Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Podcast 50: Anna Chan, Asia Network for Dance (AND+)

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Duration: 36 min

Chan Sze-Wei finds out more about the Asia Network for Dance (AND+) from one of its co-conveners Anna Chan, who was former head of Performing Arts and Dance for the West Kowloon Cultural District and current Dean of the School of Dance at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.

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Podcast Transcript

Sze-Wei: Hi, welcome the AE podcast. I’m Chan Sze-Wei and today we have with us Anna Chan who is – was the head of Performing Arts and Dance for the West Kowloon Cultural District from 2014-2018, where she was responsible for shaping the district’s artistic direction and strategies for dance. Most recently, she’s now just become the Dean of the School of Dance at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. Hi Anna, Thanks for joining us.

Anna: Thank you for your invitation.

SW: I have been very keen to talk to Anna because I want to find out more about an initiative that popped up on my Facebook as an invitation. It was an invitation to a network called AND+, Asia Network for Dance. Which it is a network dedicated to connecting, developing and empowering contemporary practice in dance within Asia. Its missions are to share knowledge and information, expand connections for dance professionals and to strengthen the visibility of dance within and beyond Asia.

So Anna I know that this is a project, a network that was actually several years in the making. Could you tell us a bit more about what inspired this?

A: Yes, absolutely. First of all, I think if you received the invitation for this network via Facebook, then we are going in the right direction because we absolutely do not want the network to be just exclusively for a small group of people. We want to reach out. So if you received the invitation then I need to share with our core group that we are going in the right direction.

The whole idea actually has been incubated for almost three years. It was first started at the very casual conversation amongst several like-minded producers such as Faith (Tan) from the Esplanade, Kathy (Hong) from the new Kaoshiung National Theatre. That was about three years ago and we were having a conversation about the rise of the new Asia, the new theatres, including the West Kowloon Performing Arts district, many theatres in Taiwan and not to (leave out that) the Esplanade is also building a medium size theatre. Plus many more other theatres in Asia. So we are all very concerned about what is the content. How can this new infrastructure have a new impact into our venue programming strategies? And also, how do we actually share resources? This was the initial idea. At the same time, a lot of European colleagues are actually looking towards Asia simultaneously because of the rise of these new theatres planned.  Everyone is asking us about what is the Asian landscape. That prompted us to think that we must start some kind of a conversation. So in 2016 I invited Faith and Kathy, and two more colleagues from China and Korea to have a tea talk at the 2016 Tanzmesse in Dusseldorf to share about the new venues and festivals in Asia. After that it gave us a lot of energy because we see a great demand in knowing about Asia. That brought us into further conversation, that we must start up some kind of network.

So the original idea was just theatres, all these big institutions talking about how we can set up a network to talk about research and development, co-productions and touring mobility for dance work. It was from that conversation.

The more we talked, the more we we realised we are actually duplicating what has been done in the past because there is already a lot of different kinds of associations and networks aligned to sharing and mobility in Asia. But I have to say, there are some successful cases and there are also some unsuccessful cases. Then the more we talked about it the more we felt that we are really talking about a very small group of Asian people Asian here. Asia is so big. And secondly, where are the artists? We didn’t actually put in the artists’ voice. And then we realised that we had looked at the collaboration strictly in just investment perspectives and we were not really looking in the core about content development and all the other artistic needs. And even looking at the new ways of having this… so that was a good ringing bell.  Therefore we brought in some examples to have a conversation with us because I think it’s also good to learn from good practice. So there are experiences and also some of the advantages and disadvantages (of existing examples) and we can reinvestigate how we can implement this in Asia. So in 2017, I invited the European Dancehouse Network (EDN) president to come to Hong Kong to the producers network meeting and forum (a project initiated by West Kowloon as part of the conversation. At that particular four days, the president of the EDN spoke to a group of producers, artists and also presenters mainly in the Asian region who are interested in exploring diff kinds of collaboration. So that’s how we started in 2017.

I have to say really I’m impressed by the efficiency and president how that that time was Walter Heun. He led and guided us through a lot of workshops over two days. And also the enthusiasm of the network participants. They really felt like it was an opportunity to have a further conversation and they all had a lot of suggestions. So out of the three days meeting we were already able to come up with objectives, directions and some suggestions to move forward. And then in addition to that, several participants also volunteered to host the second, third and fourth meetings. It gave us a lot of energy boost because out of four days we immediately felt that there is an urgent need. So we carefully decided the next three meetings, where we should host, and how we should move forward with our conversation and make sure each meeting is built on the previous discussion and not to start again.

