Interview with Amy Len
Amy Len in conversation with Bilqis Hijjas
Tell me about how you started to dance.
I started when I was 16 years old, when the local Chinese community associations in Malaysia were very active. The Kwang Tung association offered classes in modern Chinese dance, taught by Liang Li Juan, who had trained in Taiwan. Most of the other students were adults; I was the youngest. Before I started to dance, I hadn't been a very good student, but I think dance opened up something in me, a different way of understanding.
By the age of 18, I was passionate about dance. I started choreographing for Chinese dance competitions. I learned by watching Ms Liang; I would discuss structures, ideas and music with her.
In the mid-90s I met a lot of other young people in Malaysia who were excited about dance: Loke Soh Kim, Choo Tee Kuang, Judimar Hernandez, Aida Redza, Anthony Meh, Ng Mei-Yin. We started doing projects together. Some had just come home from overseas, with lots of inspiration. I learned a lot during those years.
How did you begin contemporary choreography?
The first work I made which I would call a contemporary work, and not a modern Chinese work, was 'Another Day, Another Night', in 2004. And I made a solo for myself, 'Wall', in 2006.
In 2011 I became pregnant, and my son was born in 2012, so those years were quiet for me as a choreographer. As my son becomes more independent, I am able to return to dance. Now I am planning a full-length work for 2016. I will spend this year in preparation. I want to enjoy the process of choreography, and to emulate those film directors who spend years completing a single work. And I don't want to choreograph just for the sake of it; I want to try other approaches, ones that I'm not sure will turn out, and have more time to do research.
What is your favourite of your own works?
You work hard with all your works, and every work is like a child. It's difficult to choose a favourite! 'No Exit' has always received the best responses. When it was performed at the No Ballet competition in Ludwigshafen in 2010, Susanne Linke, who was one of the judges, said that she liked it. We didn't get into the finals, which could have been because of the lack of experience of the dancers, but also because of the costume. It looked rather like a tutu, and the judges questioned why I put my dancers in tutus for a competition called No Ballet! But this was a notion I couldn't accept, because in my culture we have no tradition of tutus. When we performed 'No Exit' in Guangzhou the audience said the costume looked like an ostrich.
What other encounters have you had with German contemporary dance?
In 2007, Goethe-Institut Kuala Lumpur invited German choreographer Ben Riepe to work with Kwang Tung. We made a mixed bill; I was rehearsal assistant in his choreography, and he was mentor to my choreography. Ben's very creative. He thinks on the spot, and he can adapt quickly to the abilities of less experienced dancers. When we discussed my work, he would say, "Does it work? Do you like it? If you don't like it, cut it out. You have to be bold. Try things that you want! You don't have to fix things so early on. "
And I like working like that, having the time to change things. Many of the works I make for Kwang Tung are not so precisely fixed; they allow the dancers to respond in the moment, within a framework. Like in 'No Exit', there's a fighting section, but I just gave the dancers instructions about how to build the energy, the dynamic that I wanted, not the exact movements.
In 2013, we had another artist from Germany in residence at Kwang Tung: Brigel Gjoka, from the Forsythe Company, again with the support of the Goethe-Institut. In Brigel’s work, I saw the precision that he demanded, in the movements and timing, and how such precision can have an impact. I also saw how tightly the lighting and the sound connected. Some of this had an impact on the next work I made, 'Beyond the Blue'. Although I wasn't very satisfied with the ending of that work; after all the precision, I wanted to go back to emphasising my own organic style, and there was more room for development.
I feel the Kwang Tung style is very recognisable. What would you say the Kwang Tung style is?
Do we have a style? When you work with the same dancers for so long, I guess you know what they can do, and the work grows out of our chemistry together. I didn't grow up with a theorised system for dance, because I acquired my dance training piecemeal. Later, from reading books about dance, I gathered the theoretical basis of working with space, flow, time. But for me, art is from the heart. It is what the artist wants to express. 'No Exit' was about exploring identity. 'Wall' was about something that is concealed. I don't think about line or design. I spend more time trying to create emotion than fixed steps.
How do you develop your work in rehearsal?
I usually start with an idea, which I don't always tell my dancers. I give my dancers tasks. For example: make a phrase about how you put your shoes on, or how far you can go slapping your own face. I give them the freedom to create, and then I pull it back to my own idea. I also teach the dancers phrases of my own movement, but then I encourage them to do it in their own style.
Early on, I worked frequently with James Lee, the independent film director. He gave me a lot of preparatory exercises, which are really drama exercises, and these had a lot of impact on the way I work. I like seeing the effect these exercises have on dancers.
How is your artistic life different now that you're a mother?
It's easier to make me cry! Even just by saying the word 'life'. I have really enjoyed growing up with my son, and the interesting things I've seen in his movements and responses. I love the opportunity to appreciate simple movements, which as a dancer you tend to forget. As a choreographer, well, if you think that the Kwang Tung style is dark, then maybe from now on it won't be so dark.
And being a mother makes me appreciate the freedom of my own childhood, and the impact it had on my artistic life. You need space to express the things you have to say. And I have had the space, until now, except that which my child takes away!
How do you balance being a choreographer and being an artistic director responsible for a company?
Someone advised me recently that I should leave Kwang Tung to go off and do my own thing. But I find meaning in managing Kwang Tung. And I think being an independent artist would be more difficult, because I would have to find dancers and a venue. I could work with non-Kwang Tung dancers, but I would need so much more time. Although everything in the arts takes more time, should take more time. It's not fast food! When you do something, you have to be focused on it. And I still want to help develop more choreographers and dancers through Kwang Tung, because I feel this kind of platform in Malaysia is limited. I have been given an opportunity, so why not use it?
As a mid-career choreographer, what do you feel you need right now?
I want to be able to reach international audiences, not for the prestige, but because I feel like I should have reached a level when I can speak an international language. To have audience members from different backgrounds appreciate your work is very validating. I think international exposure would push me to go further as an artist, to see my own work in the context of other people's work. And certainly international recognition would be good to get the attention of our government and the Malaysian corporate sector!
Translation assistance by Tan Bee Hung