In the early months of the Covid-19 Movement Control Order in Malaysia, dancer SueKi Yee discovers surprising avenues for creating works online.
The Movement Control Order (MCO) came at a really strange time for me; it was disconcertingly familiar because I had been recovering from an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) reconstruction surgery since last July. The recovery was difficult. I’d never taken so long a break from dance (or movement in general), nor had I been forced into having so much mind-space and time before; it made me re-evaluate myself and my relationship to dance.
Nevertheless, after months of physiotherapy, I was excited to get back into performing, creating, and teaching. It felt like everything was on track—but then the MCO was announced to start on 18 March. Just like when I tore my ACL, suddenly everything came to a halt, with a looming future that screamed, “Now what?” I found myself struggling once again to figure out how to continue my journey as a dance artist.
I adopted the same coping mechanism of focusing entirely on my ACL recovery. At that point, I was already allowed to move fully (jumping, for example, was previously forbidden), but was still struggling to transition from physical training into dance, with its many movement angles and specific muscle activation and coordination. It was also a time when a lot of dance had gone online, be it classes or performances, so I suddenly had a lot to absorb. After such a long break, I was starving to move and feel alive. I was incredibly lucky, though, to have space at home where I could move. Due to all this time I suddenly had, I started regular practice in this “studio space”, combining conditioning, dance technique, and improvisation. This practice, plus seeing other artists continue creating amidst lockdowns, led to an unexpected series of projects.
One of the things I explored was my movement vocabulary, “returning” to certain movements after my hiatus, as well as finding new ways to move. I was dancing alone a lot and that was how one of my first personal projects, “Dancing for __”, came about; I was musing on the difference between dancing for someone else versus for just myself. I explained the rules of the project on Instagram; anyone could submit music for me to improvise to, and I would perform snippets on my Instagram Stories. I also wanted to challenge myself by interacting with something “unfamiliar”—in this case, different kinds of music, most of which I wouldn’t have chosen! From traditional Balinese music, to dubstep, to video game soundtracks, these pieces inspired new possibilities in movement vocabulary and physical quality. Over the span of a couple of weeks, I completed a total of 63 requests.
Dancing for others is one thing, dancing with others is another; I especially missed working with someone else. “Multidancing” was an experiment in breaking coordination habits that I first tried years ago but which I delved into again. Fellow dancers and I would attempt to “multitask” with sequences choreographed separately by different people for various parts of the body. We worked two dancers at a time (though the experiment could theoretically work with multiple bodies at once) and we would decide how we would “split” the body and what the structure of the combination would be. We would then teach each other our sequences via Zoom or by exchanging instructional videos, before attempting “multidancing”. At the beginning of the process, it felt like trying to brush your teeth with your left hand while writing with your right. The challenge was then to create a new sense of coordination. This posed more questions and options of weight placement, directions, angles, spatial adjustments between body parts, or tiny nuances in music or movement accents. It was always interesting to observe how these inclinations or decisions in different bodies resulted in different personal movement styles.
A more comprehensive collaboration I did was “Soliloquy: A Dance Film” with pianist-composer Rachel Morais. In February, I had wanted to create a work with one of her tracks which had really moved me, “Soliloquy”, for a performance that ultimately was cancelled. I hadn’t choreographed anything yet, but I already had certain images and concepts in my head. During MCO, we decided to create something together. It was truly exciting for me to work closely with Rachel, especially since I’ve not had much experience in production.
During quarantine we only had what was available at home, so we ordered flood lights online, used blankets as light filters, and tested out film settings at home. We filmed our individual scenes (Rachel was based in Australia) and kept each other updated by sharing our material online and having virtual discussions. My brother Heng Yeh, who got roped into most of my MCO projects as photo-videographer, helped to film my scenes, while Beth Hughes, Rachel’s colleague in Brisbane who’s a photo-videographer, helped film Rachel’s scenes and edited the final product. We were also lucky to have received CENDANA’s (Cultural Economy Development Agency) Create Now Fund.
Another short work created during the quarantine was “ceXsored”, which looked at censorship of the body. It started from an interview on the theme of “Limits” by Shanita Lyn Kumar, editor of Brazen Magazine. I had been experimenting with the idea of limits/restrictions since “BIND: A State of Mind”, staged in KongsiKL in May 2019. Since the interview took place via Zoom, Shanita couldn’t carry out the planned photoshoot so she suggested I carry it out at home while keeping her in the loop. We also agreed, since it was an online magazine, not to dismiss the option of short video clips. The idea grew and, before we knew it, we had a five-minute video.