So after the Hong Kong meeting in May 2017, the next meeting was in Indonesia, Jakarta in November 2017. Thank you to Jala (Adolphus), who is an independent producer and at that particular month in Indonesia she was also curating a small delegation from Australia to go and understand the Southeast Asian and particularly Indonesian dance landscape. A lot of our participants in Hong Kong wanted to go and know more about Southeast Asia. Most importantly at the Hong Kong meeting, we see a lack of voices from Southeast Asia. So that was also strategic that we wanted to conduct the second meeting in Indonesia.

At the two days meeting in Indonesia, there was about 30 of us who volunteered to pay for our own expenses to go there and meet. We followed from what we disc in May and brought those issues and objectives into the two days meeting. After the two days intensive closed door meeting we were able to come up with two very focused set of objectives and also two proposed names for this network. The objectives didn’t go too far away from what we discussed at the first meeting but we immediately dropped two things – co-productions and co-commissions and touring. Because we felt that if this becomes the prerequisite or the mandate for this network, again, we would marginalize those smaller institutions, those individuals and those independents. And we value the diversity that we are able to bring in to the discussion with the big, small institutions and independent landscape. So after Indonesia, the next meeting was in TPAM (Performing Arts Meeting) in Yokohama Dance Collection in February 2018. Again, many of the participants who had participated in May continued in Indonesia in November and continued in TPAM. About 30 of us and this time. We also invited Japanese producers to include the Japanese voice. As we know Japan also has a different landscape and different ways of supporting dance development. We brought in their voices and also listened to their experience as Japan already has many different kinds of networks. Those became a very good stepping stone and platform for us to push how to formalize this potential network. Out of three days of discussion we were able to finalise the three objectives we mentioned and the name.

And the name, if I want to go further about the “AND+”: It is the key of this network. We always want this network to leverage on some other festival or opportunity to network with another network. So this network doesn’t stand alone. It will always piggyback with something else. And this became the core focus of the network. Another milestone we developed in Japan was how to organize the network structure. A lot of networks and alliances have this kind of top-down approach. They always have on board a president who makes all the decisions. There will be a board, officers, and when it goes to the end it’s always talking about who’s going to put money into that network. A lot of the time that becomes very top-down and there’s ups and downs to that.

We decided that no, we are in the 21st Century and all of us are young and new and we have more ways to communicate. Most importantly, what we repeatedly voiced out in our discussion was: Why do we need a network when there are already many other networks? And even individuals have their own networks. Everyone has networks. Now connecting with anyone around the world is easy, like with Skype now I’m in Hong Kong and you’re in Singapore. What is the purpose of (networking then). That made it even more crucial to have the decision that we don’t want a top-down approach. We want a much more collegial kind of organization because this group of people are all volunteering to take a step further than what we have already.

The mission of this network is to join forces, bringing individual or institutional resources, or even just time and passion, to have a much bigger conversation about the Asian dance landscape. I think we need to acknowledge and value that. Therefore we proposed the direction of the network to be steered by a core group. So 14 of us become the core group, and what is the core group? The core group is a group of passionate people. These passionate people all come from institutions, artists, independents as well as administrators. So quite a wide range (of backgrounds) and we acknowledge that. Each one will bring in their own institution and we acknowledge that. Each one is from an institution but it’s not the institutions that form the core group, I have to emphasize that. We do not want that. Also (we don’t want that in) the core group that particular person becomes the representative of that city or country. That is another danger that I have encountered in other networks that I initiated. So it’s about that particular person and what they can bring in. From Singapore we have two people represented in the core group. Hong Kong as well, we are relatively smaller but we already have two people. Some of the big countries may only have one and other countries can have two. We try to avoid that kind of monopolized system.

After TPAM we looked at how we can share information without something like European funding. Remember that when I said we start with reference to EDN and how it continues to operate is that there is European funding that supports the development of that network. But in Asia we don’t have that. We are all very diverse, very different so how do we maximize the lack of funding but reach out? So we decided that Facebook is the best way. But we also acknowledge that there are countries where Facebook has no access.

SW: Yes.

A: So we rely on members of the core group to share if that city cannot use Facebook. But having said that, as we all know, if people want to connect to Facebook, they can find the way.

SW: That’s true.

A: We decided to use Facebook as a closed group, by invitation, and then people can invite others and become a primary source of sharing of knowledge. In addition to that, we had the four meetings in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan and the launch in Hong Kong again.

One thing we achieved that I’m very proud of us is that we did a mapping exercise. In the course of discussions we said we don’t actually know each other. Asia is so big. I may only know certain parts of Asia and other people may not know everything. So we said before we can move forward we really need to know who we are.

SW: Right.

A: So everyone just said immediately how about go into a mapping.  But oftentimes when we talk about this kind of mapping it takes time, it takes a researcher to analyse. By the time they roll out a report it would possibly be outdated. So I don’t think we want to go into that process again. We said how can we go into the most practical way? What do we want to map? We all want to map where they can show work.

