Victoria Chiu

Interview with Faith Tan

Faith Tan, producer and programer from Singapore’s da:ns Festival in conversation with Tanzconnexions Editor, Jala Adolphus.

In recent years, have you seen a shift in the relationship to dramaturgy in dance in the Southeast Asia region?

Within the scope of the past 10 years, I feel there are shifts in dramaturgical thinking in varying degrees amongst artists in this region. These may stem from movements and developments within several areas of contemporary dance and choreography here. For instance, dance as a form has expanded and contemporary artists here are no longer bound to the tradition of dance being silent ‘perfect’ moving bodies on stage. Within these open and rich possibilities of dance and choreography, the inner flow and logics of the dramaturgy emerging from their work expands to complex considerations, such as in codification and translation within their works. For example, you see this in the practice and work of choreographers like Eisa Jocson from the Philippines, where her body itself serves as a interrogation of gender politics and power relationships, or Daniel Kok from Singapore, whose works are concerned with relationality aesthetic and choreography in performance. The audiences’ decoding and gaze become one of the critical layers shaping the performance, so I’ve observed their dramaturgies also take into consideration the different cultural contexts of the audiences watching. The region of Southeast Asia also has a strong traditional of classical dance, where artists like Pichet Klunchun from Thailand and Eko Supriyanto from Indonesia are creating contemporary movement vocabularies and methodologies that expand from their classical training, with dramaturgies negotiating both traditional and contemporary codes.

Has this impacted or echoed in your programming?

As dramaturgical thinking within contemporary dance becomes more fluid and complex, one of the key initiatives I’ve put formally in place for new dance works we produce or commission at Esplanade is to make a dramaturg available to an artist, should they like to have one. When I first started programming dance, about 13 years ago, I recognised that most choreographers didn’t formally include a dramaturg in their creative team because either they were not familiar with what the role was, or they did not have budgets that could incorporate the cost of another person in the production. Most artists might have a trusted person they would turn to informally for feedback or discussions, but seldom would they appoint a singular person to focus on the dramaturgy of their work.

Introducing this idea to choreographers has been a delicate process of making sure the choreographer and the dramaturg are compatible and interested in working together, and it’s been useful to also set out an understanding of how the dramaturg would be involved in the process, which varies greatly depending on the artist’s needs. I’ve found almost all of these works have benefited from the inclusion of the dramaturg, who I’ve seen helps facilitate a rigorous process in the creation - a strong thinking partner aiding the artist in deliberating and working out the logics within the dramaturgy, and a key resource in provide wider contexts and perspectives to understanding their own work. This is not to say that all dance productions must have a dramaturg. There are works where the function of dramaturgical thinking is shared well between the collaborators in a work. But particularly where the choreographer is mostly working independently in creating a work, or is performing in the work, I’ve seen how useful the dramaturg can be in such productions.

It’s also important to understand that the pool of working dramaturgs in dance is very small in our region. Over the past 10 years in Singapore, there have been some initiatives to address this. For instance, at Esplanade, we organised a mentorship programme in 2012 with the aim to give aspiring dramaturgs an introduction to the role. Participants were attached to a dramaturg working on the creation of a dance production. In April this year we are presenting in Singapore, together with Centre 42, the first Asian Dramaturgs’ Network Symposium. This is a gathering of dramaturgs from around Asia who will map and connect the region’s dramaturgical expertise, knowledge and practices. This is an important step in building knowledge and resources for dramaturgy and the role of the dramaturg within our region.

Looking ahead, where do you see the relationship between Southeast Asian artists and dramaturges heading?

I think it’s headed in a positive direction. I see artists maintaining long term relationships with dramaturgs they have worked with. For example Daniel Kok and Choy Ka Fai work regularly with Tang Fu Kuen, Eko Supriyanto is working with Arco Renz on their second production together, and Pichet Klunchun and Amrita Performing Arts from Cambodia have worked with Lim How Ngean on several productions. The working relationship between an artist and dramaturg can be such an intimate process, so if both parties worked well together, it’s natural they would want to continue that relationship. This being said, a key challenge is the sustainability of the dramaturg’s role in the region. In most countries in South East Asia, dance productions do not receive adequate funding, and thus choreographers may not be able to fund the role of a dramaturg in their projects. This is where many artists and producers like myself are looking to identify more networks and institutional partners to help co-produce and contribute to costs together in the hopes of establishing stable sources of funding dance creations so that artists can afford more resources on their productions.

Do you see the potential for institutions and programers to play a significant role in this trajectory?

Yes it’s critical for institutions and funders within Asia to recognise the importance of this field and actively provide resources to support its development. Otherwise it will not be possible for the formalised role of the dramaturg to be sustainable. Without more platforms focus on dramaturgical thinking and practice, the development of this field will progress at an ad-hoc and slow pace. In addition, a majority of what has been documented and discussed of dramaturgy, dramaturgical thinking and the role of the dramaturg within dance has been recorded from the situation in Europe and America, and within this critical discourse, the voices from Asia are largely missing. Dramaturgs have valuable intimate views and knowledge of the artists’ process and practice in this region. They transverse between theoretical knowledge and practical work, and should be given more funding and platforms to develop their research and documentation.

It’s also interesting to note that some dramaturgs working in this region travel widely, often working with artists and institutions across Asia, with networks globally as well. This means that dramaturgs also become key carriers and interpreters of knowledge and can be instrumental in establishing valuable connections, playing a critical role in shaping contemporary dance in Asia and beyond.

Faith is a producer and programmer at the Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, the national arts centre of Singapore. Having joined the centre shortly after their opening in 2002, she has been part of the pioneering team which created and established the arts centre's programmes and festivals. In 2006, Faith launched the Esplanade's da:ns festival, a large platform which annually presents over 10 stage productions, 50 workshops, and a wide range of free dance performances and experiences. Under her care, the festival has presented artists such as Batsheva Dance company, Sankai Juku, Wayne McGregor and Jerome Bel, co-produced works by Sylvie Guillem, Sidi Labi Cherkaoui and Akram Khan, and commissions and provides residencies for 2-3 new works each year by artists working in Asia, such as Pichet Klunchun, Hiroaki Umeda, Amrita Performing Arts, Jecko Siompo and Choy Ka Fai to name a few. In this area, Faith is seeking more partners to support work from Asia.
Last year, Faith initiated a new annual platform da:ns lab which facilitates workshops for dance practitioners to reflect on and deepen their practice and process.

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