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If you were to bump into Kuik Swee Boon at the theatre, you might not recognise him as the force behind The Human Expression (T.H.E) Dance Company, a company known for raising the standard of technical rigour in contemporary dance in Singapore. It is one of the few dance companies to have achieved Singapore’s Major Company status and is responsible for the M1 CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival started in 2010.
From the moment of its debut performance, T.H.E experienced a meteoric rise in popularity and recognition in Singapore and internationally, yet Kuik appears a laid-back figure with an unruly mop of hair, dressed in a T-shirt, bermuda shorts and slippers.
This belies the steely determination that refuses to let up, the attention to detail and control that is characteristic of him as Artistic Director and principal choreographer of T.H.E. But Kuik was not always associated with the contemporary dance scene in Singapore; in fact, he rose to prominence as a principal dancer of Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT).
Kuik’s first dance foray was in Chinese and modern dance at 15 years old, on an ad-hoc basis with his secondary school in the town of Batu Pahat in Johor, Malaysia. When he was 17, he heard from a teacher that the People’s Association (PA) in Singapore was looking for dancers. Even though he knew nothing about PA, fired by his desire to keep dancing, he and a few friends (including his future wife Silvia Yong) crossed the border and arrived in Singapore to audition.
Up until this point, Kuik had minimal formal ballet training, but the audition was a ballet class, so all he could do was copy the person standing in front of him. With this audition in 1990, Kuik was accepted into the People’s Association Dance Company and relocated to Singapore to fulfill his desire of dancing daily for a living.
After seven months of this training in ballet, contemporary dance, and Malay, Chinese and Indian dance forms, he attended a ballet workshop at SDT, Singapore’s premier professional ballet company, where he caught the eye of its co-founder, the late Anthony Then, and was offered an apprenticeship. While at SDT, Kuik deepened his ballet training and had the opportunity to perform in many contemporary dance works by international artists such as Australia’s Lee Warren and Indonesia’s Boi Sakti. Sakti became one of the first guest choreographers to work with T.H.E. when he choreographed Void (2009).
Soon, Kuik was performing principal roles at SDT in seminal ballets such as Giselle and Romeo and Juliet; this rapid ascendance might be attributed to Kuik’s well-known “crazy” behaviour of staying in the studio until 9pm or 10pm at night to practise after all the other dancers had gone home.
After 11 years with the company he had built up a fan base locally and was performing in roles that put him at the centre of full-length works, but he felt something was missing. He told me, "To be an artist is my whole world and I was no longer satisfied with what I had achieved dancing in SDT." He wanted to go further and break through his own artistic limitations to reach a place he as yet knew nothing about. It was only after watching the Compañía Nacional de Danza (CND) at Kallang Theatre that he had an inkling of what he was searching for.
This is the story that Kuik tells young dancers to inspire them to take a chance and pursue their dreams.
In 2002, after watching CND for the first time in a Singapore Arts Festival presentation, Kuik desired an artistic breakthrough for himself more than ever, so he decided to audition for the company. He went backstage, knocking on the door of the company’s dressing room looking for Choreographer and Artistic Director Nacho Duato. All he found was the Production Manager who told him that the auditions in Spain were over.
Undeterred, Kuik decided to hang around until the company’s bus arrived and he could see Duato himself. He managed to introduce himself to the star Spanish choreographer who told him that there was still one Principal contract that had not been awarded and permitted him to audition for it. So, on the company's third day at Kallang Theatre, while the lights were being cued for the changeover of the programme to be performed that night, Kuik joined the company on stage for class, in the presence of Duato. After the class, the rehearsal assistant taught one repertoire from the company for Kuik to perform. He waited in the theatre for a decision, and that same day, Duato informed him that he was accepted.
Kuik gave up his stable position in SDT, his home and supportive wife to travel to Madrid, without speaking a word of Spanish, to join a company he knew nothing about.
Kuik says that he now strongly believes that everyone should leave their own country at least once to work and learn because this experience gave him a new perspective on his role as a dancer, his relationship to dance and how he uses his body. He stayed with the company for five years. The initial two years were the hardest. It was an extremely competitive environment, where everyone auditioned equally to be in a new creation. As a recent hire on a Principal’s contract and as an Asian, he felt the need to prove that he deserved to be in that position.
In Spain, Kuik found that the mindset of the performers and the way the company worked with their bodies was different to what he had experienced in Asia.
Before joining CND, his aesthetic preferences tended towards strong poses and big exciting energy, but this changed. He realised that he wanted other kinds of systems and environments for making dance.
In 2008, a year after he debuted the full-length work Silence (2007) in Esplanade’s da:ns festiva and received the Young Artist Award, he founded T.H.E. The company celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2018, but Kuik feels that it has only been within the last two years that he has managed to create the balance for an environment that he appreciates.
At the start, he was heavily influenced by how Duato ran CND. Everything had to be correct and accurate, there was no room for mistakes. Kuik believes that this method is good for young dancers at the beginning, but after they mature it is not the best way to work.