SW: So this was a geographical mapping? How did it work?

A: Yes, it is geographical. We mapped four focus areas. The festivals. What kind of festivals are happening in that city or country. Then we also mapped residencies. We want to see where residencies are offered, what can those residencies achieve. And then we also map funding bodies. Nevertheless we need to know where the funding comes from so we can support the next phase of ideas to develop. So we were very clear that we want something useful, that can immediately benefit people reading this mapping documentation. We also put the basic info such as the link, contact and the person information so that people can just quickly go and click into the information. We rely on the core group, each time we meet we will review the map and make sure this documentation is always relevant and stays current. After we did that, we started in Indonesia, then reviewed it in Japan, and in Hong Kong in May. And it’s become quite a comprehensive documentation. When we meet again in November in Taiwan, we are able to continue enriching the info. It’s become very useful to so many people already.

SW: I did take a look at that map. I didn’t actually realise it was there on the pinned post in the Facebook, that the link to the map was there. It’s incredibly impressive. It’s an enormous excel sheet, essentially, listing the different countries of the Asia Pacific – North Asia, Southeast Asia and Australia. And what you mentioned, the festivals, residencies and funding, listed in a very systematic colour-coded way.

I’m glad you addressed how it would be maintained because for something of this scope that would be something that I would worry about – how is this continued. It does seem to be marvelous resource for artists and I do hope more people will know more about it.

A: At this moment we are keeping it within the Facebook group because we don’t want it to be just massively shared with someone and people can reinterpret it in a different way. So people who don’t belong to the Facebook group can write to us and ask us to send them the link. There are already many European networks and artists who have asked me personally or other core group members to reference the link. I just recently shared it with the Flemish institutions because they always do a lot of mapping in Europe. They want to share what’s happening in Asia with their European counterparts. But I make it very clear that this is not publicly shared because I think if it has to be publicly posted on the site, we have to do another layer of consultation and seek permission. At the moment it’s still very much within the network. Already we have…

SW: 1000 members! I was just looking at the number. It has now 1101, which is a really auspicious number for this interview. Speaking of the really impressive explosion in membership – I think it was only a few hundred when I was added and it has really grown exponentially. How do you see the network moving forward? I know you’ve described the core group and I really appreciate the focus that’s been given to a non-hierarchical structure and the sense of openness. But there are compromises to be made in terms of decision making. What we see on the current Facebook is that it’s become a bit of an announcement page. How do you see AND+ moving forward?

A: The core group commit ourselves to look at AND+ for three years. We need to be committed and also realistic because we need to make sure that the network is always relevant. I don’t want to project that the network is going to be forever. After three years things may change, the technologies change, and personnel are also moving around. Also maybe the needs by that time are maybe very different. So what we’re going to do now is commit ourselves for three years. I take these three years as an incubation type of structure. The first three years was really conceiving the ideas. The next three years will be how we modify and see how the network can move into the next stage. This is what we have committed to so far.

I forgot to mention one thing about the core group. It will be led by the convenor. Each time we share the leadership role as the convenor. This is my proposal because I don’t want this network to become Anna Chan’s network. I initiated, with Kathy, Faith, Shinji Ono (Yokohama Arts Foundation) and Ahram Gwak from Korea. It can become a personal network. So I said to all of them let’s move around being the convenor. So I will stay as convenor until the November meeting at the same time I’m working with another core group member, Jala, to convene the next meeting information and agenda. And then after that, because I’ve served for two meetings, I will step down, and Jala will take a new convenor and they will co-work for the next meeting in Australia. And so the baton continues moving forward so after three years and six meetings, at least another 8 people will already share the leadership. I think that’s important because everyone will bring in new ideas. Only by owning it, this network will develop.

So to answer your question, I really don’t know how it will turn out after three years because I think it really has to be organically developed. As you said we have some structure and some framework, but how it is all going to evolve depends on how we all contribute and  then take it to the next stage.

SW: It’s an incredibly systematic approach that you’re describing. I guess from my point of view, when I’m not being an Arts Equator journalist, I am an artist myself. It does occur to me that it’s a mode of work and a logic that is shared easily among producers. I think if it was an artist-initiated network I would expect it to look to some degree a lot messier.

A: Well I am an artist also.

SW: Point taken. Absolutely point taken. (I mean) artists who do not also have producing roles. I’m wondering how you foresee things developing when it sounds to me like there is a particular dominance and contribution from people in a producing position in this network. Also it appears, from countries that are better resourced in the region. With your attention to questions of democracy and non-hierarchical nature and openness, how would you address these?

