Leap of faith

Some dance lovers are leaving careers in conventional fields to pursue their dream

Besides doing administrative work, Odyssey Dance Theatre’s associate artistic director Lo Pui Sze (above, in foreground) also dances, choreographs and teaches. PHOTO: MATTHIAS HO FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Apsaras Arts Company’s managing and creative director Aravinth Kumarasamy (above). ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

When Anthea Seah completed her final examination at the Nanyang Technological University two years ago, the 26-year-old was not out partying to celebrate.

Barely had her life as a student ended when the engineering graduate did the unthinkable - she signed up for yet another tertiary course, this time in dance, something she had always been active in.

This May, she graduated from the dance degree programme at the Lasalle College of the Arts and joined T.H.E. dance company, one of several professional contemporary dance groups here, as an apprentice dancer.

She says: "Dance has always been there in my life. I've been dancing since I was in primary school."

As the dance scene here grows, insiders say they see some aficionados such as Seah cutting short or nipping in the bud a career totally unrelated to dance, to strike out on the path less trodden.

Lasalle's dance programme leader Melissa Quek says the school has seen more students taking up dance as a second degree. At this year's auditions, she saw a record number of applicants with prior degrees, but was unable to provide the figures at press time.

There are also professionals who leave behind high-flying careers, such as London-based dancer- choreographer Chan Sze-Wei, 34.

She gave up her job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2008 to enrol at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) in a dance diploma programme. Eight years before that, she had fallen in love with dance as an undergraduate at Columbia University.

She says: "I realised, after about three years, the civil service wasn't for me and I wanted to give dancing a chance. I was aware it might not work out, but I knew I wouldn't be satisfied if I didn't at least try."

Nafa's vice-dean and principal lecturer of dance programmes Caren Carino says: "More young Singaporeans are beginning to make their own decisions in life. Parents are also becoming more supportive of their children's choices."

And while dancers have short careers due to the art form's physical rigour, she notes: "There are other career paths such as teaching and related professions in fashion. Today, more dancers are prolonging their careers by making such transitions."

Dance veterans here stress that professional dance is intense, skilled work which requires proper training. This means mid-career dancers should have prior dance experience.

Artistic director of Arts Fission dance company Angela Liong says: "If one does not start out with the dance regimen, it will be very difficult to switch midway."

Likewise, artistic director of Singapore Dance Theatre Janek Schergen says: "A dancer must have pre-professional training or professional experience. It is not about the paper qualifications, but the technical ability and artistry of the dancer that makes them good."

Nonetheless, he says the growth in dancers' salaries does make the switch less daunting. "Times are changing. As of current years, our dancers' annual income ranges from $32,000 to $56,000." Most dance companies here are supported by government funding, corporate sponsorship and ticket sales.

Dancers such as Jeryl Lee, 24, say they appreciate how their previous degrees have broadened their horizons. Lee, who finished her chemical engineering degree at the National University of Singapore and enrolled in Lasalle's dance degree programme in 2013, says: "I went from doing things such as designing a plant and dealing with facts to learning theories and discussing performing and dance history. It challenges me to think."

Building a new career

Looking at pictures of dancer Lo Pui Sze, swathed in white robes on stage, head thrown back, limbs flung forward, it is hard to imagine that the petite, mild-mannered 37-year-old was once a quantity surveyor calculating the cost of building projects.

Lo, who is now an associate artistic director of Odyssey Dance Theatre, tells Life with a gentle laugh: "I studied building and property management, but that was through a process of eliminating what I wasn't interested in. All the time, my passion was really dance."

While studying at Singapore Polytechnic in 1996, she joined the dance and cheerleading team. After graduating and starting work, she continued to take dance classes outside and perform.

Lo's journey towards becoming a full-time dancer began in 1999, when she met Odyssey's founder and artistic director Danny Tan.

Three years later, she joined Odyssey's Young Company, set up to ground budding dancers in proper techniques and skills. She would head down to dance after work at least thrice a week, and participate in the company's productions.

As the years passed, Lo found herself wanting to do more. So in 2007, she quit her job and joined Odyssey full time as a dance artist, to her family's consternation.

"They've seen me through 15 years of dancing, but still, they asked me to reconsider. They asked me: 'Why change what you've been doing? What's your next step?' The normal concerns you usually get."

After two years there, she was spurred on by her mentor Tan, who recommended her to join the master in fine arts (dance) programme at the Queensland University of Technology, where he himself graduated from.

"I decided to take a risk and invested my savings into taking the master's. I didn't think too much about what it cost as it's what I love to do and I didn't have a degree, so I thought about furthering my studies," she explains.

The two-year stint cost about $40,000.

She returned to Singapore in 2011 to complete her graduate project. After three years of performing, she was promoted to her current position last year.

As associate artistic director, she still dances, choreographs and teaches, but also helps with administrative work.

"As you mature, the works you perform will be very different. Certain works don't suit me as much as before," says Lo, who is married with a daughter.

She also feels young dancers now have more opportunities than before.

"There's a better understanding of arts and dance now and more support from people. Last time, the perception was that dance was a hobby, something you couldn't earn a living from. That is changing," she says.

