Two's company

Dance duos are making waves in Singapore's dance scene, with at least three groups popping up

They say it takes two to tango.

And while that saying has dubious connotations, it seems like dance duos are definitely making positive waves in the scene here.

At least three dance duos in Singapore have popped up in the past year, with one making a re-appearance after laying low since 2008.

Ah Hock & Peng Yu, comprising choreographic pair Ix Wong and Aaron Khek, was active in the early 2000s, until an illness caused them to lay low.

They will make a return to the scene next month for the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival with their piece, Skin Tight.

Hip-hop dancer Sufri Juwahir and contemporary dancer Sheriden Newman are finding common ground as duo Soul Signature. Both were former dancers from dance company Maya Dance Theatre.

Lastly, dancer-choreographers Christina Chan and Aymeric Bichon make up the quirky four-month-old group, Dance Me A Sheep.

The story goes that Chan had persuaded Bichon to leave France and join her at the Singapore dance company, Frontier Danceland, based on a gut feeling.

Do good things come in pairs? The Straits Times speaks to these three duos to find out.

Mixing love and passion

Two cultures collide in Soul Signature, a collective set up by dancers Sheriden Newman and Sufri Juwahir.

Newman, a 28-year-old Australian dancer, grew up learning ballet from the age of four. She switched to contemporary dance at 16, attending the New Zealand School of Dance and then the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane.

Sufri, 33, a hip-hop dancer, turned a secondary school hobby into something more serious when he picked up contemporary dance during national service. In 2008, he joined Singapore dance company Maya Dance Theatre, picking up skills in Indian classical and bharatanatyam dance.

They met in 2010 in Canberra, when Newman became involved in a project with Maya. A year later, she moved to Singapore to join the company full-time.

They have both since left Maya - Sufri in 2014 and Newman last year.

But what remains intact is their relationship - they started dating in 2013 - and a desire to work together professionally. Soul Signature was formed in June last year to see where their combined dance expertise would take them.

Their experience in the various disciplines has led to a diversity in the types of dancers who want to work with them. They have had hip-hop dancers and bharatanatyam dancers wanting to learn contemporary dance, for example.

"Because of our training and exposure to different dance forms, we're trying to find the balance among all these and what we can deliver with our bodies. But as time goes by, I think Soul Signature is more about building relationships and connections with people than about any form," says Sufri.

"And out of that, the style of the dance comes with its own signature vocabulary that we don't have to impose," adds Newman.

Significant projects they have worked on include their first "coming out" performance in January, titled Reverberate.

They were also in Bandung, Indonesia, in August to conduct contemporary dance workshops and perform for dancers in the community.

The name Soul Signature comes from their belief that "dance is not just about your technical ability, but also about your soul" and that a person's signature style can come out of "expressing oneself to the fullest potential and connecting with others".

It also happens to have the same initials as their first names.

After five years of working together, it seems that their different styles have rubbed off on each other.

Sufri says: "The nature of my movement is closely related to hip-hop, where everything is staccato and centred. But when Sheri moves, there's a lot of length in her movements. I'm trying to understand how I can move in that way."

His sense of musicality and playing with rhythms, a signature of hip-hop, has also inspired Newman.

The couple estimate that 60 per cent of their time this year has been spent on individual projects, but hope to do more Soul Signature work in the future.

They also have plans to turn Soul Signature into a full-fledged company one day.

For now, they are still learning to leverage on each other's strengths and weaknesses - Newman is better at doing scheduling and figuring out logistics, while ideas come faster for Sufri - and balancing work with their personal life by remembering to spend quality time together.

And at times, there are clashes.

Sufri says: "Sometimes our ideas are from two different worlds. We try to understand each other and find that in-between, which can be a struggle. But disagreements are essential - we should not avoid them because we can actually learn and discover more through having them."

Adds Newman with a smile: "It's like any normal relationship."

A return to fantasy for dance collective

Everything about dancer-choreographers Christina Chan and Aymeric Bichon and their collective, Dance Me A Sheep, screams quirky.

Their first encounter was in France in January last year, where Bichon, 26, is from.

They danced together in a piece and after that project ended, Chan asked him to join her in Frontier Danceland, a contemporary dance company in Singapore.

He packed his bags instantly.

On making that decision, Bichon says "it was about fighting my fears of the unknown and discovering something new".

Both have since left the company and, in August this year, formed Dance Me A Sheep to create dream-like choreographic compositions together.

The group was initially named Asteroid B-612, inspired by the philosophical tale The Little Prince by French author Antoine de Saint- Exupery. It was the name of the prince's home planet.

Dance Me A Sheep (a theme based on the same book) was used in the URL of the duo's website. It caught on with people better and the name has somehow stuck.

Chan, 28, says the name reflects the more dreamy nature of their work. "It's about returning to fantasy, which is not really a trend in contemporary dance. We wanted to move away from realism, which can sometimes represent real life even more closely. We felt it was a fitting way to approach our work."

