Independent dancers shake up local dance scene

A small but growing community of independent dancers, not affiliated with any one dance company, is shaking things up

In dance, you have the big, bold movements. And then there are the tiny, barely perceptible gestures that are nonetheless important for the piece.

Something of the latter is happening in the contemporary dance scene, where a small but growing group of independent dancers, not affiliated with any company, has emerged. While not a dramatic development, it is a sign of the evolution of the scene.

In September last year,two dancer choreographers went the independent route, leaving the companies they co-founded within weeks of each other.

Lee Mun Wai, 33, left T.H.E Dance Company after seven years.

  • BOOK IT / REVERBERATE

  • WHAT: The debut production by collective Soul Signature showcases newly independent dancers Sufri Juwahir and Sheriden Newman, who were from Maya Dance Theatre

    WHERE: Black Box, Goodman Arts Centre, 90 Goodman Road

    WHEN: Jan 15 and 16, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $20

    INFO: reverberate1.peatix.com

  • DIALOGUE 2.0

    WHAT: This piece by Sigma Contemporary Dance, a semi-professional dance group made up of full-time working adults, incorporates elements of installation and performance art

    WHERE: Black Box, Goodman Arts Centre

    WHEN: Jan 23, 8pm and Jan 24, 3 and 8pm

    ADMISSION: $25

    INFO: dialoguetwopointzero.peatix.com and facebook.com/sigma.contemporary

  • HATCH

    WHAT: The debut of Hatch, a short works season by Dance Nucleus, presents four works by dance artists Germaine Cheng, Lim Ming Zhi, Leia Ang and Phyllis Xie

    WHERE: Dance Nucleus Studio, Goodman Arts Centre

    WHEN: Jan 28 to 30, 8pm

    ADMISSION: Pay as you wish

    INFO: tinyurl.com/hatch2016

  • PHRASES 16

    WHAT: Now in its second year, this performance art platform is organised by collective Paragraph, led by independent dancer- choreographer Max Chen. It will present 11 new works by dancers such as Royston Fan and Wiing Liu

    WHERE: Paragraph Studio, 09-06 Primz Bizhub, 21 Woodlands Close

    WHEN: Jan 22 to 24, 8 to 10pm and Jan 29 to 31, 8 to 11pm

    ADMISSION: $15

    INFO: phrases16-wk1.peatix.com and phrases16-wk2.peatix.com

Dancer-choreographer Dapheny Chen, 32, exited her four-year-old dance company Re:Dance Theatre.

She had worked with its artistic director Albert Tiong for six years, the first two while in another group, Frontier Danceland.

Lee and Chen join a pool of about 30 independent contemporary dancers here, estimates the National Arts Council, and that number is expected to grow. These include dancers who have never joined a dance company before, such as 31-year-old independent dancer-choreographer Eng Kai Er.

As part of this development, loose collectives of independent dancers have emerged, such as Sigma Contemporary Dance, which will stage its third full-length production,Dialogue2.0, this month. Paragraph, another collective, will present Phrases 16, a showcase of dance and performing arts works, over two weekends from Jan 22 to 24and Jan 29 to 31.

Helping to support the growth of this group is Dance Nucleus, a dance studio and incubation space at Goodman Arts Centre that gives independent dancers the space to create and show work, undergo training and form networks. Initiated by the arts council, it is managed by a team of four led by director Foo Yun Ying, an independent dancer herself.

Not easy going solo

The studio went through some renovation works in November and will present the debut showcase of its short works season, Hatch, from Jan28 to 30.

Of independent dancers, Chen says: “It’s a shift we’ve noticed, that more dancers are going independent, starting from, maybe, 2014.”

The arts council noted this shift in its 2014 Performing Arts Masterplan, stating that “artistic performance and creation opportunities, and infrastructure and support for independent practice in Singapore are not as developed as compared to cities such as Hong Kong, Berlin and New York”. Thus Dance Nucleus, formerly the dance studio in Goodman Arts Centre, was born.

But this wave of dancers flying solo is not new.

Dancers told The Straits Times that there was a burgeoning independent dance scene here in the early 2000s, comprising people such as the now-defunct dance duo Ah Hock And Peng Yu, who crossed genres of dance, performance and visual art; and dancers Daniel Kok and Joavien Ng,who are still active.

Following that, there was a boom in the number of contemporary dance companies, with the likes of T.H.E, Raw Moves and Re:Dance Theatre entering the picture.

The scene is changing once more. Speaking to The Straits Times separately, Chen and Lee say they left because their artistic journeys were no longer aligned with that of their companies.

Both say they are cherishing their newfound free time.

