Why everyone is dancing during the pandemic: The Wandering at SIFA 2020

ArtsEquator speaks to Andy Chia, Natalie Alexandra, Rizman Putra, Russell Morton and Yeo Siew Hua, the creatives behind The Wandering, a dance film about loss connections and a family in crisis, about what it’s like working on the film together, especially during a pandemic. The Wandering runs from 18 to 20 Dec as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) 2020. 

The video can also be viewed on YouTube.


Nabilah Said: Hi, everyone. My name is Nabilah Said, and I’m from ArtsEquator. Today I’m very excited to be joined by a group of lovely artists who have come together to create a film titled The Wandering, for SIFA 2020. We have Andy Chia and Natalie Alexandra from SAtheCollective. We have Rizman Putra, and Russell Morton, and Yeo Siew Hua as well. I’ll let them introduce themselves and their roles in this project. Maybe we can start with Siew Hua?

Yeo Siew Hua: I’m Siew Hua, the film director, and I’m the director for this project – co-director, with Russell – also the writer of this project.

Russell Morton: My name is Russell, I co-directed The Wandering with Siew Hua, and also the cinematographer for this project.

Rizman Putra: Umm I’m–

Andy Chia: Hi, everyone –sorry– 

Rizman: You go. 

Andy: Hi, everyone, I’m Andy. I am one of the producers for the project. And also I’m the artistic director for SAtheCollective, where we handle the audio for the film as well.

Natalie Alexandra: Hi I’m Natalie. I’m one of the musicians from SA. Yeah, you will hear my guzheng sounds in the film.

Rizman: Hi, I’m Rizman, I’m the choreographer, but I’d rather not be called a choreographer. I’m the movement coordinator for the film.

Nabilah: Great. It’s really interesting, because I feel, even the roles and all, is something interesting to talk about. And the film is also a dance film. So I wanted to ask SAtheCollective because I feel that you were involved with the starting point of this project. What was your initial concept for it? Tell us more about what The Wandering is. 

Andy: The Wandering actually started from this upcoming album that will be launched on the same day as The Wandering called Samsara. That is actually our third album for SAtheCollective. The whole concept came from there, we were thinking initially, of how we can potentially take the idea of samsara and expand that into a film, which is where we roped Russell, Siew Hua and Rizman and the team just got bigger and bigger. It was really interesting and really fun, because after we completed the album, we passed it on to both Russell and Siew Hua. And they did a second interpretation of the work and the idea of it, which later became The Wandering itself.

Nabilah: Right. What does samsara actually mean?

Andy: Samsara is almost like a circle of life. Things that always happen, the cycle of destruction and the idea of things blossoming again, so that the endless cycle that keeps going on and on. Yeah. 

Nabilah: Okay. Moving on from that – the synopsis says that it’s about a Singaporean family. But there’s a sense of loss and stuff, maybe Siew Hua and Russell, you could talk about how did you come to the story of The Wandering.

Siew Hua: Actually, The Wandering – we were thinking about this for a bit, and what we started off with, was that we had at least the album, right? The album was already recorded, and we have materials from the album. And in a way, we were trying to respond to that album. The album of Samsara is definitely the starting point for the conception of the work. A lot of how we feel about this film literally sort of came out of that album. Why this film has such a, maybe a strong sense of horror, in a way is because actually that was what was strongly coming out to us from this album. And I think we also took on the title from the album which is “samsara”. Samsara actually also means a certain kind of wandering in its original [language]… I think it’s Pali. 

So, the idea of a certain aimlessness, getting lost in this mortal coil or this reincarnation, which is, at the end of the day, the concept, the philosophy of samsara. I think we took on this idea of a certain kind of aimless wandering, but to set it within a certain space that is maybe activated by a certain kind of haunting. At the end it is about this family which is falling out of sync with each other. 

