Musings of an Intercultural Dramaturg
Part of the Invisible Diaries series:
Week 9 / Day 4
Being born of Chinese descent in the Malaysian pluralistic society sets you up for certain kinds of socio-cultural, political and even aesthetic negotiations. Made up of about 67% Malay, 25% Chinese, and 7% Indian ethnicities (2011, www.dosm.gov.my), the potent cultural mixing and mingling – not to mention the postcolonial racial and cultural politics that have been rife since Malaysia’s independence in 1957 – resulted in most Malaysians being able to navigate multicultural relations in their daily living.
I won’t go into details here as enough has been academically written on Malaysian multicultural society, but I wanted to point this out to set the stage (literally, even) on how the performing arts community is made richer and complex due to the myriad cultural and aesthetic practices that permeate our performance practices, especially contemporary performance. Case in point is yours truly. While stumbling along the early days of being the novice dance dramaturg, I was also pursuing my doctoral studies at the National University of Singapore, where the island state of Singapore also informed my performance practice along multicultural and intercultural lines.
Singapore’s national arts centre Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay played a huge role in shaping my intercultural dramaturgy practice. In the early days of its very own annual dance festival, Esplanade was focused on and invested in commissioning Southeast Asian contemporary choreographers. One such artist is Thailand’s Pichet Klunchun, most famous on the global stage for his lecture-performance with Jérôme Bel, Pichet Klunchun and Myself (2007). Presently, Pichet is so much more than that much-circulated performance, having progressed in his own dance company to innovate and contemporise classical body techniques to present striking performances. There was always a clear mission and vision to Pichet’s choreographic experimentation, which is to develop his classical Thai dance drama Khon into his own performance signature.
I was fortunate to have been involved dramaturgically in Pichet’s works in 2011 (Black and White (Khon) and in 2016 (Dancing with Death). Full disclosure: both of these dance projects were spearheaded by Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, which allowed me (along with Pichet and his dancers) the luxury of time, space and finances to create, workshop and process.
Pichet Klunchun speaking about his body technique research, in a project which I had the privilege to co-curate. Called Jejak-Tabi Exchange, Southeast Asian performance practitioners were invited to share their contemporary practices and performance knowledge. The project featured panel discussions, forums, works-in-progress showings and workshops, with performances as a bonus.
More info: https://www.facebook.com/jejaktabiexchange Picture taken from Jejak-Tabi Exchange Facebook archives.
The question still arises as to how a Malaysian-Chinese dramaturg – albeit familiar with intercultural works – would be proficient in dramaturging a contemporary Thai choreographer, who in turn, is trained specifically in Thai classical movements? Again, the luxury of time and space provided a great foundation, an embodied foundation to a certain degree. My first project with Pichet began formally began in April of 2011, when I spent five weeks in Bangkok, observing Pichet’s classical regime, creation process, innumerable conversations during meals, during studio breaks, and, informal lectures by the choreographer on the finer points of Thai classical performance. It was only much later, in August/September 2011 when I spent another month with Pichet and his company in the studio fine-tuning that particular performance.
As I understood it, my role as dramaturg slowly changed and morphed. I was initially a student trying to absorb as much as I could on the finer points of classical Thai performance, then turning to my journalism training to ‘interview’ Pichet on his aesthetic, social, cultural and political background. Later on, I would draw more into my embodied experiences as an (intercultural) physical performer to engage with Pichet in his workshop and creation periods in the studio. Yet, the constant was the investigative line of asking questions. My request to Pichet was always that he need not respond or reply to my questions immediately – there are times when I would, however, press for one. And to cap it all off, it was always me observing, watching, taking notes, perhaps taking a leaf from performance ethnography. More recently, my Asian Dramaturgs’ Network co-director Charlene Rajendran has been advocating ‘deep listening’ as a vital tool in dramaturgy: the ability to listen to what is said during conversations between dramaturg and artist, to make meaning of what is being said, implied and expressed, to help dramaturg even more deeply.
Pichet (far left) in performance with his dancers in a piece called “Tam Kai” (2013), an experimental movement piece devoid of classical gestures. Pichet’s company dancers had to ‘re-learn dance’ as they were solely trained in classical Thai dance, and, did not have much exposure to contemporary movement prior to joining Pichet. Picture courtesy of Chang Theatre, Pichet Klunchun.
Malaysian-born LIM How Ngean has been actively involved in the performing arts for 30 years, practising in both Malaysia and Singapore. He has dramaturged dance for the Singapore Arts Festival and Singapore’s Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, with critically acclaimed Singaporean choreographers Daniel Kok, Joavien Ng, Kuik Swee Boon and Ming Poon, and Thailand’s Pichet Klunchun and Phnom Penh-based Amrita Performing Arts. In 2016 How Ngean founded the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network (ADN), a platform for critical exchange on dramaturgy among dramaturgs and performance-makers in the Asian region. It has had five successful symposiums and conferences since 2016. ADN organised its first dramaturgy laboratory in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, in September 2018 in collaboration with Cemeti Institute for Art and Society. In 2018, he worked on a transnational curatorial performance project called Jejak-Tabi with co-curators Akane Nakamura (Japan) and Helly Minarti (Indonesia), which presented Asian contemporary performers specifically in Asian cities. How Ngean was conferred his doctorate degree in 2015 from the National University of Singapore with his thesis entitled Choreographic Modernities: Movement and Mobility in Southeast Asian Contemporary Dance. He now resides in Victoria, Australia.
Headshot photography is courtesy of LIM How Ngean.