University of Malaya dance student Kathryn Chew ponders to herself, “As a teenager with no experience in performing contemporary work, how do I play a pregnant woman suffering a miscarriage?”
Looking back after more than a year, I am grateful to have been selected to dance in Syaffiq Hambali’s piece Bonda, for the University of Malaya (UM) Dance Department showcase in 2016. Bonda incorporated movement motifs from the traditional Malay dance randai and from hip hop, and was inspired by the experiences of women Syaffiq knew who had suffered miscarriages of pregnancy.
The dancers Syaffiq chose were four freshmen and a sophomore from the UM Dance Department. None of us had a any experience in Malay dance or in hip hop, with the exception of sophomore Carmen Loh. Also, most of us had never performed or participated in the creation of a contemporary dance. Syaffiq was trying to prove to the dance department that even a freshman with no experience deserves a chance to perform. He took an even greater risk by having selected a piece that requires immensely heavy emotions unlikely to have been experienced by four teenagers.
At the beginning, Syaffiq intended this piece to be based on randai movements, but because our bodies were not familiar with the earthiness of Malay dance, in the end there wasn’t much movement development from randai. But I felt that Syaffiq was smart to then separate the piece into three sections, each playing to the dancers’ strengths and capabilities. Knowing that Yi Juan was unable to learn set movements easily, he gave her the role of standing still and hitting her sarong at the beginning of the piece. Carmen was very busy at the time, so Syaffiq worked with her individually to develop locking movements from hip hop to symbolise a pregnant woman giving birth. That left Gwen, Chiw Yi and I to perform the second part of the piece, with movements generated by Syaffiq. Playing to my strength (no pun intended) of carrying people, I was given a lot of carrying of Chiw Yi and Gwen. That seemed to be my forte; I had also carried another dancer in Carmen’s work Take Me Home earlier this year. I think Chiw Yi was the closest among all of us freshmen to get the right rasa for the movements, which, together with her flexibility, earned her a solo at the end of the piece.
One of the most challenging parts was for us to breathe. I know breathing is something so simple, yet it was difficult for us to incorporate it into our dancing. From that experience, I learned to control my breath; it was especially important for safety in jumps which required us to land on the side of our shins. Counting the beats of the music was important too, but I learned not to get too rigid and restricted by the counts. The greatest challenge I had—and still have!—was in controlling my movements and also learning when to let go and relax. I held on to some advice from Syaffiq: “The key to control most movements is by learning how to control your core strength and muscles.”
The most frustrating part of dancing this piece was trying to express the feelings of a woman who had gone through miscarriage. This was a frustration that all of us freshmen shared. Syaffiq relayed information from interviews he had conducted with women who had gone through a miscarriage, and we were told to watch videos on miscarriage and to observe pregnant women. This method seemed to work for some of the dancers. Initially, Yi Juan was unable to relay the intense emotion of a mother blaming herself for the loss of her child, but after some time, and after Syaffiq shared with us a short poetic essay he wrote on motherhood, Yi Juan seemed able to express that heavy emotion.
However, I think this third-person outsider approach made it difficult for us to understand the characters we were trying to portray. I had no experience in pregnancy, what more of miscarriage, so I had no personal experience to draw upon. I was given feedback that my expressions and the way I held myself when dancing did not resemble those of a pregnant woman or a woman who had miscarried. In other words, the expressions seemed fake. I heard from several seniors that some choreographers send their dancers through physical hardship just to get them to reach a certain emotional state that would be similar to what they have to perform and express. Now, a year later and having performed different characters in different pieces (a bride, a mother, a grandmother and a crazy harlequin), I believe that we as dancers in the role of a character must be able to relate to the character on some personal level. Perhaps I had not done enough research on the character I was playing.
I also discovered through tears and frustration that you can’t just forcefully evoke feelings during dancing. I felt that the emotional states I had during rehearsals were at my optimum level. However, when I wanted to reach this state just before the performance, I was unable to do so. Even though I received feedback like, “The emotions were better and more authentic today, but there’s still room for improvement,” I feel like I did not dance this piece to my best potential. You can’t force yourself to be in the zone.
As a result, I have resolved to investigate and research future roles I’m playing. Even if my role does not have a storyline, I should create my own. Dancing with just movements and no thoughts or emotions does not make you a memorable performer, in comparison to performers with those aspects in their dance. I still find myself lacking in many ways, but it gives me more drive not to wallow in the past and let my despair drown me, and instead to let this experience and lessons learned be fuel for fire. Looking back now, I think I have a more in-depth understanding of the character to be played in Bonda. If I did it again, I would focus on the body’s heaviness of carrying a baby in your womb. Although to embody that heaviness contradicts our youthful bodies, I believe the body language is what the audience will observe and relate to the story.
After Bonda was performed, I encountered some opinions that people might not have the right to tell stories in creative work which they have not experienced personally – male choreographers creating works about childbirth, for instance. In my opinion, I guess that some choreographers want to bring up a point or issue that they have seen, that inspired them to make a work. Who knows, perhaps they want to express a feeling that no one else has dared to express. In my own experience performing Bonda, I was merely a raw dancer – a blank canvas, you might say – who had not experienced a large range of emotions. The way I performed this piece would not have been as effective as someone who had gone through that actual experience – but I’m glad I was given the chance to try.
Kathryn Chew freelances as a dance teacher, choreographer, dancer, and e-newsletter editor, all while pursuing her Masters in Performing Arts (Dance) at the University of Malaya. More
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Featured photo: [Left to Right] Yap Chiw Yi, Kathryn Chew and Gwen Ng in Bonda, Experimental Theatre, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, 26 May 2016.