Monday, 21 November 2016

Coming Home

Formal training in dance school is a mixed experience for many people. Stepping into the studio and theatre where you have spent every waking hour (or every waking hour commuting to) for three years brings a surge of memories. For me, camaraderie and excitement, but also tears, pain, disappointment, humiliation and a lot of anger.

There's a new dance alumni performance platform at NAFA opening this weekend. Talking about it with my former schoolmates Pam, Gretel and Viv brought a lot of those memories back.  

I recall that there was always so much to fight for. Fighting to be seen in auditions and exams, fighting injuries and exhaustion, self-doubt when toiling along at the back of the class, frustration as an understudy with no chance of being put on stage. Fighting for my choreographies when they weren't making the passing mark. What I was most grateful for was that instead of the cut-throat jealousy and pettiness that you see on "Centre Stage" or "Step Up", the dancers I went to school with were really a caring bunch. We knew that we were in it together. As our class size shrunk over three years, we cheered each other on and comforted each other when we were struggling with injury or getting a shelling from terrifying teachers (for our own good). We trusted each other to stay in time, to catch us when we jumped, and to know the combination so that if we blanked out we could copy it out of the corner of an eye.

In a competitive professional setting after graduation, I must say that sometimes it seemed like those deep bonds were one of the few comforting things to hang on to when I felt like an absolute nobody. Today, it is also nice to know that the positive vibes transcended different years. When I meet a more experienced dancer and discover we were both from the same school, it usually occasions a friendly chat, the sense that yes, you too had enough toughness and love for the form to survive! 

So when she was asked to support the new platform, Gretel took time out from other commitments and volunteered to be part of the organising committee alongside Max Chen, Peter Teo, Pamela Leong and Viv Phua. The title 归 ("Gui", loosely translating as "home coming" or "return") was chosen because it carried a strong sense of belonging and physical return. That sense of solidarity was very important for Gretel. "I feel like our local industry has much talent, but we're all seemingly on our own journey. So why not pool resources, ideas, friendships, to contribute to something bigger?" 

I am aware that the camaraderie can translate as clique-ish exclusivity for some of my professional dance colleagues who have not come from a conservatory-style background. It does trouble me sometimes, and I question what it means to declare that I am proud to be an arts school graduate. For sure, this isn't the only way to come to this vocation. It's a very specific mode of training, and a huge test of commitment. I'd hope that this new platform doesn't perpetuate the same kind of discrimination that some dancers feel they experience while in training.

Viv recalls that not everybody gets a chance to show their performing or choreographic potential while they're in their formative years. There are only so many solos and competitions to go around. A microcosm of the professional world, the selection for parts is unavoidably subject to highly subjective preferences of the choreographer or director. Sometimes X-factor isn't apparent until the dancer strikes out on their own after graduation. Viv was motivated by the knowledge that the pieces would be created by alumni passionate about their work, and that there was an inclusive spirit in the open call for alumni dancers. 

Rehearsal photo by Jeff Low. Dancers Mus Fitri Suhaimi and Natasha Neo.

The performance comprises five new pieces, choreographed by Elizabeth Lee, Seow Yi Qing, Goh Jiayin, Kenneth Tan and Wiing Liu. Gretel is excited about the ways in which the programme challenges and overturns our notions of dance in different ways. At a recent full rehearsal of the show programme, Pam was moved to tears. "Not because the pieces are sad but rather, I'm so proud of everyone." 

"Gui", 25-26 November 2017 at the NAFA Campus 3 Studio Theatre. Email for tickets.

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