And we also knew from the start that we wanted to bring in movement work, definitely. Because, again, for us, it was trying to respond to the movement within the album itself of Samsara. Bringing in such ideas as trying to be in sync, I think for us, we were thinking, already in our daily lives, we are falling out of sync. And I’m wondering if this is something that was happening in a lot of COVID situations of people getting stuck with each other at home, and suddenly realising that, you know, we’re just strangely falling out of sync with each other. Also, because maybe our lives have been disrupted, and the routines are all haywire. But to find that synchronicity, not through endless discussions and talking, but to find a certain movement to find the synchronicity within that bodily connection. Which is, in a way, that journey of the family in our film. 

Nabilah: I’ll bring Russell into this as well. I do get a sense of… I find it super interesting to talk about the work, because I think it’s been described as a dance film. And then there’s also the sense of it being non-linear or non-verbal. You know, how has that shaped the work that you were doing, Russell?

Russell: As in my previous work?

Nabilah: I mean, for this project.

Russell: Sorry, can you repeat the question again?

Nabilah: Sure. The fact that it’s a dance film, non-linear, non-verbal, how did that impact the considerations that you had going into this project, or while doing this project? Was it freeing, was it constraining, for example? 

Russell: Actually, initially, the film was going to be some sort of wordless movement piece, a very abstracted observation of a family sort of exploring a space. But when we initially pitched the idea there was something that didn’t sit very well with what we are comfortable as filmmakers, as what we want to do, like telling stories, adding a narrative into the work. I think in the end, Siew Hua and I decided to add some sort of narrative scenes to the work to become more than just an abstract wandering, movement piece.

Nabilah: Going back to Andy and Nat, right, how does that feed into and add to the album? Because the album is a starting point, but it seems that this is a whole other thing.

 Natalie: I think that’s actually really the beauty of this collaboration with this team. Because the album is presented as what it is, and the songs and the sounds are presented as what they are, and they were created based on the band’s own interpretation of certain issues that actually we did not tell the entire team. What’s happening here really is using the Samsara album, the music within as an art form of itself, to let the team add a different layer to it. And some of those layers, in terms of the textures of meanings could be similar to what we had intended for, some of it might be different. In a way, we don’t know. And there’s a bit of uncertainty in there. And I think that’s also addressing what the arts can actually bring about. No matter what the medium, whether it’s music, sound, movement, film, you know, there’s always this sense of a layer that allows for the audience to interpret on their own, there’s no right or wrong. And I think that really adds to the beauty of how art can actually nourish our lives.

Nabilah: That’s really great. NAC should quote that somewhere.

Natalie: Maybe they should (laughs).

Nabilah: Rizman, what was your entrypoint into this piece? And how were you inspired by the other elements of The Wandering?

Rizman: For me, the most important part was the casting process. We had to really find the right people for the film. And apart from that I think we had this strategy of creating a dance piece that is based on gestures. So what I did was, I used a song with lyrics in the beginning. The cast had to go through this process of finding the movement vocab for their characters. Then after that, everyone came together, and we can kind of sync but not sync. But at the end of it all, it became such a beautiful piece, actually.  Yeah. The process was very interesting, because it was pretty much like an experiment. At the end of the day, everyone just went through it. And for me, I think it was quite a good learning process. Yeah. 

Nabilah: Actually who are the cast? Because I don’t think it’s mentioned anyway. Are they non- artists, or non-performers? 

Rizman: Oliver Chong is one of them.

Nabilah: Oh right, okay.

Rizman: Who else? Aloysius [Tan], the dancer. Xiao Jing who plays the mother. And myself included, in one of the scenes. I did a cameo as one of the father’s friends.

 Andy: We have [Zhou] Zi Hao as well.

 Rizman: Yeah. It’s a good combination of people who were willing to experiment. 

Nabilah: They actually play the different members of the family?

Rizman: Aloysius and Oliver and Xiao Jing, they are the family.

Nabilah: And you called yourself a movement director just now. 

Rizman: Yes.

