Southeast Asian Choreolab 2015

Revisiting the exchanges that he encountered during the Southeast Asian Choreolab 2015, Faillul Adam describes how the event has impacted him.

Faillul’s essay was originally written in BM.


A million thanks to Bilqis Hijjas, the president of MyDance Alliance, for organizing the Southeast Asian Choreolab 2015 with the support of Goethe-Institut and Rimbun Dahan. Choreolab lasted for a week and was facilitated by Arco Renz, who is from Belgium but now resides in Germany. The participants of the program were from Southeast Asian nations, such as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Papua New Guinea and of course, Malaysia.

According to Bilqis, it is easier to have collaborations with countries such as Japan and Germany because they make it a priority to disseminate and promote its arts to other countries via bodies such as the Japan Foundation and Goethe-Institut. Thus, the financial support from Goethe-Institut gave Bilqis an impetus to conceive of a collaboration between a German dance artist and emerging choreographers from Southeast Asia. She hopes that Choreolab will forge closer ties among dance practitioners in the region and also to widen each participants’ networks, which will in turn contribute to the growth of contemporary dance in Southeast Asia.

A lot of activities were held during Choreolab, but only a few will be described herewith. The selections were made based on the impact they had on me.

Arco’s Workshop: The Placement of Five Objects

Faillul Adam brushing his teeth in the “five objects” exercise, Rimbun Dahan, Kuang, 2015. Photo © Joelle Jacinto

Arco instructed us to bring five objects each and to arrange them within the confines of the studio. We were asked to plan out the sequence, how to place and to pick up the objects and to figure out a method of interacting with them. We could “dance” or present a daily routine that utilizes the objects. In this task, I was specifically entranced by the performances of Lyg Carillo and Al Bernard Velarde Garcia, both from the Philippines.

Lyg stood in front of us, holding the small objects of his choosing—talcum powder, a cell phone, a cross, a pen, and a necklace. The sound of objects falling to the floor were clearly heard when Lyg let go of his first and second. Lyg then indicated his intent to drop his cell phone—which startled us because a cell phone is something that is intimate and easily broken (he of course backed down from doing so). The suspense reached its peak when it came to Lyg’s fifth object: his cross! We were almost unable to bear the tenseness of the situation. Eventually, Lyg crawled back from the ledge of the studio and decided not to drop his cross. In summary, the apt choice of objects, their arrangement and the use of time all contribute to the creating of an effective “performance”. In our post-performance discussion, Arco emphasized the clever and precise timing that comedians use, which is something we should aspire to in the crafting of our choreographies.

Al’s objects were a candle, a coin, a necklace, a small torch, and a piece of paper. Al got us to sit in a circle and to vocally imitate the sound of his knocking on each object. I was amazed by Al’s ability to variate the sounds that came out of the objects and to vocalize them. Eventually, all of us made sounds that interacted with one another. Then, Al walked out of the studio. We all turned to look at the direction of the door with varying expectations. Suddenly, a paper airplane flew into the studio—it was Al’s fifth object. In this performance, we were always directing our attention towards Al, which created an atmosphere of dying need to know what was going to happen next. It brought up questions as to how a choreographer could sustain an audience’s attention.

My objects were a toothbrush, a toothpaste, a piece of biscuit, facial wash, and a small towel. I envisioned a simple daily waking up routine. I started by leaning on the wall, yawning as if I had awoken from my sleep, and ate the biscuit. I then walked to the studio mirror and applied facial wash to my face, but without any water! After that, I walked a couple of steps to the right and proceeded to brush my teeth. In the end, I walked towards the front door, wiped my face and stepped out of the studio.

Workshops by the Participants

In Choreolab, each participant had to facilitate a workshop with the others participating.  The workshop could be about a specific dance technique or a method in choreographic creation. I would like to share my personal experience undergoing the workshops facilitated by Tan Bee Hung (Malaysia) and Kai Eng (Singapore).

Bee used a lot of floorwork while creating movement and choreography. In its initial stage, we were asked to lie on the floor and improvise while imagining our bodies to be in unison with the floor. In the next part, we imagined as if our bodies were pushed into the floor (via gravity) and pulled into the sky at the same time. This meant that we did not have time to rest and we used up a lot of energy. In the feedback session, a comment by one of the participants stuck with me—we were not seen as if we were being pulled or pushed by something, but rather as if the entire building was shaking because of an earthquake.

In Kai’s workshop, we all stood in random spots while facing the mirror so that each participant could see themselves and the others. Kai instructed us to do the same moves in unison with only the mirror as our guide and without any verbal communication. Initially, everyone moved while constantly facing the mirror. The activity slowly started to feel like a variant of Follow the Leader, which is usually done with everyone moving to a leader. However, what differentiates our activity here and Follow the Leader is that we could not determine who the actual leaders were, because at any time anyone could be the leader. We were subsequently inclined to move away from facing just the mirror. This exercise tested and trained our awareness and sensitivity to one another. During the activity, some were constantly passive whereas others were continuously trying to lead. In my opinion, this activity needs a balance between the rules of the game and the improvisational urge of the individuals so that it doesn’t become too rigid. Of course, the activity cannot be too free until individuals are seen as deviating from the rest of the group.

Creating Solo Performances

In the next phase, Arco got us each to create a solo using our habitual choreographic strategies. I enveloped my head with my t-shirt and walked to the audience with arms stretched in front, kind of like a zombie. When I reached the middle of the studio, I stopped and said, “Good morning, you are dead.” What I wanted to present was an element of dark comedy, a cynical comedy style that contains dark elements and unnerving messages. According to Arco, my habit was to “not dance” because my solo only utilized domestic daily moves and expressions.

