CONTACT 2013: The resident choreographer’s perspective

29 Nov 2013
First photo by Kim Jae Duk
Second & third photo by Bernie Ng

CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival returns for a fourth edition with performances, classes, workshops and a dance forum. We spoke to Kim Jae Duk, the choreographer of the opening show – Mr. Sign, about his choreographic style and the experience of being a resident choreographer of T.H.E Dance Company.

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Being the resident choreographer at T.H.E Dance Company, what was the process like, starting as a foreign guest choreographer, then moving on to become an associate choreographer and finally, to the current status? How does it feel to be with T.H.E for such a long time and being involved in CONTACT, which is in its 4th edition, with them this year?

I’d never imagined myself having the opportunity to come to Singapore and working with T.H.E as their guest choreographer. I really enjoy working with the company dancers as I feel that it allows me to improve myself. When I created my first work for T.H.E,Bohemian Parody, I was as a guest choreographer for CONTACT 2010. Following this, I created one work per year for the company and it was through these repeated collaborations that I got to know the dancers’ personality, work and performance styles better, which has resulted in my official appointment as T.H.E’s resident choreographer this year. To be honest, working in Singapore and with T.H.E makes me much happier than simply staying in Korea to work!

Most dance pieces that you choreographed for T.H.E have a dark humour acknowledged by many as your signature trait, is that a correct assessment? Will it be present during this year’s CONTACT? There must also exist a definite amount of Korean influence in your choreography, in the form of music beats, movements, or props. How do you decide on the balance?

Yes, a number of my pieces have an element of dark humour in it, such as Hey Man! (2012) and RE:OK…BUT! (2011). Though it may sound strange, I don’t know when I started to incorporate this in my work, perhaps it is because my pieces deal with deeper philosophical and existential themes, so certain times the dark humour works to balance it out, and other times it’s to emphasise or heighten a certain aspect. For Mr. Sign’s choreography, there won’t be any elements of dark humour – though I don’t know if the audience will see it differently.

There’s no fixed formula, I utilise different elements based on what I feel suits the choreography and concept. For instance, the music I composed for Mr. Sign incorporates traditional Korean trot music, but also has a definite Western tone to it from the portions of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake score that I’ve used, plus I’ve chosen to end the piece with traditional Indonesian gamelan music. This last element is something that reflects my recent interest in Southeast Asian influences and culture, more so than the Korean culture. I’ve incorporated these influences not only into the music, but also the dance movements. Ultimately, as a composer, I avoid restricting myself to working only with Asian/Oriental instruments.

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Recently you have been using very famous classical music pieces such as Ravel’s Bolero and for Mr. Sign, you will be using the Swan Lake music piece, even Hey Man! literally highlighted the violin. Is it a genre of music that inspires you? What are the other elements you look for in your music choices and how do you rework them?

In the past, from a music composition standpoint, I wanted to arrange and create famous pieces like Bolero and Swan Lake. But I’ve come to realise that much of the inspiration behind my compositions haven’t been from classical music. When I was young I listened to many kinds of music, and through listening I picked up arrangement techniques, music color and various types of instruments. Another key influence is my mother; she taught me to appreciate genres such as soul and gospel music. She’s a great singer – she sings for the church choir – and I think I got that musical trait from her. (Jae Duk sang live during the performance of his 2011 work, RE:OK…BUT, and has done so at every overseas restaging ever since.) Oh! And I personally wrote and composed all the songs for Hey Man!hehe.

As the artistic director of the up-and-coming Korean dance company, Modern Table, how will this affect your relationship with T.H.E Dance Company? Will you need to shuffle in between the two countries? Or is this an opportunity for further collaborations between the two companies, specially for such festival as CONTACT?

This is a really good question.

Actually, a lot of my thinking has changed after meeting Swee Boon (T.H.E’s artistic director). Coming to Singapore each year, and experiencing the high standards and fast pace of living here, my perspective on life changes a little each time – I’m more certain than ever that working in the arts enhances the value of my life.

Modern Table will be an increasing presence in South Korea in the coming years. With my unique position as Modern Table’s artistic director and T.H.E’s resident choreographer, I would love to have a wonderful/perfect collaboration with T.H.E, even if it takes place just once. It’s definitely part of the plan in the foreseeable future.

For this year’s CONTACT 2013, you are doing Mr. Sign, your first full-length creation for T.H.E Dance Company, what took you so long to finally have this opportunity to do a full-length piece?

(Kuik Swee Boon, the artistic director of CONTACT 2013, answers on Kim’s behalf.)

The process of creating a full-length work is a lengthy and taxing one, both mentally and physically. The choreographer has to put in substantial amount of effort and thought to piece together a work that is meaningful and compelling to watch. Then there is the added difficulty of working with collaborators who speak a different language from your mother tongue. These past three years were vital for Jae Duk to familiarise himself with the company’s style and the dancers’ physical attributes, personalities and idiosyncrasies. More importantly, the time allowed Jae Duk and the company dancers to establish mutual trust and understanding, which is crucial in sustaining the artistic and work process of a full-length creation. Also, Jae Duk’s appointment as T.H.E’s resident choreographer was made official only this year; prior to this, he was the company’s associate choreographer. All these factors have aligned to give rise to Mr. Sign at CONTACT 2013.

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The title Mr. Sign by itself is very intriguing in its short and direct form, what was the inspiration behind the whole concept?

Mr. Sign centres on the subject of thoughts and ideas. It examines the issues and confusions of being able to attain emotional satisfaction when facing one’s partner. It also talks about being in a hierarchical society, and only being able to ease your troubled mind through seeking identity and self. The piece also question audiences on whether communication is important to humans.

CONTACT also involves you doing movement workshops as well as technique classes, what do you hope to achieve with those experiences? What will you be looking out for, in the participants and what should they look towards to when attending your workshops and classes? Do you have any words of advice for them before coming for the classes?

My workshop can be described as having two general segments. The first is to move along to the rhythm and beat of the music – participants with a keener sense of musicality will be to pick this up much faster. The second is what I call ‘tempo dance’ – leaving the background music on and focusing on the training of speed and breathing rhythm. All movement training originates from (and build up) the centre of the body. To participants of my workshop – come with an open mind, a keen ear and be prepared for a full physical workout!


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