In the summer of 2018 in Portugal, dancer SueKi Yee encounters a training paradigm that would radically shift her way of thinking about dance.
SueKi originally wrote this essay as a report to MyDance Alliance for being a recipient of its Small Grants program.
Five weeks can seem like a long time or like the blink of an eye. Five weeks is just about enough time for one’s body to get used to a completely different training, to start to feel at ease with the culture and ways of a foreign city, and to know the other dancers well enough to feel like you’ve known some of them your whole life and to miss them when you part. I experienced it all in Lisbon, Portugal, at the Metamorphosis International Residency 2018 with Iratxe Ansa and Igor Bacovich.
I applied for the residency on a whim and was excited when I was accepted. I knew it would be really tough, because I had previously attended their workshop for two days in April 2018. Yet those two days were eye-opening; I realized how much I’d been taking my dancing for granted, that there was so much more for me to work on. Something as simple as “your arms are coming out of your back” could be understood in the mind, but not yet in the body—true understanding would take more time.
There were about 25 dancers from 15 different countries in the residency, which ran from 6 August till 1 September. Prior to that, there was a preparatory week from 29 July in which we focused on physical training, movement sequences and improvisation, six days a week, from 12 pm till 4:30 pm. The four subsequent weeks of actual residency were also six days a week, from 12 pm till 6:30 pm, wherein we gradually got more into rehearsals and choreography. Most of our rehearsals were spent working towards a full evening of performance on the last day of the residency at Teatro Fundação Oriente in the Museu do Oriente. We ended up with four works: a group work titled Viagem, the entire cast split into performing either Under/Exposed or Delirio, and Iratxe and Igor’s duet Second Skin. Viagem comprised mainly of movement sequences that we worked on throughout the residency and I performed in Delirio, where I was asked to create a solo for one of the sections. In Delirio, we worked with María Berasarte, a premier international Basque artist whose voice reverberated so chillingly that everyone stopped in awe mid-movement the first time she came for rehearsals. She performed four songs on stage, interacting and moving with the dancers.
We had side projects and performances peppered throughout the four weeks. One of the museums we collaborated with was Museu Berardo. During our first week, we visited the museum, which had a large collection of works from various periods and art movements displayed in adjoining “rooms” spaces. Iratxe and Igor assigned each of the dancers a particular room; my assigned room was Surrealism. There were many great pieces in the room, but I was drawn to Le Chavelier de Glace and Triomphe du Doute by Victor Brauner, Le Couple by Óscar Domínguez, and La Recontre by Jacques Hérold as I felt that all four pieces question the idea of duality—two sides of an individual or two individuals being a part of one. We were then given a week to decide which artwork we wanted to create a solo from after researching the artist’s background and their artistic approach as well as details of each artwork. We then had to submit a short synopsis regarding what we were going to explore. My solo was based on Le Chevalier de Glace: “The hardest person to confront is oneself. By recognizing our etheric body, can we understand our physical body more clearly?” On 18 and 25 August, we performed our one-to-two minute solos in a 20-minute loop in our assigned rooms, as museum visitors became our unsuspecting audience. We also performed excerpts from our final performance in one of the museum’s open spaces.
We also improvised a show on the rooftop of Reservatório da Mãe d’Água with music by Lisbon-based DJ Yen Sung. The building was an “ornate 18th-century reservoir complex with fountains that herald the arrival of Lisbon’s water”, and was attached to an aqueduct. In the building, there was a floating platform in the midst of the seemingly bottomless water reservoir, on which Iratxe, Igor and Maria performed after our improvisation section. To add to the enchanting image, suspended or installed near the glass windows or arches were various metal and tulle art works by David Oliveira that formed animals or creatures. Then there was the steep, narrow staircase tunnel hidden inside the building that led us up to a vast rooftop overlooking the city. It was here that all the dancers performed an improvisation, with Yen and her equipment in the middle of the space and the audience surrounding us, seated or standing near the wall edges. With the sunset painting hues of pinks, purples and oranges in the background, and the strong, cool breeze hitting our faces till our skins felt a little numb in the best possible way, it was such a rejuvenating experience.
Throughout the residency, we also collaborated with several photographers. Our main photo-videographer-in-residence was Johnatan Molina, who documented the whole process and conducted photoshoot sessions. On the first Sunday of the residency, a few of us were chosen for a shoot at GalanteVasques (in the town of Carvoeiro), where the P.Art.S artist collective was based. One of its designers, Fernanda Pereira of ethiCollective, was our stylist, and our photographers were Fernanda, Johnatan, and Igor. The quirky, unconventional building was inspirational as we moved and danced in narrow corridors, spiralling stairs and charming rooms. We also had several invited photographers such as Ricardo Amaral and Luis de Barros come in during rehearsals to take pictures or to hold photo shoots on our off days.
