and relevance of a digital methodology. 

Can the digital experience ever replace an in-person performance?

A digital experience can never replace a live performance. However, it can offer greater accessibility and be used as a performance design to consider layers of audience interaction.

When I started creating digital work, I thought of introducing the idea of coping mechanisms for audiences to relate to at present. For example, Jiwang is a karaoke dance film about enjoying excessive emotions and a desire to escape. The Audience, another piece I did, was conceived during the circuit breaker in mid-2019. Working with 10 artists, all our conversations and body work were made available online via Zoom. On filming day, we scheduled artists individually to keep to the safety management measures. We took turns to dance around the theatre seats. Using this methodology, moving our bodies without any physical contact was a central part of the ideation. To me, this work shows how much responsibility everyone feels towards one another’s safety and health. 

Norhaizad's living room

The most spacious part of my house. It’s a shared space for me and my wife. My son would also use the space to practice his floorwork.

How have you been keeping in shape at home over the past year?

To be honest, not so much. During the pandemic, I sought solace in vacuuming and mopping my house almost every day. It does feel like a satisfying exercise routine. As a new parent, I am caring for my baby son and learning how to be a responsible father.

Do you have any contingency plans now that things are easing up?

I have learnt to think ahead of time and am still learning how to prepare a digital version of a live work and embed it as part of the research process and rehearsal plan. It definitely needs more work, patience and planning, but it’s something necessary that I’ve learnt along the way to manage my mental health. Regulations may change overnight and I hope to be professional about it. I spend time reasoning out artistically if the work can still be relatable if it shifts as a digital experience. Somehow, this is my way of coping with the current flow and the new normal of creating live work.

Tell us more about "Selamat Pengantin Baru (Happy Newlyweds)".

For Selamat Pengantin Baru, I’m looking at the connection between dance and philosophical traditions. In this case, I am curious about how micro gestures might have a diasporic impact on a community. My realisation started from my observation of blessing ceremonies in Malay weddings. Then, I decided to explore the movements of merenjis, a splashing or sprinkling gesture used in a blessing ceremony to the newlyweds.

This research process is still ongoing and has been mentored by Pichet Klunchun and Melati Suryodarmo through Dance Nucleus CP[3] programme. As a start, I am interested in choreographing three repertoires of a Malay wedding dance which are court, folk and procession. Since it is our first time performing in the grand Esplanade Theatre, I thought of presenting the work like a product demonstration, inspired by enterprising trends during the pandemic. After all, wedding is all about business.

Rachel and Marcus, ScRach MarcS

Our response to self-isolation.

What are some of things the dance community has been going through the past year?

Speaking on behalf of the street dance community, we really miss the social interactions from jams, sessions, parties and competitions. The positive energy from physical interactions and exchanges are challenging to replicate with safe management measures in place and also when imported to an online space.

Looking back, we had projects lined up which included an overseas project, performances to choreograph and perform, and a huge dance event that we planned to organise, which involved inviting dance pioneers from overseas. Dealing with cancellations and postponements (which led to cancellations too) was exhausting, and this break in momentum was the most difficult to recover from.

One upside of this is that we finally found time to slow down our pace and take some time off for ourselves.

How have you been navigating the uncertainties?

2020–2021 has been a great experimental year as we navigated the arts and digital space. We readapted a past work online with an interactivity feature, collaborated with a new team of artists to create a digital dance work, and partnered with a creative agency to create Instagram filters as part of NAC’s Got To Move festival, which also shifted online.

I think we will slowly embrace the hybrid experience of incorporating technology in an in-person performance and also make improvements in our digital experiences so that it feels closer to an in-person performance. 

Now that the restrictions are easing up a little and rehearsals in the studio are possible, what are some of the contingencies you have?

Definitely it's about going back to physical classes/rehearsals but with a backup plan to switch to online/hybrid classes if needed. But we still miss close contact with people! We look forward to dancing and vibing out with people in parties, events and concerts!

Tell us more about "FULL OUT! with ScRach MarcS".

The idea presented to us was a battle and we felt that we wanted to deconstruct how people would experience it. Usually, battles are about seeing who emerges the winner but for this, it's not just about one’s skill level or technique but about the people’s preferences. We wanted to make it a battle between ideologies, schools of thoughts and opinions. These have always been the debate in our communities, and what better way to bring it to the stage than through a battle! On top of battles, we also plan to add showcases that would highlight the classic approaches side by side with newer and more experimental versions.

Santha Bhaskar, Bhaskar’s Arts Academy

Santha Bhaskar - dance

Life is full of challenges, be ready to embrace them. Life is art and art will survive in all situations.

What are some of things the dance community has been going through the past year?

The dance community has been very much disturbed and confused both physically and mentally because of the pandemic. Still, we stay positive and try to think philosophically. We learn to live with the challenges, think differently and create wisely while hoping we don’t lose the values of dance.

Safe-distancing reminded me of a culture I practised back home when I was young. We were frequently told to maintain a safe distance from our parents and siblings. I didn't know why then but I wonder now if it was for health reasons. Many other ancient beliefs that we practised seem relevant now.

Can the digital experience ever replace an in-person performance?

When we had to pivot to the online platform, it was all new to us. Creating for the digital world was a challenge and having to choreograph from the laptop was not pleasant. On top of that I had to change my mindset and think like a movie director in order to create for the camera instead of the stage. It was time consuming and a new experience for all of us.

We are alive on stage. This is the magic that we create as artists that you cannot fully experience from digital shows. People say that the future of dance could be both. If the situation is such, we may have to live with it.

It is important to stay positive. What are some upsides of this experience?

The digital world opened up many possibilities. We experimented with electronic music blended with Indian traditional music, and compositions were created using technology for our dance pieces. There were no longer barriers to international collaborations too.

Has working from home changed the way you rehearse as a group and create dance?

Working from home has its good and bad days. I have to consciously channel my thoughts and push my mind to think differently. I work harder to find solutions to many of my problems, such as planning my dance pieces, visualising the movements and finding ways to efficiently create solo, duet or group pieces. Dance dramas are more complicated if it is not face-to-face. 

I never had a taste for the dance I see in movies, but now I appreciate these dance directors and dancers—the most important person is the one editing the entire sequence. I ask myself if my art is also being channelled toward that. I have yet to find the answer! I truly appreciate the freedom we had before, it all seems like a dream to me now. At the same time, I can't compromise on my movements. They are set to create beauty and to add an aesthetic experience.

Now that the restrictions are easing up a little and rehearsals in the studio are possible, what are some of the contingencies you have?

We are glad that we can start working in our studio despite all the restrictions and guidelines. But there is constant fear of a sudden turn of events and the uncertainty lingers in the back of our minds. So, we have to have a plan A and B for everything. 

Tell us more about "Dissemination Everywhere!".

It’s an innovative concept to connect people through simple movements of the body. It requires the audience to listen to the instructions from pre-recorded audio, then move to accordingly, to the music. Audiences in any part of the world can move their bodies and experience dance in whichever space they choose to be.

I was so thrilled when this invitation came and was honoured to know that Singapore will be participating. I am going to represent my country connecting people near and far. It is an honourable and special project for me which I will definitely cherish.

Contributed by:

Lim Liting

Lim Liting is a worker bee, house elf and freelance content producer.


Finding new ways to dance

da:ns festival 2021

Presented within four focal points, the festival invites artists and audiences alike to turn attention towards new perspectives on and experiences of the body and movement.

8 – 17 Oct

See all programmes
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