CONTACT 2013: The artistic director’s perspective

19 Nov 2013
Photos by (top to bottom) T.H.E Dance Company, Fernando Marcos, Sanghoon Ok, James Quah, Tan Ngiap Heng

CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival returns for a fourth edition with performances, classes, workshops and a dance forum. We spoke to the organiser and artistic director, Kuik Swee Boon about the intentions of the festival, the featured programme, and how it benefits T.H.E Dance Company, the dance community and the public.

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Going into its fourth year, CONTACT as a festival is of an impressive scale, especially for an organiser which is a dance company with only five years of establishment. Could you bring us back to four years ago and tell us the inspiration of initiating the festival? Was the first edition modelled after a similar festival in another country or city? Was there a demand from the dance community to have an international contemporary dance festival in Singapore?

When we first started CONTACT four years ago, our initial intention was to create a platform that most efficiently, and effectively, promoted contemporary dance to local audiences. Even then we avoided using the word ‘contemporary’ (in ‘contemporary dance’) to promote the festival, so as not to alienate the average arts-goer. We weren’t influenced by any festival in particular when organising the inaugural edition of the festival, but as the company toured to various international festivals over the years, including the Les Hivernales Festival in France, the Changmu Festival in Korea, and the Guangdong Modern Dance Festival in China, we gleaned different strategic perspectives on organisation, programming, audience development, etc. With CONTACT, I think we’ve achieved a good balance of presenting artistically challenging works and more accessible, audience-friendly pieces.

I think the urgency I recognised within the dance community wasn’t so much a desire for an international contemporary dance festival, but a platform that showcased local dance artists alongside international one. This was the key impetus for DiverCity’s conception in 2010, as a celebration of the diverse Singaporean contemporary dance scene. To ensure its sustainability, DiverCity 2013 is an independently produced programme presented in conjunction with CONTACT, and in collaboration with the Esplanade. Four companies are highlighted this year – Frontier Danceland, Maya Dance Theatre, Re:Dance Theatre, and T.H.E Dance Company, and as you can see, there’s definitely potential to expand the scope and inclusivity of this programme.

Organising a festival involves a lot of planning, administrative and managerial work. Was this part of your original plan when you started T.H.E Dance company? Is this part of the responsibilities, or an essential component in artistic exploration of a successful dance company?

No, I hadn’t planned to create a festival when we started T.H.E in 2008. It was only after running the company for a couple of years that I realised we needed a larger platform to promote contemporary dance amongst local audiences, and to fulfil the needs of different groups – the people coming to watch our performances, the dance students, the semi-professional dancers seeking exposure to different styles, and so on.

I must say that I was quite hesitant to make the leap into organising a festival, mainly because T.H.E’s primary function is that of a performing arts company that creates contemporary work, and not, say, an arts management company or an organisation such as the National Arts Council. Two years into the festival, however, I realised how significant it was to the company’s growth; not only in allowing us to interact and work with various international artists, but also in creating different platforms for our local artists and diversifying our audiences.

A major part of the festival is collaboration among international dance artists. This year, the focuses are on collaborations between Singaporean and Japanese artists, as well as Malaysian and Korean artists. Are there similarities among the Asian dance artists and their choreography, in terms of topic and style? Are there noticeable changes in choreographic trend or artistic thinking in these four years?

Collaborations are increasingly popular throughout all arts genres today, but in fact it’s one of the hardest ways to work as an artist. Conflicts and complications are bound to arise when you have two contending artistic visions. Even when all the artists are Asian, each comes from completely different backgrounds, cultures, and values, which is reflected in the way they perform and create.

Take for instance, Yuriko Suzuki (jury prize-winner at the Yokohama Dance Collection) and Liz Fong (pioneer member of T.H.E Second Company). With Yuriko, she’s quite conceptual in her choreography, which allows her to really flesh out thematic concerns and messages. Her style veers towards improvisation, and as a result she’s more freewhen she creates. In contrast, Liz hails from an academic background with professional training, having graduated from the New Zealand School of Dance and worked with T.H.E for a number of years. That, and her personal aesthetic create a more structured vocabulary, and an inherent grace and raw beauty in her choreography that appeals to audiences.

On the other hand, Wong Jyh Shyong (former Cloud Gate dancer and Artistic Director of Damansara Performing Arts Centre, KL) and Choi Myung Hyun (award-winning Korean choreographer) are pretty similar in character and style. Both are quiet, thoughtful artists, preferring to let their works speak for themselves. There is a weight and depth to their respective choreographic works that provides an important point of connection between the two. I would say that the stumbling block in their collaboration is the language barrier – which I think the process in overcoming this, would add to the work positively.