After that, we had to do the activity in pairs. This time, the objective of each half of the pair was to interfere with the other with the aim of breaking their habits. I paired up with Kai. Here, Kai gave some suggestions and questioned me about my choices. With her feedback, I tried to improve upon my solo with the use of moves from zapin and modern dance. In my final performance, after completing the moves that I had set out to, I paused with my back to the audience. I turned around, smiled and walked towards Fadilla Oziana (Dilla). I whispered into her ear, “Selamat pagi, kamu akan mati (Good morning, you are dead)”.  According to Kai, if I wanted to present something that was unsettling in a simple and unexpected way, all I had to do was to create a sharp contrast.

Group Composition via Scores

[Left to right] Nguyễn Duy Thàn, Nitipat Ong Polchai dan Darlene Litaay sketching their respective scores in the dance studio at Rimbun Dahan, Kuang, 2015. Photo © Joelle Jacinto

Arco instructed us each to sketch a score that contained “instructions” that would be read by another without direct communication with the creator of the score. The creation of the scores was left to the creativity and interpretation of each person. In the score, we had to include three dancers, using only pedestrian movements of walking and not walking. The scores had to be short and simple and to clearly show whether the dancers were in or out of the “performance space”. Three elements to be included in the development of the scores were change, no change and rate of change. A change has to be clearly obvious and no change refers to a thing or a movement that is repeated. Rate of change refers to the difference in intensity or the dynamism in the demarcation of choreographic segments.

The symbols for these three terms were:

Change:               ////  —- ++++ ****
No Change:         /// //// //// ////
Rate of Change: ////////////// — + // ** — ++

After everyone’s scores were sketched out, six scores were displayed each round. Each score was chosen by three people to be manipulated, with the condition that no one could choose their own score. A few positive things were observed: a score is very open and allows for varying levels of input from dancers. The interpretations by dancers are not shackled by the thoughts, influence or judgments by a score’s creator. Hence, this choreographic method of utilizing scores has the potential to train visual and physical expression, enhance one’s imagination towards visual stimuli and to encourage broad interpretations among choreographers and dancers.

Solo Composition via Scores

We were each tasked to sketch our second score. The instruction was “This score is about the dance you really want to do and you might perform it in the future”. The score was for solo performances and the way to sketch it was up to us. We were then asked to exchange scores and to present a dance composition based on our respective scores. I was mesmerized by Darlane’s unique score because it only contained drawings and not a single word. Darlane said that in creative matters, words or systematic instructions had never worked for him.

At the next stage, after each person had shown their respective solos, we were asked to collaborate in duets or trios. I teamed up with Sonoko Shoji from Thailand and Foo Yun Ying (“YY”) from Singapore. Sonoko has a background in Butoh and YY used to work with T.H.E Dance Company. In our collaborative process, we had to focus on the predictable, the unpredictable, and rate of change. Initially, I found it hard to work with them because it was hard for me to remember Sonoko’s steps and to accede to YY’s high expectations. At first, I made the decision to not speak up, but slowly and surely, I found ways to contribute my thoughts. After we presented our piece, Arco concluded that our strength was the moments we were in stillness.  According to Arco, stillness makes the audience hungry to know what is going to happen next and also gives the audience a chance to breathe.

After our solo scores, Arco got us to merge groups. The concept highlighted this time was minimization—we were to minimize all our movements.  Our group worked with that of Japhet Mari and Dilla’s. The five of us stood in a line. I stood on the extreme left. Sonoko began with a sudden highly energized movement, and YY reacted with a windy movement. Not long after, Sonoko did three facial expressions. Dilla and I crouched like tigers waiting to pounce. I then stood up, and with Sonoko, we faced the back and did flowy movements that began in a fast tempo but gradually slowed. All of a sudden, Sonoko and I exited our poses and walked like mad men. To me, that was the most unexpected moment because the emotional quality was in stark contrast to everything else. Next, we gathered around Sonoko. I made energetic repetitive movements whereas the rest lowered their bodies in extreme slow motion. We all then beamed a smile each but with varying body positions. Not long after, Sonoko dropped to the front in light speed and we all got up while turning our heads towards Dilla, who was slowly making her exit out of the studio.

At the feedback session, Arco suggested that the scale of space, or distance between the dancers, be enlarged. To him, we were standing too close to one another and this caused an underutilization of space. After having incorporated his suggestion into our piece, I felt that the changes were more dynamic, and that the element of unpredictable was most effective. Also, in an indirect way, the fix made the five of us look better connected in terms of energy and intensity.

What began as a solo score that was meaningful only to a specific person eventually became a group composition that brought about different meanings to different members of the group. Once again, the effectiveness of using a score in the creation of a choreography was proven and it changed my biased perception towards dance scores—they could not only be used in the documentation of dance but also in the inspiration of free choreography that at the same time holds true to the initial intent.

Presentation Day

On our last day at Rimbun Dahan, Arco drew all the exercises on a white board for our reference during our presentation. For me, the presentation was just the tip of the iceberg. The input, experience and material that I had absorbed during Choreolab were infinitely valuable and meaningful. I treasure the program not just for the knowledge that I gained, but also for the experience, the understanding and the cultural exchanges, which are becoming more and more important in the dance world of today. Even though held for a week, Choreolab ultimately expanded my horizons and challenged my modes of thinking.


faillul-90Faillul Adam is a lecturer at the Faculty of Dance at the National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage, Malaysia (ASWARA)More   

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Featured photo: Participants executing a task in the dance studio at Rimbun Dahan, Kuang, 2015. Photo © Joelle Jacinto