Podcast host Chan Sze-Wei and guest Melissa Quek discuss new works platforms at the M1 CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival, as well as other new works platforms organised by dance companies and entities in Singapore such as Dance Nucleus, P7:1SMA and Frontier Danceland. The M1 CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival is organised by THE Dance Company.
This is the second of a two-part episode on M1 CONTACT. Listen to Part 1 here.
Duration: 20 min
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Podcast Transcript (transcribed by Chan Sze-Wei)
Sze-Wei (SW): Hi, welcome to the ArtsEquator podcast. This is Sze and this evening I’ve got with me Melissa Quek, a choreographer, dancer and teacher who’s been in the Singapore scene for more than 10 years. So the conversation that we’re going to have this evening grew from the podcast that we did, after watching shows at M1 CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival, where we caught three platforms for emerging and independent artists new works. Those were the Off Stage platform, the Open Stage platform and DiverCity. Those are very specifically curated. They’ve evolved over the years at the CONTACT festival, in response, I suppose, to how THE company saw the scene developing. And at the moment, those three platforms are quite distinct in their targeting.
Off Stage looks at emerging artists who are building a new work and would like to get feedback and to benefit from showing their… maybe their first draft to an audience and getting a response and a dialogue from them. While DiverCity in the past couple of years has been geared towards helping local artists develop an idea that’s begun, that’s promising and giving them the resources to complete the work. Whereas, Open Stage, which began really as as kind of a traditional idea, kind of a grab bag of everything, anyone who applies and wants to show something – Open Stage, I remember showing something in that first Open Stage. It was quite a party, quite chaotic, very fun, but yes, very varied in quality.
Open Stage at M1 CONTACT is now very different. It’s a platform where local artists and international artists submit their pieces via Open Call. And these are completed works that are shown and it’s become a very international programme. So for instance, the show that we watched earlier this month had four pieces, one of which was from Singapore. And that was the same for the other two programmes. So it’s very extensive and also functions as an international festival exchange platform for the networks that THE Dance Company is part of. So I asked Swee Boon, the artistic director of the Dance Company, what inspired him to start that Open Stage platform in the first place and then to develop this entire range of platforms for new works that are now hosted within M1 CONTACT festival.
Kuik Swee Boon: I was starting to organise productions from 1992. That was also my first creation together another six artists, supported by The Substation and Kuo Pao Kun. From that experience, I know how difficult and challenging it is to make a production successful. I thought the best thing for the emerging artist is to channel their time and energy to focus on the work itself. So quite naturally, when I have this ability to organise a festival, I will think to have a similar perform to help the emerging artists. Beside that reason, one important spirit at the beginning of the opening stage was for a lot of artists to make errors and try different ideas. Something like (an) open mic. And I thought that’s the best way to encourage the emerging artists to create and share their work. The reason to have so many different platforms is because different stages of work would need different attention, different help. Besides to provide the right space or production support, the atmosphere, I think to bring in the right audiences to see the work also is important for me.
It is hard to say what is the impact this programme has had over time. But one thing I’m quite sure is that the people doing contemporary dance, or influenced (by), supporting contemporary dance, is getting more and more. And this allowed me to share one of the important messages of the festival, which is to respond and appreciate different voices in our society. I think our biggest achievement is to create a mature and sustainable ecosystem of the contemporary dance. But just like the word contemporary, this ever-changing dance form, we also need to keep improving the way how we are curating our programming.
SW: So after watching three shows in the recent festival, Melissa and I were talking about how the M1 CONTACT festival’s opportunities have shaped the scene that we create work in here in Singapore.
Melissa Quek (MQ): So I think the festival platforms have been really useful in giving artists something to aim for, and also scaffold it in a certain way that you understand the importance of really workshopping the work, having drafts and reworking. So what’s nice about it is that it also gives you some funding for some of them to develop those works further.
SW: Specifically DiverCity. It is the platform that gives selected works the resources to use space, some feedback, I think, as well from Swee Boon and invited mentors, I suppose.
MQ: I think that’s part of it. Like for work to develop, you need that feedback from your peers, from mentors, from fellow artists, but you also need it from audience members. And so your work needs to be seen… you could be making a work for a long time, and just stuck in your studio by yourself. But it has a different trajectory, you’re going to define it in a different way, when you get to put in front of an audience, because there’s so many ways you get that feedback. Sometimes it’s just by observing the audience, it’s by sensing them. And you find that your work changes just from the very relational experience you have of performing, it completely changes the dynamic of a work when you have an audience, a large audience or small audience. And so that affects it a lot. It helps refine the delivery of it for the choreographer as well as for the performers. So that’s why it’s also nice if you can, when you repeat a work and show it again and restage it, it’s really nice if you get to use the same performers when you restage it. But that’s not always easy to attain.