Simply put, the dynamics of a collaborative relationship – particularly a cross-cultural one that takes place in an intensive residency – hinges on open communication and a synchronicity of lifestyle and work habits.

I think the main thread of artistic thinking that the local dance scene is concerned with today, is how to shape a unique identity – whether as an individual, a company, or a collective community. Compared to say Taiwan or Hong Kong, which have had about 20 years on us in development, we’re still struggling to define and differentiate ourselves in the region and internationally. That’s also a reason why I personally don’t believe in choreographic trends. I believe that if an artist has forged a distinct, unique identity, then longevity naturally occurs.

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Your company has been working so closely with different dance artists in CONTACT, how has the experience influenced the style and focus of the company? How has it helped to explore different dimensions of the human expression?

Working with different choreographers in CONTACT has indelibly influenced the company’s style. For instance, the breath control technique we use was first influenced by Indonesian choreographer Boi Sakti when he worked with T.H.E in 2009. It then evolved to incorporate a strong taiji influence when we started to learn the form, and in working with T.H.E’s resident choreographer, Kim Jae Duk, we see similarities between this and the traditional Joseon breath technique he’s familiar with. In other aspects too, choreographers such as Jae Duk and Boi, bring to the company a wealth of professional dance knowledge – the effective usage of space, music, techniques such as the correct distribution of energy and weight when performing, and so on. It’s particularly inspiring to work with Jae Duk as he’s got a strong musical sense (being a composer as well) and distinct choreographic structure, which he draws upon to engage the audience to great effect.

In contrast, the company dancers experience a completely different choreographic style with European choreographer, Dimo Kirilov, who is creating a work for T.H.E for DiverCity 2013. Dimo’s choreography is much more centred on pure release technique and free-form movement, which gives the dancers greater room for exploration and spontaneity.

Within all these lie valuable lessons for the dancers and myself, to discover different forms of expression and creativity, inevitably adding depth and dimension to the company’s identity.

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Apart from performances, the festival consists of educational elements to nurture young dance artists. How does the festival complement the existing platform of dance education in Singapore? Are the institutions doing enough in developing our dance talents?

A core value of CONTACT is the spirit of learning and exchange, which manifests itself in 4 programmes: the Continuum Dance Exchange for academies and institutions, the M1 Open Stage for young, amateur choreographers, the Dance Forum involving panellists from Korea, Denmark, Indonesia and Singapore, and the technique classes and workshops with our guest performers / choreographers.

The former two provide platforms for young dancers and choreographers to showcase their work, whether outside an academic context, or within a spontaneous and open environment. They also allow participants to interact and establish relationships with other choreographer/dancers, whilst bringing their works to a larger, more diverse range of audiences.

As for the dance forum, we’re implementing this programme for the first time as we feel that it’s important for dance students and practitioners to find out more about the contemporary dance scene in different parts of the world, and how Singapore can learn from their development. We’ve thus invited Kitt Johnson (Denmark), Oh Sunmyung (Producer, Seoul Dance Collection), and Maria Darmaningsih (Vice Dean, Faculty of Performing Arts at the Jakarta Arts Institute) to join myself as panelists for the forum. The forum will be moderated by Jobina Tan, Deputy Director of Programming at the Esplanade.

Last but not least, the technique classes and workshops, taught by guest teachers from Asia and Europe, expose dance students to a variety of styles, techniques and forms that they may not have access to within the educational framework. In this year’s CONTACT, participants get to learn from important artists such as Denmark’s Kitt Johnson and Tamako Akiyama from Spain’s Compañia Nacional de Danza, which is an experience that doesn’t come by often!

I think dance institutions have been expending enormous effort and resources to develop our dance talents, and I applaud them for doing so. If I had to point out an aspect that could be improved upon, it would be that the institutions should provide dance students the option to specialise in one or two forms, after exposing them to a variety of so. This will produce stronger, more confident dancers who are better equipped to master other forms.

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Here is a summary of the featured events:

Mr. Sign opens CONTACT on 29 & 30 Nov, 8pm, with a matinee show on 30 Nov, at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.

AFX – Asian Festivals premieres on 3 & 4 Dec, 8pm at the Esplanade Theatres Studio.

DiverCity closes CONTACT on 7 Dec, 3pm & 8pm, and 8 Dec, 7pm, at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.

Dance Forum: 7 Dec, 5pm, at the Goodman Arts Centre Level 1 Studio (Blk M, #01-54)

Kim Jae Duk will be teaching a technique class on 30 Nov, and a movement workshop from 2 – 6 Dec.

Dimo Kirilov will be teaching technique classes on 3 & 7 Dec, and a 5-day choreographic workshop from 27 Nov – 1 Dec.


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CONTACT 2013 runs from 29 Nov to 8 Dec 2013. 
Visit the event page for the programme: