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da:ns lab 2019: Listen to Country

Dance practitioners gather in this annual platform to discuss contemporary issues.


Published: 7 Sep 2019

da:ns lab 2019 was produced by Dance Nucleus Singapore with the support of National Arts Council, in collaboration with Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.

This fifth edition is a response to the heightened precarity of social and ecological climates, with artists turning inwards to examine their own complicity amidst these larger paradigm shifts. Four international artists—Jacob Boehme, Xiao Ke x Zi Han, Martin Schick and Paz Ponce—were invited to share more about their work in initiating capacity-building platforms to address the challenges faced in their respective cultural contexts. Participants from Southeast Asia and the extended Asian region were also invited, coming from The Philippines, India, Taiwan, Indonesia and Thailand. 

In this archive, dance practitioners and participants Chan Sze-Wei and Chloe Chotrani respond, engage, critique and archive da:ns lab 2019: Listen to Country. The first two days of the programme were held at Dance Nucleus at Goodman Arts Centre, while the latter two were held at the Esplanade Annexe Studio. Each guest artist conducted a creative activity based on their experiences and current projects, lasting between three to eight hours.

Introduction by curator Daniel Kok

Responding to the shifting ground and changing climate—environmental, political, and economic—many artists in the performing arts have begun to augment their practices with a sense of urgency. This involves a critical re-examination of the arts ecology, the role of the arts and artists, and a greater emphasis on a model of relevance over that of excellence.

Compelled to address more directly social engagement and community participation, it can be argued that the arts in general, regardless of discipline or form, have begun to dovetail at performance, whereby as a relational practice, the arts attempt to play a more substantial role in building more dynamic, more equitable, more sustainable, and more meaningful relationships within their circumscribed contexts.

Furthermore, some artists are also reimagining themselves as curators of their own projects, in which the frameworks and formats for artistic engagement can potentially be renegotiated on the artists’ own terms. Accordingly, many artists are initiating projects that are self-directed in order to reclaim a sense of autonomy and agency, and to redefine the ways in which they can more directly, as well as more critically engage with their socio-cultural contexts.

The word "curate" comes from "curare" (Latin), which means "to care for"; the curator being traditionally a carer of cultural artefacts in a museum. Adapted into the performing arts approximately over the last 15 years, the role of the curator as a "carer" of cultural conversations has never been more critical, especially when so many aspects of our lives require care today: mitigating against environmental collapse, listening to dissenting views amidst political deadlock, even reviewing self-care or countering precarity, burnout and exhaustion among freelancing artists.

The verb of the day seems to be "to listen". As well as to speak, issue statements and to take a stand, the artist who cares also needs to build in listening as a salient ingredient in their artistic practices. Besides speaking more forcefully and more persuasively, how can we be better at listening to our communities?

Chloe Chotrani on da:ns lab

Singapore as a transitory city that has enough infrastructure to house an interweaving of cultural workers from wide and far-flung areas into one room. A gathering that holds potential to bring existing cultural conditioning to the surface and the possibility of breaking old patterns into regenerating new ideas, allowing failure, provoking perceptions, and supporting each other in our multiplicity. Having been to da:ns lab in 2017 and 2018, this is one of many ways to participate through both discourse and experimentation to understand the Singaporean dance ecology, within a global performance/dance context.

The theme “Listen to Country” was able to specify the engagements into more a constructive discussion, which was necessary. Jacob Boehme from Australia was a good way to start da:ns lab, since the first introduction was done through a movement workshop. To speak of dance in depth, it was helpful to start by being in the body, before talking about the body. Jacob’s movement exercises focused mostly on using memory and applying it as a choreographic technique derived from indigenous values. While Xiao Ke and Zi Han similarly explored understanding their culture through body memory, but with a very different approach. Their sharing provoked dialogue on how they deal with self-censorship as artists in China, looking at contemporary dance through the lens of dance forms on the daily public square, and initiating an artist-version game of Monopoly, which they named "A-Game".

The third day was facilitated by Martin Schick, known for his works on the redistribution of resources as a way of working. As a response to the climate catastrophe, he made a conscious decision to lead the session through Skype to reduce CO2 emissions, so he was able to stay in Switzerland, rather than flying to Singapore. His presence via a camera and flat screen definitely changed and challenge the dynamics of interaction. His absence however made space for more regional participants to be present at da:ns lab this year. Lastly, the fourth speaker was Paz Ponce from Agora Collective, an artist-run collaborative practice space in Berlin. Her workshop was filled with continuous tasks of text, embodiment, conversations, writing, and more. It took us to the point of feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, especially after four days of intensive engagement. This point of exhaustion was also part of her provocation, where we got to the edge of desperation, and almost delusion, the start of when more interesting results arise.

Noticeably, da:ns lab this year had the highest level of engagement and diversity in disciplines, which kept an elevated level of intrigue, it allowed for respectful, yet honest and vulnerable responses to each other. As compared to a less effective lecture-student format, people had enough conviction to speak, interrupt, question, and importantly, play.