Coincidentally, I saw an open call for the summer edition of SEASONING by the United Cowboys’ Art House in Eindhoven, with the theme of “Skin”. The Art House usually holds artistic residencies, but, due to the pandemic, had decided to have an open call for video submissions. I submitted “ceXsored” and it was selected for the exhibition, which ran shortly after the work premiered online on Brazen Magazine, alongside an interview on my dance journey and recent works. “CeXsored” was subsequently selected for the International Forum of Performance Art in Greece.
Sometimes one of these projects would lead to another. One such work was “Are we there yet?” The starting point was a video art collaboration titled Selfie in 3 Minutes by Tilik Sarira (Indonesia) and Anomalist Production (Malaysia), which invited 32 artists of different disciplines to choose from a variety of tasks and then record themselves. These clips were then edited into a series of three ten-minute videos. The project focused on daily activities, took another look at what is considered “everyday”, and questioned its normalcy, particularly during quarantine when the meaning of normalcy seemed have been warped. One of the tasks was to reimagine an everyday object. So I safety-pinned my socks end-to-end and wore it as a bizarrely long scarf. I was then inspired to wear one or two of these socks and started exploring the distances and connections between the parts I was wearing. The manipulation of this “sock snake” intrigued me.
Less than two weeks later, the director of Festival Cuerpo al Descubierto, where I had presented a solo in Mexico last year, invited me to be a part of their festival which had been moved online this year. With an idea already in my head, I rummaged around the house for old socks and other unwanted fabric to sew a sturdier “snake” with different sections I could wear over my feet or hands, which led to constant tangling and untangling movements. Improvising and exploring this way was fun, but it was incredibly hard to remember how exactly I had done certain movements, in order to set the choreography, and to take note of all the details in order to recreate the same “tangling” process every time. The work was recorded and premiered at the virtual festival alongside an interview with DanzaNet’s Jaime Soriano.
Another online performance I took part in was “Artists in Solidarity” where a few dance artists were invited to create a work about nuclear disarmament. The online performance was part of a bigger movement, #DanceforNukeBan, by Tarinao (an organization founded and directed by dance artist Jia Xi Lee) and Rakan TPNW (a social media initiative by Soka Gakkai Malaysia). #DanceforNukeBan strove to promote awareness of the importance of nuclear disarmament, particularly in getting Malaysia to ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. I worked with sound designer Chua Sek Khim’s “White Light” to create a dance video titled “Fragility”. I tried exploring with the camera’s focus and its movement, the movement of light sources and shadows, and the overlay of images. Like my process for “Soliloquy”, being aware of “the eye” of the camera was relatively new for me and it gave me another thing to consider in the creation process.
Kogeomefi was another collaboration project by director-choreographer Ferry Cayho Nugroho from Indonesia, in which he invited the public to submit photos of themselves or others in full-body dance or natural poses. For each video (at the time of writing, there are 22), he would accept ten photo submissions and engage a musician to compose an original track as well as a dancer who would link the ten poses in the photos into a short choreography. Additional rules applied; for example, shirt colours in the photos determined the transition movements. I was involved in the 5th edition, working with musician Etza Meisyara, editor Zulfikar, and the ten collaborator-choreographers who submitted photos. With so many pre-determined details to draw on, it was an “easy” way to break out of my usual movement patterns while still having liberty in creation.
Other video collaborations include ChOReO-iNstAnt, an improvisation initiative by Rithaudin bin Abdul Kadir, Galih Mahara, and Gatot Gunawan. Its World Dance Day Parade edition featured 39 dance artists, a poet-narrator, and five musicians. There was also Aiman Aliff’s poem narration video “Dancing on a slow-moving train,” featuring five dancers and a musician. The project was created in response to the quarantine and the state of our world at the time.
Creating works virtually has been, and still is, a curious exploration for me, be it in the collaboration process/method, the medium, or the showcase platform. There is a lot of potential in this direction, and it is inspiring to see so many artists everywhere experimenting with it. It reminded me that we often create out of a need to express, and, tricky as it is, we’re all navigating this situation together. There has been a lot of debate about this shift of dance into the digital world, about how lasting this shift will be, and its implications. Personally, I still prefer real-life interaction for collaborations, classes, and performances. There is nothing quite like the mutual exchange of energy among people, either fellow dancers or the audience. There is, after all, a limit to how much can be conveyed through a screen. That said, I couldn’t help but muse over how most of my projects during MCO were made possible because we all turned to these alternative methods or platforms. They may have had their own restrictions, but they also allowed for more opportunities for collaboration since geographical distance was no longer a factor. I was also challenged to consider other aspects of dance creation beyond just movement. This brings me to believe that exploring these alternatives can only be helpful in providing us with more options and possibilities.
SueKi Yee is an independent dancer, choreographer, and instructor. More
You can follow her on Instagram at @suekinotsukie.
Featured photo: “Soliloquy”, 2020. © Yee Heng Yeh