A: Absolutely. That’s a very good question. It sounds too good to be true. It still needs some points to anchor the development. At this point we are developing different projects proposed by different core group members. Some proposals are actually existing projects they have already been doing. By bringing these proposals to the table, other more resourceful or more institutionalised colleagues may bring another additional development for that proposal. So for example, I realised you also interviewed Bilqis in your last episode?

SW: Yes, our last episode.

A: Bilqis has such a beautiful project called the Southeast Asia Choreolab with all these Southeast Asian choreographers. She proposed this project in our main meeting in Hong Kong. We were all excited how this one-woman-band and residency is able to collect a pool of talents from Southeast Asia. What is missing is after they collect this, they don’t have another window to leap to the next stage. So we’re already in discussion how we can leverage on other projects to involve this group of talent. So such as… this is a bit of a little leak of information… I’ll share more in November when we go to our meeting in Taiwan. Korea is already initiating a project that will include Southeast Asian artists and we want to make sure this project piggybacks or can have a strong association with Bilqis’ Choreolab, so that this group of artists whom she has already nurtured and provided development for, can have the next stage of working in their career on another project and some of the ideas can be further developed. We took it to producers and programmers who Ahram’s going to invite into the next stage of development. This is already one of the examples that I can share with you.

SW: That’s exciting.

A: Yes, this is what I have been doing off meeting time – to navigate and steering with different core group members to talk about different possibilities. It all works when we all generously want to share and we generously want to make something happen when time, money and opportunities arise. This is one of the examples.

Then I am already thinking about after 2019 in Korea – what will be the next stage? I am already planning something in Hong Kong in 2020. I also talk with Danny K (Daniel Kok, Dance Nucleus) for other possibilities that we will continue to discuss further in Taiwan and there was also another project called the Screendance proposal that Taiwan offered to all the core group to recommend artists that make screen dance who can put in their submission so they can screen the work in Taiwan. So everyone is trying to put in extra effort to help those (who are) under-resourced or lacking network or so-called lack of infrastructure countries or artists.

I can feel it’s going to grow quite beautifully, but how, I don’t want to predict.

SW: Of course.

A: The beauty of it not to predict and then whatever opportunities come up, we will continue. Myself and Jala were in Dresden. I shared this network with EDN and other European colleagues. Jala and I were both in Bassano del Grappa, a small city in Italy, and we already developed another conversation about how AND+ can connect with the Italian dance scene. So this is another discussion that we will continue in November.

In addition to that I was also in France and we shared with the EU – an invitation with the European Commission to understand how to collaborate with Asia. So I shared the AND+ platform and network and I also shared paths I’m working on in Hong Kong, Korea and other countries that fall within the AND+ network that are also potential opportunities.

SW: Wow, I’m really looking forward to see what will happen with this network and how the projects of the core group can benefit the 1000+ and growing members.

Perhaps I could ask you one last question. And of course I understand that you speak for yourself, and not for any institution and not for AND+. You were just mentioning how you were presenting AND+ and new initiatives in Europe. I’ve seen this when I worked in Europe or talked to presenters from Australia or from the UK,  for example, that there’s a lot of interest in Asia. I do smell a bit of that old-fashioned hint of orientalism hanging around. Do you feel that win Asia there is as great a degree of interest in other Asian art, Asian artists?

A: This is what we want the use this network to advocate. I have to say Asia might not be very interested in Asia, but I think it’s time to change. At least with this core group we are all very interested to know about each other. And you also talk about a bit of orientalism or Western perspectives in looking at Asia. I think this is also one key point that this network should advocate. I give u an example – in May, in Hong Kong we brought in three Asian artist collaborators. One is Pichet Klunchun and also Chen Wu-Kang. It is a collaboration project by Cloud Gate. They talked about it, they want Asians to talk about their aesthetic, their approach. And then they shared with a group of participants from the producers network, including European and other Western producers. The dynamic changed because we didn’t use a Western perspective to analyse this collaboration. It was really coming from the voice of exactly what AND+ should advocate.

Back to your previous question, how will this network continue? I think our aim now is not to create more projects. It’s not to create more co-productions. It’s to join forces to have the platform for Asians to acknowledge our Asian contributions in arts and dance. Also to join forces to have a voice that we can communicate with the West or with other more established networks so that they can value us, understand us, and also see from our perspective and our aesthetic.

SW: Right now,  just incidentally, I think we’re hearing in the background some voices of future Asian generations of artists at your school.

A: Yes, those are my students.

SW: I think that’s a perfect note on which to end. Thank you Anna for sharing with us. It’s been very inspiring to hear the vision and the thought and the work and generosity that’s gone into this so far, and may it continue.

A: Yes, thank you very much for your invitation.

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