The Socio-Cultural Mediator
Part of the Invisible Diaries series:
Week 9 / Day 5
The weekend is here! Thoughts of restaurant choices boggle the mind as this would be the first weekend following the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions in the state of Victoria, Australia. This means restaurants are open, allowing up to 20 patrons at one sitting. We have not had the joy and privilege to dine out since late March. As a former food editor of a gourmet magazine, it’s really something to celebrate. Food writing and performing arts have been a part of my adult life and food is quite a big part of my life in general. This is something that has been ingrained in me by my parents. ‘Living to eat is more the privilege than eating to live,’ as my late father would remind us time and again.
The thing is, food does constitute a very large cultural make-up of our daily and even extra-daily lives. The cultural identity and social belonging with which food endows us is real, visceral and comforting, most of all. As the performing arts circle the globe, we sometimes forget that the performers who produce the artistic works are cultural and social beings in their own right. And sometimes these artists have been away from home for so long that the heart – or rather, the stomach – longs for a taste of home.
Bangkok street food vendor.
As an intercultural dramaturg, the call of duty sometimes goes well beyond the rehearsal studio and stage. In addition to being the conventional dramaturg – a contradiction in terms as each project demands different approaches to dramaturging anyway – I also play the role of cultural mediator, especially when touring a piece of work. My last journal entry illustrated my work with contemporary Thai choreographer Pichet Klunchun. My first project with Pichet was in 2011 and it was also his first major commission with Singapore’s national arts centre Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. As part of the commission, Bangkok-based Pichet and company dancers had the luxury of a four-week creation residency in Singapore that led to the premiere of the piece.
While Pichet has travelled far and wide as a performer, his dancers had slightly less experience living abroad, much less a long stint away from home. In the first week of their residency in Singapore, I got to know that one of Pichet’s dancers had been eating Singapore chicken rice every day for the past week. This dish is no doubt quite famous and rather delicious with its perfectly poached tender and succulent chicken, accompanied by a flavourful rice cooked with sweet chicken stock, ginger and scallions, served with thick soy sauce and a pungent chilli-garlic sauce. Thai cuisine has its own version of this street food. My suspicion was that Pichet’s dancer didn't quite take to most of the food offered in Singapore food courts as they were probably quite alien to her Thai taste buds. So, it was a quick tour to the ‘Little Thai’ in Singapore so that the dancers could get their home taste fix. As for the dancer who only ate chicken rice, she was very happy to find Thai food in Singapore, and, her morale quickly improved.
Thai-style Hainanese chicken and rice.
As the residency progressed, homesickness continued to take its toll with another of Pichet’s dancers coming down with a strange skin ailment. He was quickly taken to a dermatologist, but to no avail. The hives did not abate. Another dancer then came down with a strange, immobilising back spasm. It was so bad she could not get off the floor when she lay down. The arts centre’s chiropractor and masseuse were called in but she was still in pain for the next few days. We were about ten days away from the premiere, they had been in Singapore for the past three weeks. Pichet and I discussed the overall low morale of the dancers. He quipped they had been away from home for too long. So, how do we help? There were already frequent trips to Thai restaurants and Thai grocery stores to ensure they got their ‘home fix.’ We eventually organised a day outing to a famous Thai Buddhist temple in the suburbs of Singapore. We were lucky to meet the abbot himself who conducted a blessing ritual on the dancers and also spent time chatting with them. Things improved almost immediately during rehearsal and the premiere went smoothly (sans skin ailments and paralysing back pain).
Indeed, the intercultural dramaturg has to take on the role of a cultural mediator when working with multicultural artists. When culturally-steeped aesthetics and socially-bound performances are being dramaturged, the dramaturg has to pay attention to moderating and translating foreign aesthetics – the artwork in question – to local audiences (to use one example). At its simplest, this is done through the dramaturg’s notes in the programme or adding cultural, social or political context during post-performance discussions. Artists, however, do not exist just in the rehearsal studio and on stage. Cultural, social, and even socio-political moderation and translation should also happen in everyday life when the artist has to negotiate a foreign residency.
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.
Portrait photography is courtesy of LIM How Ngean.
Food photography used under the Wikipedia Creative Commons license.