A little over a year ago, I was invited to be a part of MI(X)G, Festival Tokyo’s 2018 opening production, and the cherry on the sundae was to work together with legendary Thai contemporary dance artist Pichet Klunchun for five weeks spread out over four months. I missed my flight to Bangkok, the only flight I have ever missed in my life, because I was busy prepping meals for my children (it was the first time I was leaving them for a dance project outside Kuala Lumpur and it was their first day of primary school) and also because I got the day wrong. I must also add that I was the only traditional dancer in the group and the only one that had never met Pichet before, so I was not off to the best start.
I eventually made my way to Bangkok on the last flight in and began the most empowering five weeks of my life. By the end of the run, I felt like I could do almost anything and found myself in a different headspace. I could not really put this feeling into words, so I spent time processing and really analysing the lessons learnt during the production and summed everything up with five words that helped me move forward from my last independent production, dedicated, which was held at the end of 2017 at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC), Kuala Lumpur.
The five words are:
continue after pause
Dancers are a complex breed of people: they are highly competitive, emotionally unstable from excess insecurity, have an abnormally high threshold for pain, are highly sensitive and also very impatient. I have somewhat managed to stay tormented enough to keep dance in my life, and for the past 10 years I have been struggling to keep dance close.
Dance requires practice – daily practice. The body needs to be in constant movement; however due to life’s never ending continuity, I am guilt-ridden as I have less and less time to spare for it. This used to eat at me every day. It was the first thought to consume me when I opened my eyes, and this lingering toxic habit drained me and left me defeated.
Every work that I managed to complete kept dragging me back to square one and I constantly felt that I knew nothing. After producing and performing dedicated in 2017, I was filled with hope of continuing its run at dance festivals but I was rejected with every submission. I felt like I had released most of the emotional trauma from my past and eventually even stopped writing. I was numb, I had nothing to say anymore. This feeling threw me off as I was in foreign territory. I did not know this space beyond my childhood pain. Who am I now? How do I move forward from here?
re-establish a bond of communication or emotion
The moment I first realised that there was a disconnect between the audience and performer was when I danced for my children for the very first time. I thought that I’d surprise them by not informing them beforehand, and that by dancing for them they’d in turn learn that the stage was not as intimidating as it seemed. Let me tell you firsthand that very much like motherhood, absolutely nothing happened as predicted.
I ended up consoling a deeply hurt toddler because I, her mother, did not acknowledge her from the stage. All my toddler wanted was a wave from her mummy.
This realisation was a huge wake-up call for me. It reaffirmed that there was a problem with my approach to my dance and this was keeping me from moving forward. The dance was no longer representing my life. In fact, the tradition was distancing me from my family.
One thing that members of the audience always told me after a show was that they never could recognise me under all that make-up. Unlike most women, I despise make-up. It makes my face really itchy and I feel that my skin is unable to breathe. I always felt so weighed down by all the silver, and the pins sticking in my skull hurt like a motha. The suffocation of all the cloth tied around me – too tight and you couldn’t breathe, too loose and, well, it would fall off or get caught with your bells. This was all too much for me. Too much restriction, too heavy, took too much time to put on and take off – all these took away from the form.
Apart from that, I needed to find a way to reconnect with the audience. I needed to come closer, I needed to break down the barriers that kept the performer and audience separate. I was in no way any different from the next person. I am a human being, I suffer too. I am struggling just like the next person. But I had art and art’s purpose was to heal. To represent life, and heal together.
make active again
As a child and even as a 34-year-old woman now I have always preferred the uncrowded stage. I relish solo performances. Even duets are too distracting for me. I have always appreciated the solo performer – that one special being who could transport an entire room to a different time and realm. As I grew older, I saw less and less of Asian movement as Western training became more valued in the eyes of the industry. There was a shift in what was being shown on stage and I felt less and less of a connection with what I saw. I was searching for a long time for someone who represented my relationship with a classical form from a specific dance tradition. I used to see this niche as a deficit, when in fact it was an actual treasure trove of very rare experiences.
I used to say that I found freedom within the tradition, but freedom was misunderstood as safe and comfortable. Without needing to move very far, I could tweak the presentation and costume and present something that was between traditional and contemporary, but I found that it was often not accepted by either side. I was highly demotivated by this until I found representation through Pichet and his dancers in 2018.
I saw and understood the importance of continuing my practice when I watched BEHALF in Singapore six months ago, a “danced dialogue” between Pichet and Taiwanese dancer-choreographer Chen Wu-Kang. The traditional dancer with a limitless mind is a rare and an incredibly exciting thing to witness. This was my first time experiencing ‘dance resistance’, which I saw as resisting familiar and conventional ideas of dance. In doing so, the performer reclaims power from the paying audience and dance becomes a work of art in itself, no longer just a form of entertainment. I truly appreciated the artists’ decision to engage the audience in thought, rather than wow them with the spectacle of dance. The power play between audience and performer became visibly clearer to me and it blew my mind.
I was immediately brought back to my childhood. I witnessed the magic of the Asian contemporary spirit – rebellious, passionate, dedicated, ambitious and proud. I missed this spirit, and understood my responsibility to keep this representation going. That there is space to grow. I saw a direction, a path that led me towards something else and I decided that I could and would be able to take the first step.
grow after loss or damage
Time and space are basic concepts in contemporary dance. I’ve also learnt that these two things can possibly solve any problem that life puts in your way. They have helped me become a better mother to my children. From firsthand experience I can say that time and space are the two things that are taken away once you become a mother. You suddenly find that all of your time and space become dedicated to other people and this is why you find so many mothers with unrealised dreams. For many reasons, she is unable to reclaim the time and space that she has lost, and in turn, she forgets who she was. But I found that as the distance and time from my family grew, so did I. I gained so much strength from the five weeks in Bangkok, and I managed to reclaim a part of myself that I did not even know had been missing.
strengthen or support
How could I break through? How could I break things down if I never had to question anything? What was my narrative? Who was my audience? These questions have been running through my mind over the past 10 years and I am in the process of experiencing the answers. The only way to keep moving forward and growing are in these experiences, and presenting them via articles, performances, workshops and whichever way I am able to express myself. My stage has changed. I am now bringing art into my home and living my life with my art through my children, while figuring out who I am.
The biggest lesson I have learnt so far is to anticipate and expect, decide on my reaction and look for the lesson in the process. As long as I am questioning, I am growing, and as long as I am growing, I am contributing to my art. There has also been an internal shift with where I place my value and power. Having spent most of my childhood on the stage, I had naturally been conditioned to feel as if the stage equates to success. However, I have also learned that the stage plus a dancer’s fear of aging equates to most of our insecurities, which have seeped into generations of hurt artists. I am now looking at a more sustainable relationship with my art and my dance, and I appreciate the in-betweens more than ever. The artist does not always need trauma to make art, in fact we are now coming full circle and using art once again to heal ourselves.
About the author(s)
January Low, born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, started dancing with classical ballet, followed by 25 years of Indian classical dance training in Sutra Dance Theatre, Malaysia, focusing on odissi. She returned to the stage a year after the birth of her twins, with works such as bloom (2016) which she performed when she was seven months pregnant, dedicated (2017) and MI(X)G (2018).