We catch up with feted local choreographer, Albert Tiong, on his upcoming new creation for Asian Festivals Exchange (AFX), and share a few light-hearted moments with Silvia Yong, Associate Artistic Director of T.H.E. Second Company.
Albert, you started dancing only at age 21. How did you become a dancer?
Albert Tiong (AT): Simply put, I fell in love with contemporary dance. I was curious to find out how the body could be expressed through many layers of complex and intricate meaning. Eventually I followed my intuition and devoted myself to pursuing contemporary dance.
Did you have to make sacrifices to pursue this life?
AT: I was initially working in costume design but I gave that up for this practice. That was perhaps the biggest change. The other major sacrifice was time: as a choreographer, you have to be ready to surrender all your time to creating work. Despite this, the moments of sheer enjoyment and inspiration outweigh all the supposed sacrifices.
Where do you head for inspiration?
AT: It begins with music. Listening to a wide range of music creates scenes in my mind and triggers my imagination. Naturally this evokes certain emotional responses or feelings that I try to capture in my work.
I have this habit of researching titles of novels and recording them in a journal. For the copy I’m keeping right now I’ve collected about 60 titles so far? Recording these words provides a ready source of inspiration for the titles for my creations. I find this works in tandem with the music – once all the elements are in place, it adds a great burst of adrenaline to the process.
Tell us about your new creation for AFX with T.H.E Second Company.
AT: Picture a tornado: there’s the visible exterior where it’s chaotic and sweeps everything up in its path; move further in to the eye of the tornado, and it’s an oasis of calm. That’s exactly what happens on stage. I’m creating a space where the audience gets a sense of what came before, and what was left after – the chaos and the aftermath.
If you relate this to a person or a character, imagine someone quiet, seemingly reserved and keeping his thoughts to himself. What happens when he is provoked beyond what he can tolerate? He may transform into something different, unrecognisable. In a sense, what I’m looking to capture is that powerful shift – the moment where the energy is suddenly ‘switched on’, how it changes the entire situation.
Silvia, how is it working with Albert as T.H.E. Second Company’s Associate Artistic Director? Many years ago you were his dancer in a number of works.
Silvia Yong (SY): Well, I can now tell him what I want (laughs)! When I was a dancer in his pieces, I would work my hardest to fulfill his requirements and expectations.
AT: What expectations? I have no idea.
AT: Actually, even if Silvia hadn’t voiced these I would have held myself to my own expectations in terms of what I should deliver. I can’t claim to be a perfect choreographer. However the creation must at least meet my personal standards so that I can stand by it – I feel it’s the choreographer’s responsibility. Let’s put it this way: I can cook the tastiest dish to the best of my abilities, but it may not appeal to everyone. It doesn’t mean the dish tastes bad; it’s a matter of different appetites.
Today I would say I’m able to face honest criticism about my work. I’m not sentimental about past creations – if a piece is bad, it’s bad. I’m aware when I make missteps. Often it requires a period of private reflection in order to arrive at honest conclusions about the work.
Albert, how did you cast the dancers for your piece?
AT: I asked Silvia how many dancers I should cast, and she told me as many as I possibly could!
Silvia shared previously that she wanted the younger dancers to have the opportunity to work with you.
AT: Yes, I feel I’ve been duped into participating! I’m now at her mercy… (laughs)
Honestly it was not an easy decision to work with a larger group. There are eight dancers in my creation and coordinating different schedules takes a lot of effort. The question should be, from experience I could foresee these difficulties, why did I decide to go ahead anyway?
SY: Can’t it be a favour for a friend?
SY: [When we first discussed] he was meant to cast just four to six dancers and the rest would understudy. At some point, he decided to take in all eight dancers.
AT: I’m in my 40’s now and I’ve encountered all kinds of challenging situations. In the end I chose this option because I know the dancers, I’m aware they have been trained at certain standards and know they have abilities I can work with.
Silvia, do you think Albert’s temper has mellowed over the years?
AT: When she was my dancer in the past, she used to avoid me.
SY: I don’t really take his harsher words to heart. I’m the dancer who’s always in the corner practicising on my own, until I get it right.
AT: I have to admit: age really does mellow you out. I do still have occasional outbursts, but I think time has blunted the worst (laughs).
Interview by Adeline Loh. Photo by Bernie Ng. Catch a new creation by Albert, performed by T.H.E Second Company at the Asian Festivals Exchange (AFX)!