Natalie: "The dancers themselves, though all Singaporean and of Chinese descent, were diverse people and movers with different qualities, ages and experiences."
I arrived in Singapore in the dark. Quite literally: it was midnight when I stepped out of the airport and felt the thick, muggy air in my lungs. I hadn’t slept on the plane; despite a dancer’s super ability to be comfortable in confined spaces, my body was restless with anticipation and a web of creative ideas yet to be spun out.
I knew immediately that the warm, smiling woman at arrivals was Athelyna, the M1 Contact Festival Manager. She laughed that I was travelling like a backpacker. I explained I would be wandering Europe in between my two periods with The Human Expression Second Dance Company: a four week creation period in May-June, and two weeks in July to put the show up into The Esplanade - an unusually designed theater affectionately known as Singapore’s ‘durian’ (a massive, green, spiky Asian fruit).
In some ways, Singapore is not unlike New Zealand. They’re both island countries and cultural melting pots; resilient nations that have undergone identity transformation and now have a very Western feel, despite their origins. Of course, there are also differences - the one that interested me most being the Chinese/Eastern lineage still so prominent in Singapore. These similarities and differences were starting points for my choreographic work, Transit.
Thinking about how people of different cultures come together, and increasing globalisation, I was interested in how a company of individuals might dance together as a single organism while retaining idiosyncratic energies. Breath was a significant starting point to embody these ideas, being the unifier within our own selves of mind and body, and a link from within our bodies to outside. Breath is also inherent to Eastern body-mind practices such as yoga and Buddhist meditation. Breath can be soft and calming, or it can be sharp such as an exhale of frustration.
My work Transit also embodies the idea of cultural and energetic resilience, especially from Eastern and Western perspectives. Eastern resilience feels more ‘yin’ or ‘feminine’ in its energetic approach: sustaining, breathing, observing, reflecting - such as in yoga or traditional Martial Arts practices. Western resilience as I experience it is more ‘yang’ and ‘masculine’ energetically: the hard-nosed Kiwi farmer ‘just getting on with it’ in the bitter cold.
Natalie worked with members of The Human Expression Dance Company's Second Company on her work Transit (Photo Bernie Ng, M1 CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival)
I was interested to portray these dualities both in harmony and discord with each other, in balance and in polarity. Duality is a concept that has always fascinated me - it brings a third element: the sum of the two opposites together. We worked a lot with triangular imagery - the symbol of change, transformation and transition, and the basis of the symbols for elements water, air, earth, fire and metaphysical ether.
The dancers themselves, though all Singaporean and of Chinese descent, were diverse people and movers with different qualities, ages and experiences. This was both a challenge and a delight as choreographer, particularly working with dancers I was unfamiliar with. When I initiate my own projects at home, I create a team of collaborators who I trust implicitly and have longstanding creative relationships with. A process such as this one with T.H.E. requires getting to know the dancers and where their strengths and interests lie, in order to best collaborate with them.
A wonderful aspect of my time in Singapore was that I was working evenings and weekends - so I had my days free to explore the unique island city and absorb the culture.
My apartment in Geylang was wonderfully located, a 15 minute cycle along the river to T.H.E.’s studio, out of the main tourist hub but accessible by metro, and surrounded by cheap local eateries. Usually at home I eat a plant-based diet, and due to the large Buddhist population in Singapore, there are plenty of amazing vegetarian restaurants full of delicious food, and of course stalls abundant with tropical fruit.
My time in Singapore reminded me how important natural environments are for me to channel creativity. Coming off the back of a nomadic South Island summer, I missed New Zealand’s rugged forests and beaches.
In Singapore, I would try to seek out natural spaces: cycling to the monkey-inhabited Coney Island; hiking through the treetops of Mt Faber national park in the tropical downpour; making friends with turtles at the botanic gardens; or walking around the bush-clad reservoir at MacRitchie Park.
Working in the evenings meant that Natalie could explore Singapore during the day
This also reminded me that I do my best creative work when I am calm in mind. I relished the opportunity to spend four weeks essentially by myself, creating a morning routine of waking slowly, contemplation, writing, reading, yoga and listening to music before exploring the city. After this, I would eat a meal at a local hawker, plan my rehearsal and then head to the studio in the evening. After rehearsal, late at night, I would swim in the mezzanine pool at the apartment complex, enjoying the peacefulness of the cloudy Singaporean night sky and the water, reflecting on the evening’s work.
I easily slipped back into ‘creative insomnia’, a glorious and torturous pendulum of excitement and fatigue that for me is so familiar during creative process.
Managing my energy was often challenging with the late night rehearsals, especially as I felt like there was constantly so much stimulus - not only of making work, but being in a new cultural environment, learning so much personally as well as artistically.
Aside of working with the company, I also had the pleasure of teaching a class to open the first day of the M1 Contact Contemporary Dance Festival. I also participated in classes with other artists working on the festival: Kim Jae Duk from South Korea, who recently choreographed on New Zealand Dance Company; and Júlia Robert Parés of Humanhood (Birmingham/Barcelona). I really appreciated the opportunity to learn new and challenging ways of moving different from what I have experienced in New Zealand.
My time with T.H.E. Company in Singapore has been such a positive and valuable experience, and I am so grateful to directors Silvia and Swee Boon, the dancers and the entire festival team for their generous support in my vision. This is such a wonderful opportunity that Asia New Zealand Foundation offers and it’s shifted my thinking about how I might be able to continue pursuing international collaborations and platforms for my creative work.