Only after many years has he become less didactic, and gives the dancers more room to express themselves and contribute to the creative process.
The last few years have also been better for Kuik on the home front. He shares that he and his wife had sacrificed and suffered much to make art.
When he first went away to Spain, he was separated from Yong for long stretches, and when he started T.H.E, it was even worse, because his "craziness" was channeled into this endeavour and he threw himself full force into it. He was in fight mode, looking for performance opportunities, training dancers and developing the identity and standard of the company.
Even though Yong was his wife, he was as hard on her as he was on himself, but she remained supportive and understanding of how much he wanted to establish something different in Singapore.
As a principal dancer in the company and the first rehearsal master, she played a pivotal role in formulating the company identity.
From the beginning of T.H.E, it was clear to Kuik that he wanted to find an identity for the company. He was searching for a methodology and vocabulary that would be grounded in an Asian aesthetic and culture. While later in his career most of his training came from the west, his early training was in Chinese dance, but coming up with a unique approach was a challenge.
Kuik’s first full-length work with the company, Old Sounds (2008) exemplified his early approach. Working with sound artist Darren Ng, he brought the Chinese dialects of his parents and old folk songs to the stage. In these initial years of T.H.E, he would often talk about muscle, body and energy. This combined with his time under Duato led to the sinuous fluidity peppered with bursts of energy that became the signature style of the company.
However, this was only a move in the direction of his desire to develop his training methodology. He did not start a unique training process for the company until around 2015, and by 2016 he named it “Hollow Body”.
It was only while working on and dancing in Helix, in progress (May 2016), which premiered at SOTA Drama Theatre, that Kuik started to be clearer about his approach of the “Hollow Body”. With Pure (Dec 2016), part of a triple bill programme that was presented at the Esplanade Theatre Studio, he began to crystallise that approach.
The “Hollow Body” is an improvisation-based approach that focuses on the relationship of the mind, body and heart (emotion).
Over time Kuik had realised that performance is a complex relationship between the physical world and the abstract world, so in training dancers, he could not just teach steps. Instead, he saw the body as a hollow container that carries an individual's world. This approach guides the dancer to let go, but when this idea is approached incorrectly the body can appear limp, whereas Kuik is looking for an energised body that moves with ease and is never static.
He wants the dancer to let go, to find a new way to speak with the external world and not let go of the passion of life. Kuik can lead a dancer through this process in 1 hour and 15 minutes and for those familiar with it, he can complete the process in 50 minutes.
The first step in the “Hollow Body” progression is to recognise the internal and external worlds of the body through a release of unnecessary tension and to try to find the space to start a dialogue with the body.
During this dialogue the dancers try to identify what is held in their bodies and what is left after it is “emptied”. Kuik believes that by emptying the container of the unconscious tensions and bringing the dancer in touch with a subconscious level of focus in this meditative scan of the body, his dancers can find something more important and a different strength emerges.
For Kuik, the body of many performers is often “lying” as the mind is too much in control and this gives the impression that you cannot believe what the dancer is trying to “say” with his/her body. When dancers have difficulty “letting go” he will ask them to imagine the sensation of feeling drunk, and this helps them to find the release.
The second step is to bring the dancers back in communication with the world around them and to stimulate an alert consciousness. This is when a “sincere body” or “animal body” emerges.
Here the mind supports the body, but the body is allowed to “speak” for itself. The dancer should be listening to the body’s responses to movement, such as sensing limitations and places of ease. The aim is to allow the consciousness to go deep into the body to find "a thousand points of awake-ness" as if sensing the muscles down to the cells.
At this point they are encouraged to use the breath and let any natural sounds emanate. In this stage, there is also an acknowledgement that an emotion can drive decision making and the dancer needs to be awake to that.
The third and final step is to bring back the consciousness of the mind. This integrates the use of the mind, body and heart.
At this point, the dancers progress to consciously working with gravity and learning how to carry the weight of the body through space and channel their energy. By now the internal world of the dancer and the external world should be in greater contact.
Dancers should take stock of how one is feeling that day and be aware of which of the three is taking precedence and leading at any given time. This then gives the dancer more options on how to approach performance.
Now Kuik is in a phase of his career where he no longer feels that he needs to fight for everything. He is developing the company identity, and sharing his new stylistic approach outside the company in partnerships with international festivals, local arts institutions, and in creative collaborations such as Cut Kafka! (2018) with Nine Years Theatre (NYT).
This meeting of the minds pushes Kuik and the company outside their comfort zones to find a shared language for the actors of NYT and T.H.E’s dancers. Where previous collaborations were mainly to support Kuik’s artistic vision for a dance, this move to experiment with his creative process signals his confidence in what he has established with his company and his desire to take it further.
Interview conducted 12 Jan 2018
Melissa Quek is a choreographer, performer and educator who has been working in the dance industry since she was 18. She is currently Head of the School of Dance & Theatre and is leading the Diploma in Dance and BA (Hons) Dance Programmes in LASALLE College of the Arts.