As company dancers, they went through rigorous training five days a week, working on many back-to-back projects a year, ontop of teaching duties. As independent dancers, they get to choose their projects and have the freedom to do more experimental works.Inbetween,theyteach dance.

Aside from “a two-week break to read novels”, Lee has new projects that will keep him occupied for at least 11/2 years. Last month, he presented his first work since leaving T.H.E, a collaboration with Odissi trained dancer Kiran Kumar, with whom he had never worked before.

In contrast, Chen is doing some soul-searching to find her voice as an artist and is in no hurry to create new work. However, she plans to make a dance film and work on cross genre projects with artists such as theatre maker Edith Podesta.

Companies such as Maya Dance Theatre recognise the value of working with independent artists. Artistic director Kavitha Krishnan says these artists “bring fresh perspectives and, at times, are very bold and experimental ”.

Maya Dance Theatre supports independent dancers with programmes such as its yearly Release platform, giving emerging choreographers a chance to showcase 10-minute works alongside more established artists. Participants have included Sufri Juwahir and Sheriden Newman, who recently formed dance duo, Soul Signature, which will present its first showcase, Reverberate, next weekend.

Besides working with companies, independent dancers can take part in dance festivals here, such as the annual M1 Contact Contemporary Dance Festival in November, organised by T.H.E Dance Company.

For dancers such as Eng, who did not go through the company route, performing arts festivals and platforms with open calls are a good avenue to present works.

She performed at the 2012 Singapore M1 Fringe Festival; was part of The Substation’s Directors’ Lab in 2013 and 2014; and has been an associate artist for theatre company TheatreWorks since last year.

Major events with dance as part of its regular programming include the Singapore Night Festival held by the National Museum of Singapore, as well as the Singapore International Festival of Arts. The arts festival held a 16-day Dance Marathon this year with independent dancers mainly from Japan and India.

For TheatreWorks, working with independents such as dancers Eng and Joavien Ng is part of its ongoing philosophy of “pushing artistic boundaries and the development of contemporary performing arts”, says managing director Tay Tong.

But being in a dance company still appeals to many. Lee says joining a company is the “desired route” for dance students here. Company dancers get regular pay, for starters.A full-time dancer in a company is paid about $1,500 to $2,500 a month.

Companies are a good training ground for young dancers who get the opportunity to work on regular, sometimes large-scale and international projects, and build professional networks at the same time.

Lee says: “The good thing is that some of the companies have clear identities, proper structures and solid seasons. They are regularly funded by the arts council.”

Maya Dance Theatre’s Kavitha thinks that graduates should start their careers with companies to hone their skills and artistry. “I’m just afraid that there might be more independent artists keen in dance making, but are not able to meet the demands due to lack of resources, support and experience. Thus, the scene may remain young forever without much growth.”

But Lee and Chen say the dance output here is becoming predictable and companies, with their jam packed seasons of three to four productions a year, are more product- than process- centric.

In such a climate, artists such as Eng, despite not having been to dance school, are regarded as a breath of fresh air. Her persistence and hard work – she has picked up pole dancing, ice skating and contact improv (an improvised dance form emphasising physical contact between people) – and her self described brand of “European type of dance”, which often includes elements of absurdity and occasional nudity, have caught the attention of practitioners here.

Last month at M1 Contact, she performed a piece titled Porno with frequent collaborator Sviatlana Viarbitskaya from Belarus. Eng represented Singapore at Choreolab 2015, an intensive residency for emerging choreographers in the Asia Pacific region, twice last year – in Singapore and Selangor, Malaysia. Choreolab is held as part of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific, the regional arm of an independent, non-profit body that supports dance and exchanges between dancers.

What is important, dancers here say, is that emerging independent artists such as Eng are not eschewed in favour of established artists and companies.

Producers such as the Esplanade, which holds the annual da:ns festival with some of the biggest international names in dance, regularly commissions independent artists and held a 10-day workshop, da:ns lab, in August last year for independent choreographers. It says it will “continue to explore more ways” to support the growth and development of the independent dance community here.

While dancers The Straits Times spoke to were hopeful that they can shake up the scene, life as an independent artist is not all sweet.

For one, the journey can be lonely and they must have discipline by the bucket loads to keep training their bodies and create work.

As independent artists, getting funding is challenging and has to be done on an ad hoc basis. And then there are studio rental costs – while Dance Nucleus charges independent dancers only $15 an hour, rental can cost between $40 to $120 an hour elsewhere.

Working on a project basis also means that many indie dancers choose to teach to supplement their incomes.

But despite the difficulties, they say they will not be easily thwarted.

Says Lee: “I’ve been dancing in void decks. There are limitations, but you work with what you have. There is space in Singapore to dance.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 05, 2016, with the headline 'Indie wave'. Print Edition | Subscribe