Chan Sze-Wei on da:ns lab

da:ns lab has never failed to shake up my thoughts and practice since I first attended in 2016. The encounter with practices and questions of other artists from Singapore and beyond recontextualises my own work and kickstarts new ideas. This year, the “country” and “land” analogies were refreshing because we rarely talk about this here—highlighting this issue of global interest in art also highlighted a relative silence on these issues in local work. It came through that there are many underlying tensions and difficulties cultivating this avoidance in our local scene. During Jacob and Xiao Ke x Zi Han’s days, the aspect of toxic nationalism and essentialism emerged because that is very relevant to many Asian contexts, including Singapore. Those tough topics produced a few uncomfortable moments in discussions. I found myself asking if this was this the most productive paradigm for discussions, as opposed to public space, or personal histories, or social organisation, or environment? Eventually, over the four days of workshops, the relevance of the many aspects of “land” got unpacked/exploded into a huge range of questions, many with mutual resonance across different contexts. In retrospect I wish that we had revisited the overarching theme towards the end of the lab, in such a manner as to allow digestion and reflection.

This year’s attendance was by invitation only, which was effectively a curation of participation. I liked the distribution and networking with interesting artists and curators around the region and was amazed by the resources to fly certain people in. However, as a compromise to not make this an elitist and exclusive network, which I am not comfortable with, I would suggest by invitation for a proportion, and open call for the remainder of participants. How can we assume that we know everyone who can make a good contribution? Chloe had a similar sense that the by-invitation-only strategy would be a disadvantage in the long run.

I noted the adoption of the academic convention of assigning a respondent to a presentation (or paper in academic contexts). I liked that it encouraged specific individuals with relevant experiences to engage more deeply with specific presentations and the bigger picture of the issues raised, perhaps finding out more background on the artists and their areas of interest beforehand and reading more deeply into the content. However, the formalised nature of their identification and invitations for them to comment suggested again a hierarchy of knowledge, and I wonder if it is also possible to trust that the carefully curated group audience was already very engaged with the material offered.

The selection of artist presenters/facilitators was excellent and thought-provoking, but I believe that it would have been great to feature a local artist or locally connected artist (even if it is a local artist now based overseas) so that we can compare practices. Chloe expressed the hope for at least two regional artists featured to lead the workshops for future labs, to give more opportunity for strengthening local ties, and build networks for long term collaborations and conversations from Southeast Asia. She also missed the performance aspect of the 2018 programme, where invited artists performed an excerpt of their works, which she found to be a more visceral way of engagement and discussion.

I appreciate very much that the featured artists were given a brief to facilitate discussion among the participants and to open space for sharing about different practices and contexts, rather than presenting only about their own practice. I enjoyed this approach, with the artists’ practice as a foil allowing comparative experiences and practices among the participants to emerge. Though they intersect and are undoubtedly relevant to each other, I note that facilitation and engagement is in fact a separate skill from the ability to articulate one’s practice. We benefited greatly from having facilitators who were able to foster or provoke stimulating spaces for discussion—and bring us to “land”.


Daniel Kok

Daniel Kok studied BA (Honours) Fine Art & Critical Theory at Goldsmiths College (London), MA Solo/Dance/Authorship (SODA) at the Inter-University Centre for Dance (HZT, Berlin) and Advanced Performance and Scenography Studies (APASS, Brussels). In 2008, he received the Young Artist Award from National Arts Council (Singapore). His performance works have been presented across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America, notably the Venice Biennale, Maxim Gorki Theater (Berlin), ImpulsTanz (Vienna), Festival/Tokyo, AsiaTOPA (Melbourne) and the Esplanade (Singapore). In his current work, “Hundreds & Thousands”, he collaborates with Luke George (Melbourne) and a series of potted plants to listen to each other, breathe together, and collectively inhabit an activated interstitial space. Daniel is the artistic director of Dance Nucleus (Singapore), an agency for the development of critical practice in contemporary performance in Asia.

Chan Sze-Wei

Trained as a dancer, Sze-Wei now makes “stuff” for theatre, interactive performance, video and film. She is currently working on a documentary about queer communities around voguers in Southeast Asia. She facilitates the Working Group for Dancers’ Advocacy in Singapore, and the networks Singapore Interdependent Dance, Independent Dance Southeast Asia, and Contact Improvisation Southeast Asia.

Chloe Chotrani

Chloe is a movement artist, writer, gardener, yogini with recent trauma sensitive training. She is interested in how one can go beyond cultural boundaries yet staying rooted on ancestry and memory. Currently, she is curious about the experience of ceremony work with psychotropic medicines and its relationship to her performance work.

Download the full report for da:ns lab 2019 here
da:ns lab

da:ns lab is an annual platform for dance practitioners to reflect upon key issues surrounding their creative practice, as part of da:ns festival at Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay. The programme aims to engage dance practitioners in Singapore and the Southeast Asian region in artistic discourse, research, reflection and exchange.

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