Part of the Invisible Diaries series:
Week 9 / Day 1
Today marks the easing of Covid-19 restrictions in our state of Victoria in Australia. This means we are now able to pay visits to restaurants and pubs, albeit food and beverage outlets are limited to 20 patrons indoors. Even art galleries and museums are getting ready to open their doors again, with new guidelines as to the number of visitors permitted at a single time – 20 for now. However, we are still advised to work from home wherever and whenever possible.
There is always the question from well-meaning friends and family of how I am coping with work since I am in the precarious field of arts and culture. The truth is, I have been working from home, and, to a large degree, working in isolation since moving to Australia in 2015. Before that, I was, of course, in the thick of the arts community in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and also working on dramaturgical projects in Singapore, Thailand and Cambodia. The comforting thought back then was that I could easily jet back home or to other countries, wherever the work was.
My partner and I first landed in Canberra in 2015 where he had a lucrative job waiting for him. The reality was that I had a tough time finding work opportunities in the arts in Canberra – not many opportunities for a dramaturg, and a dance dramaturg at that, who works predominantly with Southeast Asian contemporary choreographers. So, you could say that for me, the isolation started five years ago. All was not lost, happily, as it was in 2015 that the seed of an idea was born.
Dramaturgy was quite an alien concept in the Asian region. I was one of the fortunate few who started dabbling in it about 15 years ago when a good friend asked if I would ever consider dramaturging for dance projects. It was during my personal as well as academic dance research that I was slowly introduced to dramaturgy. First, as a concept that I read up, and it was indeed a very western concept. Then came an invitation in 2007 to dramaturg a small dance workshop commissioned by Singapore’s Esplanade Theatres on the Bay. We had a small showing at the end of the workshop, and I was hooked.
I realised I truly enjoyed my (undefined) role as dramaturg and I was hungry to do more, to learn more about dramaturgy – especially in dance – and what it means to be a dramaturg. I was fortunate that a premier arts institution such as Singapore’s Esplanade was supportive of the critical role of the dramaturg. I was also fortunate that this artistic recognition was commensurate with fees that a large institution could support. Hence my role as dance dramaturg grew steadily from project to project, with a steep learning curve. Always learning on the job, thanks to my generous collaborators – the choreographers with whom I worked.
Back to Canberra 2015, as I got dramaturgical work erratically, being slightly disconnected geographically with many of my regular colleagues and collaborators in Southeast Asia, I would laugh – sometimes bitterly – at the ridiculous situation I was in. I was a dramaturg who was isolated. Then my comic-desperate situation prodded a more burning question: exactly how many of us were dramaturgs in Southeast Asia, and subsequently in the larger region of Asia? Then it evolved to the question of how many arts practitioners were aware of dramaturgy? Or was it still an alien and daunting western notion?
I realised that part of my isolation at that time had made me want to seek out a community, a community of dramaturgs who are actually living and practising in the Asian region. I wanted to know if there were more like me out there. Around the same time, many regional artistic coalitions, alliances and networks were formed: Asian producers coming together to exchange and share professional experiences, playwrights meeting to share common political and socio-cultural narratives, the list goes on.
What if there was a call for arts practitioners who were interested in dramaturgy? Specifically, contemporary Asian arts practitioners who have engaged in dramaturgy in their own ways through their own socio-cultural, political and aesthetic contexts in the larger Asian region. After a week of intense thinking followed by several nights of intense proposal writing, the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network (ADN) was born in collaboration with Singapore’s Centre 42. All thanks to the Asia Centre Japan Foundation who funded our critical first three years.
On 23 April 2016, the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network had its inaugural symposium in Singapore. A total of 20 speakers from all over the Asia Pacific region met to discuss, debate, dialogue, discourse in panels, roundtables and working groups on the subject of dramaturgy. Because of our funding and sponsorship, we welcomed audiences for free. The speakers were as diverse in their nationalities as they were from different artistic fields. They came from Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka, and they worked as directors, choreographers, curators, educators, (dramaturgs even!) and writers, who worked in theatre, dance, visual arts, community theatre, multi-disciplinary arts, the list went on. And, it was very clear from the onset that my colleagues set out to specifically invite not just dramaturgs per se, but individuals who we thought were engaged or interested in dramaturgy on their own terms first and foremost or made sense of dramaturgy that would enrich their artistic work, and more importantly, their artistic process.
Over two days, we had six sessions looking at specific areas of dramaturgy. The highlight for me was a working group session where the responses to fundamental questions of dramaturgy were shared among us. One enlightening topic was the mere definition of dramaturgy, which yielded varied and productive meanings within the linguistic, artistic, socio-cultural and political contexts of our fellow speakers.
Indonesian dance curator Helly Minarti introduced us to some exciting notions of the dramaturg in Indonesian dance practice. Young Indonesian dancemakers would informally invite a person not unlike the dramaturg in whom she artistically confides. This person was locally known as a pendamping or a pengganggu in the Indonesian language or Bahasa Indonesia. The transliteration of the two words are exact opposites: pendamping refers to ‘companion’, ‘shadow’ or, even slightly romantic ‘kindred spirit’ while pengganggu refers to ‘interloper’, ‘disturber’ or even ‘interventionist’. However, both terms were infused with socio-cultural nuances where they both took on a more playful spirit. The idea here was that whether it was pendamping or pengganggu, this individual provided a critical sounding board, a feedback loop, if you like. While the role was taken to be a serious one theoretically, Minarti emphasised the importance of playful contradiction in the ‘companion’ or the ‘interloper,’ always offering counter-arguments and debates to the dancemaker’s points of view. This was something we held firmly that as dramaturgs we offered informed, critical counterpoints that would open up the artist’s line of thinking, providing more lines of thoughts, more provocations but always to support, to complement.
While the ADN project was thought of in isolation, because of a personal (and somewhat misconceived) idea of me working in isolation, we met at the inaugural symposium and found many like-minded artists who were – and still are – actively engaged in dramaturgy in their artistic process. The idea of dramaturgical thinking took root quickly in our discussions in the symposium. Australian arts activist, performance-maker and dramaturg David Pledger, together with his long-time colleague and fellow Australian, dramaturg, educator and researcher Peter Eckersall, championed the idea of dramaturgical consciousness that should permeate all aspects of performance production.
More than one person who attended that particular symposium has exclaimed that they now know they are not alone in this. The work of the dramaturg is inherently invisible on stage and the dramaturg has even been considered invisible only to the performance-maker. That does not mean she is alone and indeed never works in isolation. If anything, the dramaturg works side by side with someone or many ones, and even collaboratively.
Roundtable at the inaugural symposium of the Asian Dramaturgs' Network. (Photo courtesy of Centre 42.)
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 courtesy of LIM How Ngean.