Second companies of contemporary dance groups come into their own

Junior arms of dance companies not only feed dancers to the main group but are also putting on acclaimed works

No longer playing second fiddle to the main company, second companies are beginning to come into their own in Singapore's contemporary dance scene.

The newest addition to the fold, Re:Dance Theatre 2 (RDT2), made its debut in November last year with a solid triple bill and T.H.E Dance Company and Odyssey Dance Theatre's junior companies are fully-fledged ensembles in their own right. On top of providing dancers to the main company where needed, they also put on works of their own and tour internationally.

Second companies have long been a mainstay in contemporary dance, with many renowned groups around the world operating a main and junior company at the same time.

For example, Taiwan's Cloud Gate Dance Theatre set up Cloud Gate 2 in 1999, 26 years after the main company was founded, to focus more on bringing dance to the community, with free outdoor performances and residency programmes.

The 56-year-old Nederlands Dans Theater has Nederlands Dans Theater 2, which was founded in 1978 and aims to groom young dancers. To ensure that the company is a stepping stone and not a destination in itself, the rule is that dancers can stay for only two or three years before moving on.

In Singapore, second companies fill the gap between schools and a professional company, allowing dancers to test the waters of a dance career.

It also solves the Catch-22 situation of applying to join a main company full-time: No one will hire a dancer without experience, but it is difficult to gain experience without being part of a company. Second companies act as a training ground to develop young dancers who may progress to the main company.

The oldest of the second companies here is Odyssey Dance Theatre's Young Company, which was set up in 2002.

Artistic director Danny Tan says: "When we started this, it was about filling a gap in the dance education scene. At that point, there were no young companies in any organisation and no way to develop young dancers who aspired to perform. We tried to fill that vacuum."

These companies also provide a platform for dancers who want to hone their skills and perform, but who may not be able to commit to a full-time position. Dancers in second companies train up to three times a week, mostly on evenings and weekends, with more frequent sessions in the lead-up to performances.

Not all second company dancers are paid a salary or allowance, although T.H.E Second Company is planning to start introducing this by next year. The amount is not yet decided, but will be "less than $1,000", says artistic director Kuik Swee Boon. A dancer in the main company of an arts group can earn more than $2,000 a month.

Artistic director of Re:Dance Theatre Albert Tiong says: "For people who are not from an arts school or who have graduated from an arts school, I want to create a platform for them to perform. If they just attend our open classes and go home, I think it is pointless, so I thought of starting RDT2."

Although most of the group's members are in their 20s, there is no age limit for joining and the group also includes working professionals in their 30s and 40s.

These young companies are a good way of exposing dancers to the working style and aesthetics of the group.

T.H.E's Kuik says that although his main company has recruited dancers from overseas, "I realised that it's still not easy for them to accept our artistic concepts".

"I think it'll be easier to work with second company dancers because before they join the main company, they already know our style, working culture, aesthetic and mentality."

It is not just dance companies that benefit from such a system, but dancers as well. Chia Poh Hian, 22, is a full-time member of the faculty of dance at the School of the Arts (Sota) and part of T.H.E's Second Company.

She joined the Second Company when she was 15, and says: "I think it's incredibly important to have more of these platforms, which bridge the gap between the pre-professional and the professional.

"At the moment, there are so many dancers coming up through dance schools, either commercial or from places such as Sota, who want to pursue dance, but need to know what a professional dancing career would be like."

Despite all the pros of a second company, running them comes with its own set of challenges as well.

Re:Dance Theatre's Tiong had been wanting to set up a junior company for several years, but it was only last November that RDT2 made its debut. He faced problems recruiting dancers and it took about two years to train all of them to a performance-ready standard.

He says: "It's tough because there were a lot of different dancers, some without a strong dance background. Some were from schools, some danced as part of their co-curricular activity. Their standards were very different and it was only after regular training that we were able to put on a show at the end of last year."

Also, because second company dancers are not bound to the job contractually the way a full-timer would be, there is also a risk that some may not commit to the training.

Without going into specifics, Kuik says: "I think in the past six years, although when we take in people we are quite particular about their personality, sometimes I'll make a compromise because they have a lot of artistic potential.

"It's really not easy to train these young dancers. It's almost like babysitting them and there's a lot of energy, time and resources spent on them. If some dancers don't know how to appreciate that, then that's a pity."

But when a young dancer does continue his training and follows through with the company, it can be very rewarding.

Lo Pui Sze, 36, joined Odyssey Dance Theatre's Young Company in 2002 while she was working as a quantity surveyor. She enjoyed her time with the company so much that she quit her job to join the main company full time in 2007 and, in 2009, went to the Queensland University of Technology in Australia to complete a master's in fine art (dance).

When she returned, she continued her career with the company and was promoted to associate artistic director just last year.

She says the Young Company experience was invaluable. "Students from Lasalle College of the Arts and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts may have a diploma or degree in dance, but for other Singaporeans who have qualifications in other areas, but want to pursue dance further, I think second companies are an important platform where they can build their foundation."

While other contemporary dance groups do not have second companies, most invest in some form of talent development.

Frontier Danceland's artistic director Low Mei Yoke says she does not run a junior company as she has limited resources and does not see the need.

"To me, a second company should also be a full-time company, like Cloud Gate 2. In Cloud Gate, they have 40 people just dancing Lin Hwai-min's piece, and the second company deals with education and other performances. But Taiwan is much bigger than Singapore and has a lot more people, but here, I don't see that need."

Instead, she runs the Pulse training programme, which she stared in 2009. It conducts classes for young dancers, aged 15 to 27, for six hours every Saturday.

She says: "It's a bridge for them to learn about what is contemporary dance and what a company is like, so they can choose if they want to become a professional dancer."

Arts Fission's artistic director Angela Liong also does not run a second company as she thinks that schools and institutions are already performing that function.

"In a way, what tertiary institutes are doing, you can in a loose sense call student companies. They learn repertoire from different guest lecturers, they perform. To me, setting up a second company is duplicating and I think it's important not to overlap, but to reinforce what we have."

Four years ago, she started the Dance Immersion programme, which has young dancers working alongside seasoned professionals. After just over a year, if they perform well, the young dancers will have a chance to move up to the main company.

Regardless of the way in which companies develop and train young dancers, it is indisputable that such platforms are invaluable.

As Odyssey's Tan says: "When it comes to dance education, it's really bai nian shu ren (Mandarin for "it takes a hundred years to grow a person").

"So what we should do is sustain the belief in our people and perhaps 10 years later, he or she could be someone in the arts.

"Second companies have this mission, to unveil the possibilities and to empower young people. Who knows, in the future, they could be setting up their own companies."

lting@sph.com.sg