Amidst Affliction: An interview with Raymond Liew

Emerging choreographer Raymond Liew reveals how surviving a horrifying accident affected his dance making in the works The Edge and Cut the Clouds, performed at the D’Motion International Dance Festival, DPAC, December 2014.


Bilqis: Tell me about your accident.

Raymond: In July 2013, I came home to Malaysia [from Folkwang University of the Arts, Germany] and I had a perfect holiday. I met friends, arranged performances, and during my days off I went with a few friends to Tioman, which is just near my home town of Mersing. On 1 August 2013, my friends and I were canoeing back to the beach where we were staying. A speedboat came towards us, not looking where it was going. Although we yelled and waved our oars, they couldn’t hear us over the sound of the engine. The speedboat crashed into my canoe, which was destroyed and we were thrown into the water.

Luckily, the speedboat people realised what had happened, stopped, and picked us up – otherwise I would never have survived. It took eight hours for me to be transferred to the hospital in Johor Bahru. The doctors said that I had three slashes into my left glute muscles, probably made by the speedboat’s propeller. Luckily I had my student insurance from Folkwang, and I had even bought extra insurance, so that I could get acupuncture for a pre-existing knee injury. The insurance covered all my hospital costs, and in Germany if you are in hospital for longer than 28 days, I think, you don’t have to pay the excess. In the hospital in Johor Bahru, they said it would take six months for me to be able to walk, and at that point I thought I would never be able to dance again. That was the lowest point in my journey. Then I was transferred to a hospital in Singapore, and they said I would be able to walk in a month, which was a bit too optimistic, but I actually did manage to stand after 3 weeks.

But it was a long process. I had about 15 operations, both big and small. For more than nine months, because I couldn’t sit on the toilet, I had a colostomy bag. I had to learn to dance with it, to make sure it didn’t come out during classes. I had a skin transplant from my leg, and also muscles transplanted from my back to my butt. This required taking a blood vessel from my other leg and putting it into my butt, to feed the new muscles. For five months, I was in and out of hospital and rehab centres.

But now I seem completely better. Sometimes I forget I have even had this injury—except for the scars, you couldn’t tell. I don’t have mental trauma. Maybe it’s because I’m so obstinate. Because it had happened over the summer holidays, I managed to arrange things with the university so that my study for my master’s  didn’t need to be extended. Luckily I had been a good student, and I had done a lot of work for which I had never gotten credits, so they took that into account and went easy on me.

Bilqis: Is rehabilitation like a form of physical research?

Raymond: It’s more about how it teaches you to appreciate your body. Even to walk, or to hold a toothbrush, is something that makes me really happy. Touching the floor without wearing socks—that sensation of skin contacting floor. The first time I took a shower after many months, the first time I could sit again, and walk out of the hospital to feel the sun. This experience has changed me a lot, and I think it’s changed my family a lot too. You know Asians don’t kiss each other. During all this, it was the first time that my brother kissed me, on the forehead.

Bilqis: So your master’s graduation work, The Edge, is a response to your accident. And is Cut the Clouds made in contrast to it?

Raymond: Actually, both of them are related to my accident. The Edge was made during recovery, when I was still in and out of hospital. It was a very depressing period—there was a lot of pain and suffering. While I was making it, I couldn’t demonstrate the movement, so I had to learn to explain it. It was the first time I had worked so intensively as a choreographer. I took as inspiration images I had found while I was in hospital, especially I’ll Be Back by Jee Young Lee (a staged photograph by the Korean artist of an arm reaching up towards a frayed hanging rope through a whirlpool sea of blue paper fans). It reminded me of the moment of being in the water during the accident. When they dragged me out of the sea, I had to use my own strength to hold onto their hand; if I hadn’t had dancer’s muscles, I would not have been able to do that.

I wanted to start the work with using the human hair, because our hair is one of the few parts of the body that does not feel pain. The female dancers told me, when your hair is over your face you can’t see! And I thought, no, you must be able to see, but it’s only when I put their hair over my own face that I realised what they meant. The feeling of being behind a curtain of hair—it’s so dark, and the observations you have of your own situation are intense, and it changes the way your body moves, how you react. And with the male dancers, I started with phrases using the hands—because arm movements were the only movements I could do. One of the dancers depicts the demon within—because no matter how positive I would try to be, there was always a little demon inside full of negative thoughts, and sometimes it seemed to scream out loud.

I also took a phrase from an old Chinese song: “I pluck off one leaf, and I left this leaf behind to represent me to the city.” My dancer, Chi Ching-Yu, represents the leaf. She even had a nightmare where she was standing at the edge of something, and didn’t know what to do. And during the work, there’s a part where all the dancers are standing in a line, and then they go off one by one. At this point, she always has the feeling, “It’s my time. It’s coming…soon. Soon.”

The work is not just my story—it’s the story of all five of us. All of us faced something different during the time we were making the work—my experience was just more extreme. But you can see all our emotions in this piece.

By the time I came to make Cut the Clouds, I knew it would be in a double bill with The Edge, so I didn’t want it all to be heavy and dark—although I am normally quite a dark choreographer! Looking out the window at the hospital, I imagined the blue sky as my body and the clouds as scars. I was listening to the song “Cut the World” by Antony and the Johnsons, but I thought the idea of the world is a bit too huge, so I came up with the title Cut the Clouds. It was the first time I have had the title come first. Usually I work from movements developed with the dancers, which then I work towards a theme, and the title comes last—this was the opposite. I had an idea of the rainbow, so I wanted to reflect those colours in the costumes. And [composer Ng Chor] Guan also mentioned that clouds are not just white fluffy things—there are also dark clouds—and so [multimedia artist] Koo Chia Meng introduced the dark clouds you see in the projection.

Bilqis: How did you work with composer Ng Chor Guan and multimedia artist Koo Chia Meng while making Cut the Clouds?

Raymond: As we had a very short working period for Cut the Clouds, I told Chor Guan and Chia Meng that I wanted to focus on the body movements, with the music and the multimedia in a supporting role. At first we worked through Skype, which was very difficult with the time difference—the only time we could be together was very early in the morning or very late at night for me. We started with exchanging our experiences and backgrounds. I had already worked with Guan in The Edge, but this was the first time that I had worked with multimedia.

Guan and Chia Meng and I worked in parallel. In the end, it was a lot of trial and error in terms of getting all three elements—movement, music and videography—to work together.

With Chor Guan it was a tricky because all the music that he had composed seemed to match the scenes, but when it was all put together as a complete piece, the dynamics didn’t quite work. Also I had to consider how the mood of the music affected the dancers, and how the dancers could adapt, so we tried out many different versions of the music until we reached a good solution.

I gave Chia Meng words to “see” the visuals, but when he arrived and actually saw my choreography, he decided he had to change his projections completely, because they had been too overwhelming. Now they are more subtle, they create a mood which tries to support the dance, rather than making a ‘multimedia moment’. I gave Chia Meng quite a lot of freedom—I trusted him a lot. He was the one who suggested that the videography should bring the audience into the clouds, and then at the end of the work it slowly brings them back to reality.  


Raymond Liew is a Malaysian choreographer based in Essen, Germany.

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Bilqis Hijjas writes, produces, performs and teaches about contemporary dance in Malaysia. More

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Featured photo: [From left to right] Rachel Chew Zi Xin, Hoi Cheng Sim [front, bending over], Kyson Teo Khai Shen, Luiza Braz Batista, Ching-Yu Chi, Hanaa Tan and Tan Bee Hung performing in Cut the Clouds, Black Box, Damansara Performing Arts Centre, Petaling Jaya, 20 December 2014. Photo © James Quah