“With contemporary dance, you can’t always put your finger on why it speaks to you. That’s the most interesting feeling!”
A former Electrical Engineering graduate turned contemporary dancer, Anthea Seah is no stranger to dipping her toes in new fields and following her gut. This year, the feisty dancer and emerging choreographer joins Festival Director Kuik Swee Boon as co-curator for Dance at Dusk, a free outdoor contemporary dance performance at the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.
She candidly chats with us on the curatorial process, the differences between physical and theatrical dance works, and what it’s like explaining contemporary dance to our local taxi uncles.
This is the first time you’ve undertaken a curatorial role. What has the process been like?
As a choreographer and dancer, I prefer to start with things being very “closed” in the beginning. I will distance myself from external perspectives to identify what I want to express first and foremost.
As a curator, you need to consider the audience a lot more and articulate your choices. Why do you put two works together? You also consider how you can nurture an audience’s tastes, bring out reactions and explore different perspectives.
Having to explain my programme choices and consider differing viewpoints from Swee Boon was an eye-opening learning experience. We eventually agreed upon a programme that would fit both our artistic objectives and the logistics of the space.
Was the outdoor setting at the Esplanade a challenge for you?
In an indoor space, you can define the world of the work entirely. When it’s an outdoor stage, there are many elements you can’t control, from how the light falls, to the elements beyond the stage.
The obvious approach would be to select loud and attention-grabbing works. But I went with my instincts and chose works that I had a genuine connection with, because I believe the same meaningful impact can translate to a wider audience.
The first work, an excerpt of Organised Chaos by Swee Boon and resident choreographer Kim Jae-Duk, has toured many countries. What’s special about this edition?
When I first watched Organised Chaos, it was almost too frenetic and chaotic. Over the years, through numerous versions performed on tour,,the work has become a lot more refined in the way it delivers its motifs and messages. As an exaggerated version of life, it offers some of the strongest and most compelling imagery amongst T.H.E’s work.
One can feel how far the piece has grown through dancer Brandon Khoo’s performance in each iteration. Organised Chaos was one of the first works Brandon performed in after joining T.H.E in 2015. In his earlier performances, he took a highly physical approach to the role; now, he has added nuances and quirks that bring a layered intensity to the work. I think his performance is one to look out for in this show.
This is also one reason why dance companies greatly value re-stagings of work. The process of revisiting familiar roles helps dancers deepen their craft and stage confidence. In turn, it allows the audience to discover new elements in the work. With a diverse mix of audiences visiting the Esplanade Outdoor Theatre, restaged works allow us to create a balanced programme that is accessible yet able to offer unexpected surprises.
What attracted you to the second work selected, She’s Chinese and I’m Twenty Five, choreographed by Malaysian artist Lee Ren Xin for T.H.E Second Company in 2014?
I’ve chosen an excerpt from a work that centres on female identity. I think there aren’t enough works out there created by female choreographers that celebrate femininity.
The piece is theatrical yet smart: it gets you thinking about the subliminal messages tucked within. It’s a quietly impactful piece. With contemporary dance, you can’t quite put your finger on why a work speaks to or unsettles you. That’s the most interesting feeling!
How do you think these two pieces work together?
Generally, most people have a misconception that contemporary dance is like ballet, or is something too avant-garde that they won’t be able to understand. For newcomers, attending a formal show can be an intimidating experience. Through Dance at Dusk, we want to introduce first-time audiences to contemporary dance in a stress-free environment. Even if the themes aren’t immediately understood, we’ve created a programme that allows audiences to enjoy different forms of contemporary dance.
One strand of contemporary dance is very physical, where the body comes first. Concepts are expressed in abstract ways entirely through the body: for instance, through patterns in body movement, or through everyday movements such as walking or sitting, presented in either a heightened manner or a deconstructed form. Organised Chaos could be considered a type of physical contemporary dance.
Another form of contemporary dance can be described as theatrical. Theatrical works use a variety of devices to convey ideas (not just the body) and includes elements like speech, music and comic timing. The movements usually follow an internal logic that the viewer can easily identify and follow. I think Ren Xin’s She’s Chinese and I’m Twenty Five brings these ideas together well.
Ultimately, we hope the performances leave a lasting mark, and resurface in the viewer’s mind to resonate at different points in their life, or to widen their perspectives on a particular issue.
How would you explain what contemporary dance is to the general public?
I would say contemporary dance is the bodily expression in relation to a current context. Its definition depends on the time, place, situation, person, culture. For example, to a tribal dancer improvising for a ceremony, that may be their contemporary dance. But to a foreigner watching from the outside, it is not. It boils down to the meaningful experience that you glean from the dance.
In a city like Singapore, contemporary dance can mean many things because there’s a wide range of cultures and experiences to relate to. For me, contemporary dance is my own style that’s constantly evolving as my vocabulary expands with experience.