Joelle Jacinto learns to trust her partner in an unexpected teacher-student role reversal for a performance of Jack Kek’s But You Didn’t.
We were eye to eye, his hands firmly grasping my upper arms, my hands clamped on his shoulders. I must have looked terrified. He said, very confidently, “Trust me.”
And then he whirled me around again, my legs flying behind me like an amusement park ride. I arched my back to keep my feet off the floor, all the while pushing my hands down on him. When he pulled me up to standing, we didn’t go to the next step. Meaning there were comments on this execution. I asked him, “Better?” He cracked a sheepish smile and said, “Maybe trust me more?”
Chan Kean Yew was dancing with me in Jack Kek’s But You Didn’t for UMa Dance Company, the resident contemporary dance company of the University of Malaya. The original cast of this wonderful duet had been Chan and then-second year student, Bai Jin (whom many Malaysians call Fiona). Unfortunately, Fiona had to return home to China for industry training, and was unable to repeat her performance as part of the 2014 UMa Dance Showcase for the International Conference on Dance Education (ICONDE) in August. So, I stepped in. The duet had been one of the highlights of the original show in May, and it would have been a shame to take it out of the lineup.
At first, I did not want to dance in the duet. But You Didn’t is based on a poem by Merrill Glass about the death of her significant other. During the time this duet had been created, I had lost my own beloved of ten years. Dancing in the piece was too close to home for me. Granted, death was not an obvious part of the piece unless you were expressly told that, “Hey, Chan dies in this”. Without context, it was a wonderfully quirky duet about a couple in love. But once I found out what the choreographer intended the piece to be about, I saw the work differently, in particular the parts where Chan is actually not physically there and Fiona does not look at him because she cannot actually see him.
Because he is dead.
Another reason why it is not easy to understand that Chan’s character is merely a ghost or a memory is because there are all these complex lifts throughout the work. Fiona did not look at Chan for most of the partnering, so their timing had to be good. Also, there has to be a great degree of trust, as I discovered when I decided to set my personal feelings aside and regard this as any other dance that I would learn and perform. I also promised Chan that we should at least try to see if we could work it out, which we did.
At this time, Jack was busy preparing for a trip to Berlin to attend the international dance festival Tanz im August , and we could not afford to bother him to restage it and rehearse us. So, I learned it from the video of the first performance of the work in May, and Chan taught me how to proceed from one step to the next. He did not just teach me the technique needed to execute the movement, but more particularly how Jack wanted the movement done. “No, Teacher, you have to wait for me to pick up your leg.” “No, Miss, you have to do this faster.” “No, teacher, don’t be pulled up like a ballerina, contract your chest more. Do it again.”
Chan calls me “Teacher” because he is my student, or at least, he was during the last semester before he graduated. Any other student would probably have balked at the prospect of dancing with me, their foreign lecturer who used to be a soloist in a professional ballet company. But Chan, being my best student, the kind of overachiever who was confident about everything he did, was immediately all business. He was even the one who would contact me on Whatsapp to remind me that we had rehearsal.
Apart from being an eye-opening experience, the role reversal between teacher and student was very amusing. It made me realise several things about my own dancing, including my inability to release control over my own body, and to let someone else be in control. To get to the main motif of the duet, where I lay in a supine position, almost parallel to the floor, hinged at the knees, as Chan, with an extended arm, held me by the neck, I had to first lean my upper back on his chest and slide across it diagonally and fall. It was then that he would catch me. Which he always did, but he was never happy with how I did it.
“Miss, I have to feel all your weight on my chest while you’re sliding down,” he would say over and over. “Don’t worry, I will catch you. You have to trust me.” Eventually, I had to admit that I just could not stand not being in control at any time. I have always been fiercely independent, onstage and offstage, and I hate situations where there are problems I cannot solve. He agreed that it was indeed my personality to be such a proud pain in the ass, laughed, and then demanded I do it again.
Thanks to Chan’s tenacity, I was able to perform it well; so well that an audience member who had never seen the first incarnation of the dance thought that it was specifically choreographed with me in mind, making full use of my technical and emotional range. She even thought the character was based on me, quirky and domineering as I was in real life. Of course, that was just a happy coincidence.
There is a line in the poem that this work is based on, which goes, “I thought you would drop me. But you didn’t.” This is how it felt to learn this dance, to dance this dance. In my dance career, I knew I operated on some degree of trust, but mostly trust in myself, that I could do certain things. But there is also trust in the work, and trust in the person you dance with. It was not that I didn’t trust Chan; the mind, at least, knew that he was strong enough to lift me. My body, however, needed to overcome its fears and it was only after repeated rehearsal that it understood Chan’s rhythm and strength. Chan was able to “get” me through a style of dancing that I had not been accustomed to, so much so that it felt like second nature when the curtain rose. In the end, I learned to trust completely.
Joelle Jacinto teaches choreography and dance technique at the University of Malaya. More
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Photos: Joelle Jacinto and Chan Kean Yew in Jack Kek’s But You Didn’t at Experimental Theatre, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, 14 August 2014. Photos © Latimin Keman