Nabilah: I’m just curious why.

Rizman: Because, I don’t know, as a choreographer, I think for me it’s a bit too loaded. Because I don’t normally choreograph things. Myself, I’m a performer, I move a lot. I think, to put it, I think I coordinate movement and I use strategies to create the form. I’m not a “choreographer” choreographer… you know like stunt coordinators, they do stunts, I coordinate movement. 

Nabilah: Okay, thanks for that. Rizman and SA you guys collaborated in 2018, right? For a SIFA show. Was that why you wanted to work together again? Has there been a conversation about collaboration in your practice?

Rizman: Andy has always invited me whenever SA is doing stuff. He’ll call me in to do improvised movements. I think we’ve had a long history of collaborations. It’s always fun to work with SA. And they have this kind of– they don’t tell you what’s happening. You just jump in and you get drowned and you discover things. It’s just part and parcel of working with SA actually. Yeah. 

Andy: Yeah. I think we’re always, always calling Rizman in, because he’s always game for almost anything, pretty much. We’ve collaborated on SIFA two years ago. That was a really fun one. It was a different time altogether, pre-COVID, you know? That was a very nice live show.  This time round though, with Rizman coming in, it was really about thinking who we resonated with and who the work will resonate best with as well, to come in as a movement collaborator, as Rizman puts it. I think Rizman fits the bill best. And from what I’ve seen so far it works out really, really well. And it’s really fun. As always working with Rizman.

Nabilah: What about with Siew Hua and Russell, have you worked with each other before? As in with SA?

 Andy: Okay, the first time we actually worked together was at The Substation for the 18 levels of hell [Nightmare on Armenian Street].

Nabilah: When was it?

Natalie: I don’t remember, do you remember? 

Siew Hua: It was for Halloween. And The Substation commissioned 18 filmmakers to create an anthology of the different interpretations of the 18 levels of hell, right? And this is also – I mean, Russell and I have a long history – but this is a project that both Russell and I were on board also. He was also interpreting one level of hell, and I was doing a film about another level of hell. And then at this point, we decided to do something interesting with this anthology. And basically, is to get a SA to come in to score the film live, for all the 18 levels. And this is also an interesting experiment, because we wanted to see if we could get one team or band or collective to score this work, then these more disparate elements, done by 18 filmmakers, maybe it can create that kind of cohesiveness right. That came out of that experiment, that collaboration, and I think it’s really sort of the first time all three of us collaborated together. Yeah. And I think that experience was very enjoyable. It was very– I think we all learned a lot from it. And I think when this project happened, that maybe that’s why they thought about us, and wanted to bring us on board. 

Russell and I, after this project by The Substation, we actually continued to work on a few more things. One of which is also a dance film, titled An Invocation to the Earth, which just about two weeks ago was screening at the NTU Centre of Contemporary Arts, and is in fact right now, still screening at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. I think this is our first – Russell and I –  our first time collaborating together to create this dance form within film. And again, an amazing experience where we are seeing this as maybe something like a follow-up of what we’ve already achieved. Russell, feel free if you want to correct me on anything.

Russell: No man, right on the dot.

 Nabilah: I love the socially distanced group photo. It marks it as a pandemic-era project. But it also looks cool lah. Yeah, maybe going into the pandemic, right, the idea of making work in a pandemic. Does this collaboration take on a different meaning, colour, tone while making it during this time? 

Andy: I think definitely, this work itself has a taken on quite a different idea from what I had initially wanted. It was meant to – from the album itself it wasn’t meant to be a film yet at that point in time, we wanted to actually launch it first before we actually thought about it going further. But at the same time, in a way with the pandemic happening, and with the themes that actually resonated, with the album itself, we figured, what better way to immortalise this, then with a film? And definitely, with a team like this, I believe, it will be a very interesting work itself, to bring out during such times. 

Nabilah: I don’t know if Rizman you wanted to add on to… how is it working on the project during this time?