A main takeaway from this residency was the physical training that we did at the start of every day. A series of exercises and stretches were designed so that we would meticulously work on every part of our bodies, awakening not only our muscles but also our consciousness. It was quite different from the usual workouts and stretches that I had been used to: 60 minutes with no breaks, working through fatigue and pain. Each exercise targeted something specific; aside from working our muscles, what I found most helpful were the details that came with it. It was not a matter of using sheer strength or flexibility but of cultivating a “healthy habit”. For instance, most dancers know that we have to “pull up”, yet it can be hard to actively maintain it. Thus, certain exercises had us working towards that “pulling up” or “engaging our core”. Slowly, I began to understand my body more and I was able to feel these “healthy habits” in my body, and it became easier for me to tap into these feelings and habits when I’m dancing. Even the stretching was an “active stretch” or “active rest” where we would still be lengthening and strengthening our muscles, in contrast to the relaxed stretching that I was more accustomed to.
This detail-specific method extended beyond physical training. Every movement that we learnt was so highly detailed that even after working on the same sequence for four weeks, we would still be trying to instil them into our minds and bodies. Yet it was these 1001 details that made movements logical, thus making them possible. This was apparent when a seemingly impossible movement was suddenly doable after I wrapped my head around all the details. “When you have clarity in your mind, then you can have clarity in your body,” was something they often reminded us. I still remember that on the third day of preparatory week, we were asked to research our movements on our own, to work through the sequences that we’d learned so far. And we did this for two to three hours, repeating them throughout the residency but that first time made such a strong impression on me because it was such a challenge, almost torturous, to work on the same sequences continuously for more than two hours.
After being used to such specific training for the first few days, being left to work on our own made me feel a little lost, because besides going through the sequence and practising the technique of the movements, what else was I supposed to do? Was I even doing it right? What did I need to work on? But I pressed through and tried to remember all the details and understand the movements in my body. And the strange thing was, the first 100 times (or at least it felt like it) that I did the same movement, I became impatient and bored; it was only after that that I started to REALLY question the movement—”What exactly is my left shoulder doing at this point?… When precisely do I transfer my weight?… Where is the movement initiation and momentum coming from?… Is it my head that is leading the turn or is it my wrist?” This was a breakthrough because I was forced into a “space” where I had to scrutinize and question everything.
Understanding through details changed the way I created movements. When asked to work on my solo, instead of simply putting movements together, I was curious to see how they led from one to the next; I was surprised by how many choices there were in every single movement. This way of creating took longer than usual, but it made me completely clear as to what I was doing. Igor once said, “Everything is a CHOICE. There are so many options: A, B, C, D, E in doing the same thing. There is no right or wrong, but it is your responsibility as an artist to make a conscious decision. You do something because you CHOOSE to do so, not because you ‘didn’t think of it’ or ‘that’s just how it is’.”
Another insightful moment was when Iratxe told me that my “way of moving” was different. This was surprising to me since everyone was doing the same sequence. It was only later when I started working on my solo, when some of the other dancers came up to me and asked if I was using traditional dance techniques (which I wasn’t consciously drawing from)—they commented that my movements were “unexpected” and wondered how I could suddenly go from “there” to “there”, or when one of them tried to learn some of my movements only to say, “It is so difficult, the coordination is really complicated”—that I realized that my “body logic” was indeed different. I wasn’t sure if it was an influence from my training in various traditional dance forms or if it was just my natural way of moving. I then became intrigued by this idea of “body logic”, where each body has its own natural and logical sense of moving, probably a combination of nature (innate sense of movement) and nurture (dance training and experience). This idea made me more conscious of my decisions and helped me understand my movements even more.
Metamorphosis International Residency 2018 was a life-changing experience. It changed the way I would think and move by forcing me out of my comfort zone, to realize that no matter how much I would be doing, I could do even more. “No far is too far, no low is too low,” as they often said. Everything is possible; you just have to work through it, and as Igor once said, “Think of it like a scientific problem. What or where is the problem? How can you fix it? What are your other options?” The process was not easy, but it made me question myself time and again and reminded me of why I dance.
SueKi Yee is an independent dancer, choreographer, and instructor. More
You can follow her on Instagram at @suekinotsukie.
Featured photo: SueKi Yee, Museu Berardo, Carvoeiro, August 2020. © Johnatan Molina