"I hope we get to the point that Singaporeans realise dancers are no different from other normal workers. It is just a job that requires different skill sets and is not necessarily desk-bound."

Banking salary halved by switch

Most young professionals in the working world are obsessed with climbing the corporate ladder, but dancer Chua Chiok Woon did the exact opposite.

Just last month, the 27-year-old resigned from a banking job, where she drew a salary of about $4,000, to begin a career as a freelance contemporary dancer and dance teacher.

She estimates that the move has halved her income, though she hopes to take on more jobs in the coming year.

"There are quite a few dancers in the market now, so I don't know how much I can earn yet. It depends on how I pack my schedule," she says.

Chua is no stranger to dance, as she started dancing at the age of three and continued it through school. She has taken ballet classes and has ballet examination qualifications.

At her alma mater Nanyang Technological University, she and her friends joined contemp(minated), the school's contemporary dance club.

Upon graduation in 2010, she decided she did not want to give up dance.

"My friends and I wanted to keep improving as dancers and artists in choreography and producing.

"But we weren't qualified to join dance companies as we had gone through the academic route and we had to think about our careers," she says.

To that end, she joined Sigma, a semi-professional dance troupe comprising other working professionals who hold day jobs. The group has staged two black box shows since its inception in 2012.

"I continued ballet lessons and attended master classes. But because of work, I could never pursue dance with all my heart and soul.

"I felt it wasn't fair I couldn't put enough time into something I enjoyed so much," says Chua.

As she had studied banking and finance, she took on a marketing job at a local bank and stayed there for five years.

"I'd been feeling lost for 11/2 years. My mother could see I was not too happy working there. So she told me to leave and find something else I like to do. My friends were supportive too as they saw I was not suited for the corporate world," she recalls.

Chua now works freelance for dance companies which supply teachers to Singapore schools. She also dances with Sigma and teaches at ballet schools such as Joyful Steps and Rhythm in Upper Bukit Timah.

She says: "When I was working, I was already teaching dance on Sundays. And at the back of my head, I thought I could do this full-time... So I took that leap of faith."

IT engineer's purposeful life with dance

As the senior vice-president of sales and chief product officer in an IT firm, Aravinth Kumarasamy oversaw about 600 employees in 14 countries and had three secretaries at his beck and call.

The 49-year-old, who used to be received at the airport on business trips, found himself booking his own budget flights after becoming the managing and creative director of Apsaras Arts Company in 2013.

He took over the reins of the Indian performing arts company from its former artistic director and founder, Cultural Medallion recipient Neila Sathyalingam.

"I've definitely had to make some sacrifices in my lifestyle," he tells Life in an interview at the arts company's office at Goodman Arts Centre.

Around him, the wall is lined with photographs of the company's performances as well as a slew of accolades - he won the National Arts Council's Young Artist Award in 1999 and has under his belt awards from academies in India and his birth country of Sri Lanka.

Kumarasamy, who is now Singaporean, started training in the Indian classical dance form of Bharatanatyam when he was seven.

His mother sent him for vocal training as well as to learn the veena, an Indian stringed instrument.

For each, his training lasted about eight years.


    WHERE: Esplanade Theatre Studio

    WHEN: Sept 4 and 5, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $25 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: Go to www.apsaras arts.com

"It was just part and parcel of my life. Even in school, I knew I wanted to be a dancer. But there was no viable path, so I studied IT and took up a corporate job eventually," he recalls.

Shortly after civil war broke out in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, his family left the country and headed to Chennai, India, where he pursued a degree in music. In 1987, his father was posted to the World Bank in Jakarta and he came to Singapore.

"It took a while to establish myself. I played as a musician in a live orchestra, danced and created musical scores for choreography. Due to my background in both, I could 'hear' dance and 'see' music," he explains.

But all the while, performing remained as a "second job" for Kumarasamy, whose day job was a software engineer.

He rose through the corporate ranks to become the group vice-president of global banking solutions in IT firm Sungard.

In 2002, dance pioneer Sathyalingam asked him to succeed her as Apsaras' next artistic director and he agreed to do it in phases.

"We had begun efforts to transform Apsaras from a school into a performing arts company. So I led the process," he says.

The expertise in the corporate world gave him a leg up in running the arts group.

"I knew how to brand the organisation, to write proper papers to request for grants, to connect to sponsors and stakeholders, human resource procedures.

"All these are administrative work you have to do when you run a company," he adds.

And while he feels Apsaras has a "long, long way to go", he is proud of what the company has achieved so far. It has a roster of six full-time and 12 part-time dancers and does two new productions annually.

Two years ago, it staged Angkor, a story set in Cambodia that took Kumarasamy five years to create.

Next month, it will tackle Alapadma, a performance that blends Egyptian, Iranian, Chinese and Indian dance forms.

Kumarasamy, who is married to a preschool teacher and has a nine- year-old daughter, says: "Music and dance have given me a more purposeful life.

"In the corporate world, I didn't feel like I was making a difference. But here, even if it's a small showcase, you reach out to your audience and take them into a different world. You connect with their souls."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2015, with the headline From engineering to dance - dramatic career switches fuel growing Singapore dance scene. Subscribe