I think the other important thing, in terms of the platform is that it’s generally through an open call. And we have less platforms that have open calls, although in the last few years, more of these have opened up. Most of the sort of… chances for younger artists or a new generation of artists to be nurtured in their choreographic studio skills, and in finding their artistic voices tends to happen within a company. And sometimes there are pros and cons to that. Because when you’re developing your artistic voice inside the frame of a company there’s a certain aesthetic that comes with that, there’s a company branding that often comes with that. Not all the platforms do that, but it often happens. Whereas if you’re developing it as an independent, then there is more of that focus, or you’re at least allowed to have that focus on your own artistic voice, what you want to create, without having to fit it within the company branding, or aesthetic.
SW: Absolutely. I think things have changed so much. It’s wonderful, actually, that there’s so many opportunities. I still have a vivid memory of this more than 10 years ago, when we showed some of our first works in Singapore, both of us were not company affiliated. We were borrowing the stage from the commercial ballet studio where we trained, to show work. And it was just a very different setting, there wasn’t something like this, but it was a way to get an audience. What I really noticed about having something like M1 CONTACT festival in the scene, is that with the number of platforms that it offers, it gives young dancers and creators a very clear idea of not just the development of the work that you were talking about, but also how you carry a work forward to market and distribute it. And this is quite in a way specific, I think, to contemporary dance festivals that often programme triple bills, or multiple bill showcases where you’re looking at works, which are sort of 15 to 20 minutes long, have really as few dancers as possible, and as little set as possible. So it’s really hingeing on your idea, your technique, really the individuality of what you’re showing, but also a high standard of technique. And I think that, you know, the platforms that are being offered focus the mind of a young dancer who wants to work in that way. And it’s very good for that. But one thing that got me thinking, in these conversations we were having, as we were watching these shows together, was that there are certainly many other modes of working as a dance artist, many other modes of sharing your work, and the visibility of a platform like M1 CONTACT in a way gives I think a lot of young dancers the impression that this is the best way.
But I’m very grateful that there are other spaces also in Singapore offering kind of a diversity of opportunities. One platform is offered by the Dance Nucleus in Singapore, which is an independent dance centre based at Goodman Arts Centre. And it’s a very different format. That platform is called SCOPE. It’s run quarterly I believe, and primarily for associate members, artists who are associate members of the Dance Nucleus to share their work. But external artists are also invited to come in and join the programme, international artists as well when they visit. But the focus of that platform is very much dialogue and discourse. And each slot is an hour long. So that’s already very distinctly different from when you show 15 or 20 minutes in a theatre setting. At SCOPE, it’s always done in a studio with no technical, kind of bells and whistles. So it’s really, I guess, the chance to look at the skeleton of the ideas and the structure of the ideas and a chance to have a conversation directly with the with the people who come. And I’m conscious that there’s an effort to not promote this platform as being performance or not being shows. It’s more for artists to come together and think together.
MQ: Yeah, actually what was going to say is what’s beautiful about SCOPE is that it has a lot of emphasis on revealing the thinking behind the work. And that’s very exciting, because I believe that when you have a robust thought process behind the work, then that’s… you’re going to get very different kind of work than when you’re very outcome-based. So I think that’s exciting, because then working that way, the sort of range of work that will then emerge within Singapore also becomes greater.
SW: The other benefit, I think of a platform that’s repeated several times throughout a year and has a kind of repetition of regulars who are in it, is the chance for our community to grow and get a sense of each other’s practices over time. So that you may be working on, you may be showing one work this time and the different work in the next. But for example, if I see Melissa bringing a different work or the same work in different stages, I’m getting a sense of how she’s growing as an artist or what her processes are and what her concerns are. And so it’s a very different approach to cultivating work.
Another platform, which I guess recently disappeared, and then got reincarnated, like a phoenix was a very unique platform called Make It Share It which was housed in a small private dance studio in Paya Lebar hosted by Eng Kai Er, and which had an open stage platform on the first Friday of every month, where artists signed up on a first-come-first-served basis. And in that, in that format, they had rehearsal space for a month, and then showed on the first Friday of the following month. And it was really a studio showing again, with nothing except the studio lights and maybe a couple of floodlights, which she could move around you by hand. Very, very simple, but the chance for people to encounter things. And the very deliberate non-curation was kind of a carte blanche for people to play with and experiment with whatever they were dreaming of. And what was really lovely was that there was a very interdisciplinary range of works being shown.