Rizman: The process was… I worked with the cast remotely. I work closely with Siew Hua and we worked remotely. It was pretty much… we didn’t get the chance to work with everyone together. I think it was more of having a strategy on how to piece things together. And it kind of worked for this project. Everyone was really on their toes. They’re not sure of what’s going to happen when we get to the set. I think that’s the most beautiful thing, you don’t know what’s going to happen. And when it happens, it’s like, “yeah, that’s it”. That’s the beauty of it all. Yeah.

Nabilah: Can anyone give me a sense of where are we now in the process of making the work?

Russell: We’re still currently doing the post-production for it. It’s looking good. We’re just putting the final touches for the fourth character – I would say fifth, I consider our location a fourth character. But then there’s the fifth character – without revealing too much. We’re almost there.

Nabilah: Okay. And the filming was all done – was there any restrictions and regulations? I mean, I can see you all wearing masks in this photo. How is the filming done? What kind of regulations were you all affected by?

Russell: Like I mentioned about the fourth character in the film, the location itself – this abandoned school. Because we were looking at locations during the Phase Two period. And the locations we were looking at were like, abandoned schools. It was extremely difficult to get SLA to confirm a location with us, because they’re holding locations on standby in case they need to do any quarantine things. So abandoned spaces are one of those spaces that they want to keep in their back pocket. Actually, we went to 4 or 5 locations, and when we found one that we liked, earlier on, they came back to us and said, no, we can’t do it. We only got this last location at the very last minute. And it was the only location left and only one that actually would suit our story. And coincidentally also had the best setting. I can’t imagine this film being in any other space, other than the space that we finally got. Yeah, it’s just sheer luck that we got it. 

Siew Hua: I think talking about this COVID period.. I think we are all responding to things – not just us – I see a lot of artists responding to things, what we could consume, which was online, you know. Basically everyone was quite contained at home. And I think that is also really why this… whether is it Instagram, TikTok and all these kinds of dance videos start to pop out, you realise? I mean, not that there wasn’t before, but I think that there was a lot of response to moving one’s body during this period, where everybody feels quite trapped, right? Everybody was feeling a certain kind of impossibility. And I just felt like you can maybe write 10 papers about this stuff, but it doesn’t beat just dancing on the dance floor, you know what I mean? I think this very bodily reaction to a feeling of being trapped, really was something that we were all in our small and big ways reacting to in this time. And I think that’s also really why this work really starts to tend towards something that’s a lot more movement-based, and about trying to, like I mentioned before, finding synchronicities between people, but through a very movement-based dance work. Yeah. In a way, it is a response to this COVID time.

Nabilah: Thank you so much for that. I would like to invite anyone who wants to respond to – maybe to add on to what Siew Hua has said – why should someone watch The Wandering?

Natalie: If I may, I think for those who may be familiar with SA’s music, or our performances in the past, I think this is really a refreshing take on our music because we’ve not done a film – a dance film, for that matter, with our music. And we have not had a collaboration whereby we had a filmmaker interpret our music, and then to make it into a film. I think that’s definitely one of the attractive or significant reasons why one should actually watch The Wandering.

Nabilah: Awesome. Anyone else wants to add? With that, thank you so much Siew Hua, Rizman, Andy, Nat, Russell, for joining us and telling us more about The Wandering. And I hope everyone watches it – I mean, it’s free, right? It’s free with registration. There’s no reason not to. And in a way I’ve been wondering – oh, “wondering” –  about dance films and why that has resonance and I feel what Siew Hua offered was actually quite beautiful in thinking about the significance of the work during this time. Thank you so much for that. 

All: Thank you.

The Wandering runs from 18-20 December 2020 and can be accessed online for free with registration. For  more information on the programmes of SIFA v2.020, please click here.

All photos courtesy of the artists.

This article is sponsored by the Singapore International Festival of the Arts.

About the author(s)

Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.

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