Interview by Bilqis Hijjas.
Wong Jyh Shyong (JS), artistic director and resident choreographer at Damansara Performing Arts Centre, discusses a shift in his creative methods away from dance theatre to devising more open-ended work, with material generated by the dancers themselves. He describes what he looks for in dancers, and why the time has come for him to return to working on himself.
Can you describe your choreographic training?
My first opportunity to choreograph was with [Vincent Tan] Lian Ho’s Batu Dance Theatre, before I left Malaysia. Lian Ho would give me feedback on my work. My first piece was in a group show with works by Jack Kek and other dancers who were formerly from GuanXi Dance Troupe. At the Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts [HKAPA], I minored in choreography, which meant taking basic composition classes about space, time and body structure, and being given an annual opportunity to make a small work.
I went on to get a Masters in Choreography at Taipei National University of the Arts [TNUA], but I can’t say what I really learned there. It was similar to the composition classes at HKAPA, delving deeper into the same ideas of space and time, but also into structures, which I had not covered before. We spent a lot of time analysing each other’s work, and whether it created the effect that the choreographer intended.
What was your method of creation then?
I started with a very “dance theatre” approach. I wanted storylines, characters, emotions, with movement that was not too abstract, so that I could narrow the gap between the creator and the viewer. My Masters graduation work was called Folks. It was about a father, mother, brother, sister, and the tension within the family, especially in relation to the power of the patriarch.
But I started to wonder if this approach was too direct. What is the point of dancing something if it is just to tell a story? Maybe I should have written a book or made a television show. As one of my lecturers asked me, “Why use dance? What can dance do that other art forms cannot do?” And now I am also interested in using the unique physicality of a single individual to capture deeper expressions.
So it’s not so important for me that the audience makes direct connections with my work. I want to start with an idea but have the dance be the creation that evolves from that idea, rather than just the realisation of what I want.
How have you been working recently?
Working with Ashley Dyer [on SK!N, produced by Terry&TheCuz for the George Town Festival 2015], he has emphasised going very deep into investigating single movements; how a movement can create images or sensations, which lead to another movement, which leads to other images and sensations. This approach differs from the conventional method of starting with an idea and making material related to the idea, which sometimes creates material that doesn’t translate. In such cases, I always wonder, why doesn’t the material work? In contrast, Dyer’s working style takes more time to observe and look back, to reflect, and investigate how much you can do with a single movement, instead of a million movements.
So with my current work, After Dark [for the KL International Performing Arts Festival in September 2015], I have just picked a subject – the woven mat, the tikar—and in rehearsal we have been playing with it, creating tasks, generating material until the dancers almost cannot stand it anymore! Then I look back at the material and see what atmospheres, what relationships have been generated. There’s a connection with dreams generally, but what sort of dreams? Good dreams, or nightmares?
It has been quite challenging for the dancers, because the tasks I give them are very broad and open-ended, and sometimes they just go blank and don’t know where to go. They sometimes say, “If you tell me what you want, then I can give you what you want.” But if I could tell you what I wanted, it would mean I already knew what I wanted! Slowly the dancers are getting used to this method of working: making a lot of material and then narrowing the material down.
This approach is the other way around from my old method of picking a theme, imagining what I want the dancers to do to express that theme, and then setting it on the dancers’ bodies. It’s another journey in thinking about dance. This way there is no single way, the choreographer’s way—it could go so many ways!
Have you always used the dancers to generate your material?
In the beginning I would generate the material and slowly put it into their [the dancers’] bodies, but it didn’t work. I have my own way of moving. Now that I have spent some time training them [DPAC dancers have company class together at least three days a week], I can go back to that method of working. But I want the dancers to have freedom with the movement, not to imitate me exactly, but to find their own breath, their own momentum, through the movement.
Now I want to go back and just work alone, on my own body. This year I stopped choreographing—I am not making any major work—after a hectic couple of years. I felt like I had been doing a lot of work to order, but why? And to what effect? Now I want to make a solo on my own body. I have spent a lot of time making work for others, not for myself, and I feel as if I am losing myself. So I have invited other choreographers to create works on my dancers this year instead.
I don’t have a fixed idea for my solo. I have been giving myself tasks, trying to investigate them fully. But I realised that I am a very analytical person, and also that analysis stops creation! The more you analyse, the more you feel that everything could be unnecessary, that nothing actually works. To have the drive to create, you need to put analysis aside during the rehearsal period.
Do you depend on anyone in particular for feedback? Have you considered working with a dramaturge?
For feedback, no one at the moment. It’s always difficult to get real responses to my work. Everyone just says, “Well done!” and wants to move on. Recently I got some negative reviews, from Richard Chua and Lim Soon Heng, for my work I See Skies of Blue last year, and I thought, “Finally, I can hear something!”
I am planning to work with a dramaturge for my solo, because it’s more necessary to have outside eyes when you’re doing a solo. Maybe someone like [Loh] Kok Man; it’s important to get that kind of theatrical sense.
What other approaches have you seen that inspire you?
I have been very inspired by Peter Brooke’s book The Empty Space, in the notion of a bare stage. Once you add a single element—a body on stage, or a chair—it creates an entirely different story with different tensions. I want to create tension just by playing with space. These ideas are not very “dancey”. I want to see how using the most minimal change can generate the biggest effect on the imagination. In one work, for example, the performers might just have simple sticks, and the sticks are used to make a jungle, or a castle. I wonder: can we use the body in the same way to transform into different objects?
What kind of qualities do you look for in your dancers?
I would say I look for ‘organic’ bodies, but ‘organic’ is not a very good word. Take [Lee] Ren Xin, for example. When she responds to a task, she creates the kind of movement I would not have imagined, but which fits the task. I don’t want my dancers to move in a particular way, but most people give the same kind of responses, the same kind of movement. They think that with every task you need to have a jump, you need to go down onto the floor.
Presence is very important. But how do you teach presence? It’s a very complex thing, but some dancers have it. They can just stand in front of an audience, and you sense that there’s something going on in there; you can sense an inner world. And other dancers stand and you just feel them thinking, “I am standing here because the choreographer told me to stand here.”
Yes, it’s hard to teach presence. And even harder to teach choreography!
Being able to analyse other works doesn’t mean you can create your own. It goes back to the way you live and think; then only you can have material. So you can learn method, but method is not choreography.
During my time at TNUA I went to a choreographic laboratory in Austria. They were doing very improvised practical work, most of it site-specific. But they also had classes in psychology, music—everything and anything that was not connected to dance, but in the end EVERYTHING is connected to dance. And all that new knowledge just came out in the improvisation.
In the end, the question is: to choreograph or not to choreograph? How much do you want to do it? How can you let the work become the choreography, rather than choreographing to create the work?
Now I want to stay here and find inspiration from myself, from Malaysia, to make my work. I don’t want to force an idea of “Malaysianness”, I don’t want to use traditional things for the sake of being traditional. I just want this identity to come naturally out of me, from my own history and from what my life is like today, picking up elements from my past and present.
People might think that I’m such a mature artist, because I’ve been dancing for so many years, but in choreography I’m young! And I still find myself changing a lot. I enjoy this flexibility in my methods; for me, it is about exploring from different perspectives and finding possibilities in my work.
JS Wong performs, creates and thinks about dance. More
To contact JS:
Bilqis Hijjas writes, produces, performs and teaches about contemporary dance in Malaysia. More
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Featured photo: DPAC Dance Company dancers in I See Skies of Blue at DPAC Theatre, Petaling Jaya, 17 December 2014. © Shawn Ng