MQ: It allows it to be a very exciting platform actually, just this sort of first-come-first-served, because you have no idea what you’re going to see next. What I really liked about it, too, is that this sort of non-curation of the platform created a very non-judgmental feel. So it allows you to be quite… you’re willing to take risks because you’re not expected to appear in a certain light or in a certain way. And what you were talking about earlier in terms of creating a community. I think that MISI (Make It Share It) really did create that community of artists who were excited to see what each other were doing. And some work is just put out for the fun of putting it out there. And you know, that brings that joy back into the art that we make as well. So you were saying that it’s been reincarnated recently. And it had its recent showing it right, as PERMISI.
SW: So that’s right. So one lovely artists community type thing that happened was that when MISI studio closed – it had a run of two years – when it closed the floor, the floor of MISI was donated to P7:1SMA (“Prisma”) dance company, which has just opened a new studio at Stamford Arts Centre, and in acknowledgement of the gift I guess, but also the gift of the open spirit of hosting that open stage platform, P7:1SMA created a bi-monthly open stage platform, which then are calling PERMISI, which is also on a first-come-first-served application basis.
MQ: I thought some of the other platforms that maybe are worth mentioning, were the ones that are provided by the companies themselves, right. So there’s Dancers’ Locker, which we see from Frontier Danceland. And we have work from THE Second Company, they’re often choreographed on by previous Second Company members, or main company members. And that has really been – apart from the recent ones – has had the same three choreographers, really creating or developing the work that they’ve been creating. So that’s been Marcus Foo, Goh Shou Yi and Anthea Seah. And I think it was meant to be a kind of a trilogy. And so they either keep developing the same work, or the work, it completely changes as it goes. And for RAW Moves, we’ve seen RAW Ground, which is also quite experimental. The expectation for the work in RAW Ground is very different from perhaps the expectations you might have of a work in Dancers’ Locker, or for THE Second Company performances. RAW Ground is also experimental. It’s a research-driven platform. And it’s also not necessarily expected to be completed work. And then CHOWK has also had that platform for its dancers to really explore their choreographic voice. And it’s been interesting to see them really develop how they choreograph. So it’s not the same works, but because there’s been this focus on these two dancers through the company, then you see that development quite clearly in them. So that’s definitely success, I think, in terms of what the companies have been trying to do as artists’ development.
SW: So it’s quite amazing to think how platforms and opportunities have really sprung up in the past 10 years. But I think also not to forget, in a sense that, you know, we don’t actually need a platform to create. And that’s something that in conversations with regional artists, I get reminded of very much in other countries where there’s much less of a funding or studio infrastructure kind of a framework that, you know, you can make something and show it in your own house, or to friends, or in the Esplanade underpass. And that those things need not constrained you.
MQ: I think something that I’ve been quite interested in seeing because I participated in a workshop recently that was just meant to be seeding new ideas. So it’s kind of a seeding workshop, where you just throw people together, and you’re just constantly coming up with new ideas, workshopping it just a little, getting responses from others and showing it to a small audience. And I thought that might be one of the things we’re missing, which is that quickfire, generating then figuring out which ones we really want to go deep into and then going deep.
SW: Like a 24-hour Playwriting (Competition) equivalent, in dance.
MQ: Yeah, exactly. Because maybe that is useful for us, rather than, you know, you spending all this time on just one piece, and you didn’t even trial it, you know, you don’t even do that first initial, “Actually, is this even a good idea?”, or, you know, is there more to it? But the thing about the platforms that we watched, right, I thought what was amazing is, even in that, it really shows you the works that had been germinating for longer, were actually in their second or third phase, or iteration is actually clear, it was really obvious. So even though I go in, I watch it – okay I didn’t initially know that it was in its second year of research, or second draft. But you feel something because you can see the rigour in the thought process, you can see the layers that have appeared in the work, even maybe the comfort level of the performance in it. And that actually comes through. And we perhaps don’t, are not as aware of that as audience members but platforms like this actually reveal it. And that means it’s revealing the labour. And I’m hoping that by revealing the labour then funders, audience members actually understand all that’s being put into it, and then understand the kind of hours and really the kind of financial support that’s needed for work to reach the level that we’re asking for.
SW: The time, the reflection, also the support that’s needed around something like that. That’s a great point. Well, for that, thank you very much for this conversation this evening. Thank you.
The 10th edition of the M1 CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival took place from 15 June to 21 July 2019 in Singapore. DiverCity took place on 3-4 July 2019 at the Esplanade Annexe Studio. Off Stage took place on 16-17 July at THE Dance Company’s Studio, and M1 Open Stage took place on 18-20 July at Esplanade Annexe Studio.
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