Choy Ka Fai’s “Dance Clinic”: The Dance Doctor Is In

By Bernice Lee

(800 words, 5-minute read)

Dance Clinic by Choy Ka Fai is thick with information and ideas. The choreographer performs a trickster role in an artistic approach similar to his previous offerings of SoftMachine (2015).

Dance Clinic projects into the future, and digs into the past. It is in conversation with a curated canon of dance, with neuroscience, with technology. Dance Clinic reaches widely with its references – makes everything seem possible. If it were a web article, every other sentence would be hyperlinked to something else. The show asks more questions than it can answer. The humour reveals uncomfortable truths.

The self-made Dance Doctor Ka Fai says the brain is the greatest thing about humans. Yet he is for some reason fascinated by the body-based art form. He says, in the future, dance can be made and performed by A.I. After all, he has been a choreographer for a good long time and has never had to train his body in the obsessive way most dancers have. Instead, he has thought a lot about dance, seen a lot of dance, and come to the conclusion that choreographic cancer is real. Choreographers need to be cured of it, and the world needs to be rid of it.

Choy Ka Fai
Choy Ka Fai explaining the importance of good choreographic health. Photo by Bernie Ng, courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Enter Ember Jello, “the world’s first artificially intelligent machine prototype for choreographic processes”. It is something you strap onto your head that measures different brainwaves. The app launches next January and appointments to the clinic can be made online. I believe this to be true, and so it must be. At the very least, these scientific developments could be true in the future, and we can be saved from the cancerous condition.

Instead of “Artificial Intelligence”, the doctor calls A.I. “Artificial Intelligent”. Deliberate Singlish? Chinglish? The show hints at these little gaps and connections all the time. In an early presentation slide, he states that his experiments began quite simply with the question “what we think about when we think about dance”. The phrase is an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s collection “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. When I realise the first story of that collection is “Why Don’t You Dance?” my brain explodes a little bit.

Darlane Litaay in consultation with Choy Ka Fai
Choy Ka Fai (right) analysing the choreographic brainwaves of dancer Darlane Litaay (left). Photo by Bernie Ng, courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Ember Jello gets trial tested by the Singaporean choreographer Jereh Leung. In some in-jokes, he demonstrates examples of Singapore contemporary dance. At one point, Jereh, the patient, walks slowly from stage right and ends at stage left, locking gaze with members of the audience. Ember Jello shows a gradual increase in his “presence” brainwaves; Jereh is more present at stage left. The Dance Doctor suggests that the patient therefore should choreograph more of his work on stage left. A logical conclusion, given that a man dressed in white has said it. The patient nods thankfully.

Dance Patient Z Florentina Holzinger, Austrian choreographer and (we are told) European dance darling, enters. She is dressed in fluffy tutu, has sparkly braided hair, and carries a Pokemon bag. She shows us some video excerpts and tells us a little about her work. Two pre-invited members of the audience are asked to wear the headsets while watching her do some gnarly, bodily things, so their brainwaves can be collected as data. I believe the conclusion is that her work might be too difficult to stomach for the audience here, and in Asia in general. I confess I could not look while she did something with her nose, a hammer, a nail. Our bodies are bizarre. By bringing her into the work, Choy Ka Fai threw open all sorts of questions about sexuality, corporeality, desire, gender issues, art curation.

Darlane Litaay entranced. Photo by Bernie Ng, courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

He then swings over to Dance Patient X Darlane Litaay, Indonesian choreographer. He walks in wearing a koteka, a penis sheath. He tells the good doctor that they are his culture’s version of pants, and is quickly advised that his outfit is “too exotic”. So he changes into black shorts. We are treated to video shot by drones, revealing island life on West Papua, where Darlane is from. I am a philistine and had no idea West Papua was predominantly Christian. The patient wants to do this clinical trial because he wants to get in touch with the Holy Spirit, through his traditional dance. The doctor helps him along, and finally gives him a Papuan mask of Christ to dance with. The experiment falls away, the artist dances into a beautiful trance. The words on the screen disintegrate, the lighting shoots rainbows, Darlane takes the mask off and continues dancing and confronting it in a poignant end. What is real? What is true?

We are left alone to ponder these contradictions and diversities.

The show then ends proper, with projected motion-capture versions of every artistic contributor taking a bow. Their images are still glitchy. It is hopeful, cheeky, and unsettling.

Dance Clinic by Choy Ka Fai was staged from 20 – 21 October at the Esplanade Theatre Studio during the da:ns festival 2017. It is a co-commission between tanzhaus nrw and Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. For tanzhaus nrw, the commission is part of MOCCA – Motion Capturing Creative Area, a project by Hochschule Düsseldorf, Fachbereich Medien, LAVAlabs, Velamed GmbH and tanzhaus nrw, supported by EFRE. For Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, this commission is part of da:ns festival.

Guest Contributor Bernice Lee is a Singaporean dance artist who enjoys risk-taking, collaborative process dealing with performative states and dance as embodied culture. Supported by NAC Overseas Bursary and the International Buckeye Scholarship, Bernice graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance from The Ohio State University in 2010. Since 2014, Bernice forms part of Maya Dance Theatre’s main creative team. She also improvises performances, creates solo and group works, performs with Strangeweather Movement Group, dances for babies and their parents. Visit her website here.

About the author(s)

Bernice is an artist, performer, writer, and dance practitioner. She delves into the entanglements between making art and living life (@bleelly). She is co-director of Rolypoly Family / Derring-Do Dance with Faye Lim (@rolypolyfamilysg) and has a joint practice with theatre practitioner Chong Gua Khee (@tactilitystudies). Her love of language has led her to writing about dance, and working with poets and spoken word artists. She has written for FiveLines since 2017; her dance writing has also featured in ArtsEquator and the Straits Times. An Associate Member of Dance Nucleus (2018-2021), Dance Artist with Maya Dance Theatre and Frontier Danceland (2011-2017), Bernice holds a BFA (Hons) in Dance from The Ohio State University. She is an MA Fine Arts candidate at Lasalle College of the Arts and is rooted in Singapore.

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