Pint-sized Chan is a celebrated name in the Singapore dance scene. Besides Frontier Danceland, where she was a company artist and rehearsal director, she also created works for the Singapore Dance Theatre.

Before moving to Singapore, Bichon had studied at the music school of the Conservatoire de Paris and worked with choreographers such as Akram Khan.

As a duo, Chan and Bichon have worked on six projects so far, including choreographing a work for Lasalle students as part of the Esplanade's da:ns festival in October. (With every creation they make together, Chan gives a Bichon a hat to mark each creation and thank him for sharing his mind with her.)

They are currently in Ghana, Africa, performing and conducting workshops, but they still continue working on solo projects as well.

Deciding to work together was a no-brainer, says Chan. She says: "I've been creating so much in the past few years and it's quite lonely as a creator because you just do your own thing.

"Working in a duo, if you have an idea at midnight, you get to send a text to somebody who will not think you're a psycho."

She declines to reveal if she and Bichon are dating, claiming that it is better "to keep it mysterious".

But she does offer that some in the industry feel they have "the best chemistry" as dance partners.

As a pair, they have complementary qualities.

She prefers to learn by doing, while he is more visual and will often sketch out ideas and costumes early in the creation process.

Even when it comes to fighting, they remain offbeat.

Calling fighting during rehearsals "an epic time-waster", Chan says the pair devised an efficient system of communication called "pick flower or dog sh**".

She says: "If I desperately want to say something and it is a good thing, I'd say 'pick flower'. But if something is not worth fighting for the next two hours about, I'd say 'dog sh**'."

The person leading the rehearsal would listen to the feedback, but ultimately makes the final call, and they would move on.

The pair even have discussions while relaxing in a swimming pool. Chan says: "He said to me, 'You can't be busy and be creative at the same time.'

"I'm a kiasu Singaporean and a very systematic and organised person, but he's definitely made me realise that it's true - Singaporean artists create at such a fast pace and don't leave enough time to just be artists."

Duo make comeback

To many in the dance circle, collective Ah Hock & Peng Yu was an important part of the scene in the early 2000s.

Made up of choreographic duo and couple Aaron Khek, 43, and Ix Wong, 42, it received commissions performing for the Arts House, the Esplanade, the former Singapore Arts Festival as well as internationally during its active years from 2002 to 2008.

Khek's Chinese name is Ah Hock, while Peng Yu, Mandarin for "friends", referred to their multiple collaborators who often straddled different creative disciplines.

After 2008, the duo seemed to have disappeared. The Straits Times noted in earlier reports that it had disbanded.

But Ah Hock & Peng Yu lives on and will make a comeback next month with a show called Skin Tight. It combines dance with zentai (an art form involving fully covered bodysuits), taiji and butoh.

It will be performed on Jan 13 and 14 as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.

Speaking to The Straits Times via Skype from their Kuala Lumpur home, Khek says the two of them had never really stopped working, but laid low for the past nine years or so following a health scare.

In mid-2008, "when we were at our prime", says Khek, Wong collapsed two weeks before a show.

They found out he had acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or Aids, and he was hospitalised for three weeks, which caused a drain on their savings.

"Our bank account became zero. We had to relook our set-up and had to stop a lot of things we wanted to do," says Khek, the more gregarious of the two.

Wong recovered, but the following years were tough on the couple of 19 years.

Khek continued to work - he was the artistic director of the 2009 Singapore Night Festival and taught at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts - but would take a coach to Kuala Lumpur every weekend to spend time with Wong, a Sabahan, who lives there.

The pair met as fellow scholars at the prestigious Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts and were later members of Singapore dance company Arts Fission.

Despite the hard times, they never lost their ties to dance. Besides putting on small shows for free in the multi-purpose room of their condominium, they were recently part of Celestial Remnants, a music concert with dance elements, with T'ang Quartet at last year's Singapore International Festival of Arts.

But their low profile was a source of worry at first. "You get really scared that people will forget about you," says Khek, who was a recipient of the Young Artist Award in 2005.

"But even after almost 10 years, people were asking us, 'When are you coming back?' We were curious about that. We must have done something interesting or good before."

Wong and Khek will be performing alongside dancer Joey Chua in Skin Tight. In the style of Ah Hock & Peng Yu, all costumes are made in-house. The three will be clad in zentai suits designed by Wong, who calls himself a "self-taught tailor".

The 40-minute show, directed by performance-maker Andrew Ng, looks at what drives an individual to pursue anonymity and how one can transcend notions of identities that are imposed by society.

The jolly duo say they are not worried about what people may think about their upcoming show.

"We don't look at our past glory. We are very excited to present Skin Tight and we are just happy for people to come," says Khek. "We want to re-introduce ourselves to an audience who has not seen us before."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2016, with the headline Two's company: Dance duos are making waves in Singapore's dance scene. Subscribe