This edition of FUSE consists of articles contributed by artists who participated in Dance Nucleus' programmes in 2020.

This edition of FUSE consists of articles contributed by artists who participated in Dance Nucleus' programmes in 2020.


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da:ns LAB 2020

da:ns LAB Report Foreword by Shawn Chua

da:ns LAB Keynote Address by Tang Fu Kuen





ELEMENT#6 Viral Archives:

Study Notes

by Loo Zihan

ELEMENT#7 Report

by Chan Hsin Yee

Walking by Emma Fishwick

Post-Residency Reflections by Rebecca Wong

@whereismysapo by Ashley Ho

Choreographing Theory — Seven Fragments

On Kitsch by Sheryll Goh and Rachael Cheong

Projections, Paper Dolls, and Effigies by Jereh Leung

Finding Soultari’s Lenggang: Walking Otherwise

by Soultari Amin Farid

The Problematic Danseuse by Nirmala Seshadri












In our last edition of FUSE, we proposed for 2020 to be a time to

review our modus operandi and move towards alternatives based on

principles of sustainability, simplicity, mutual support and care. How

oddly prescient then, that COVID-19 struck so quickly following that

publication. If we were previously unaware of the precariousness of our

arts ecology and the vulnerability of an arts and cultural worker, there

is no excuse to be now.

With many events scheduled this year cancelled or postponed,

our team quickly shifted focus to redirect some resources as quick

responses to support the arts community. We launched a list of

initiatives that artists could engage in during the collective downtime.

This issue of FUSE features some critical reflections and notes from

our reading group, Jereh Leung and AWKWARD PARTY (Sheryll Goh

and Rachael Cheong) also share their motivations and processes behind

their projects as part of our Micro-Residency programme.

This year’s da:ns LAB became a space for artists to imagine and

propose new ways to consider and enact mutual support and care—

How to Dance When We Are All Ill. Shawn Chua’s introduction of the

LAB and a transcription of the keynote address by Tang Fu Kuen are

featured in this FUSE.

Notwithstanding the pandemic, there are things to celebrate too.

A number of our Associate Members have been able to present work,

some adapting their projects to adopt an online format: Bernice Lee and

Chong Gua Khee’s Tactility Studies: Pandemic Distances, Syimah Sabtu

and Sonia Kwek’s Where You Move Me Most in the Substation’s Septfest,

Amin and Nirmala’s double bill Failing the Dance in this year’s da:ns festival,

and our artists who presented at the festival’s Open Call —Dapheny

Chen, Syimah Sabtu, and Bernice Lee. Hwa Wei-An was in residency at

Rimbun Dahan, while Jereh Leung participated in the CRISOL Italy-Asia

Artistic Exchange and Network Programme that began in October 2020.

As 2020 draws to a close, Singapore is slowly easing restrictions

on social distancing and public gatherings, and artists are gradually

discovering new strategies for their projects and artistic practices. At

Dance Nucleus, we have just submitted our plans for 2021 and beyond

to the NAC. We look forward to rising to the challenges of the coming

few years, and to more tangibly meet the needs of the arts ecology.

Yours Sincerely,

Dance Nucleus

Daniel Kok

On Behalf of the Dance Nucleus Team


Hero image for da:ns LAB 2020 Co-Immunity: How to dance when we are all ill.

Photo by TheiKevin

da:ns LAB


da:ns LAB 2020

Produced by Dance Nucleus and presented by the Esplanade, da:ns

LAB is an annual workshop-seminar for artists and arts practitioners to

critically reflect on key issues surrounding their creative practice.

Co-Immunity: How to Dance When We Are All Ill was the 6th

edition of the lab, and took place from 9 –12 July 2020. Co-curated

by Daniel Kok and Shawn Chua, the lab was conducted online with 64

participants across Hong Kong, Manila, New Delhi, Singapore, Sydney,

and Taipei—the most ambitious and heavily attended lab yet.

With virology as a metaphorical framework for the lab, participants

were invited to play the role of cultural “doctors” to reflect

on what has been disordered amidst the global crises and health

emergencies. In this paradigm of illness, we review the precepts often

assumed of the dancing body, as one that is able-bodied, productive

and live. From there, participants explored how dance can operate

within the paradoxical framework of co-immunity; to develop infrastructures

of support and thicker relations of care, building resistance

and resilience across the different arts ecologies in the region.

A full report of the lab by Chan Sze Wei is available on The

Esplanade’s Offstage website.


Screenshot of da:ns LAB participants doing head massages.

Provided by Chan Sze Wei

da:ns LAB

Report Foreword

Shawn Chua

This article was written by co-curator Shawn Chua, detailing the overall focus of this

year’s LAB and the contexts that surround it. It was part of an information pack that was

shared with the participants prior to the event.

da:ns LAB 2020

Co-immunity: How To Dance When We Are All Ill

“Now might be a good time to rethink what a revolution can look like.

Perhaps it doesn’t look like a march of angry, abled bodies in the streets.

Perhaps it looks something more like the world standing still because

all the bodies in it are exhausted—because care has to be prioritised

before it’s too late.”

—Johanna Hedva

The world is standing still amidst transnational choreographies of movement

control orders, curfews and lockdowns. Governments implement

stricter measures to enforce social distancing, as an immunological

response to curb the spread of the global pandemic. As events, performances

and festivals are cancelled or deferred to an uncertain future,

many arts and cultural workers are left suspended in its wake. In these

extraordinary circumstances where we are unable to gather, to move,

and even to touch, dancers are faced with an impossible set of conditions—how

to dance when we are all ill?

While COVID-19 is a global health emergency, it also manifested

the symptoms of much longer socio-economic, political and ecological

crises, exposing complex systems that have already been chronically

ill. It painfully revealed the debilitating conditions and vulnerabilities

of being a dancer within a precarious arts ecology. In the region, the

Hong Kong protests are roiled by deep socio-political unrest while the

Australian bushfires warn of larger climate catastrophe. 2020 is in a

state of emergency. But these crises have demonstrated that recovery

in this context should not be a nostalgic return to the normal, because

the existing conditions of the ‘normal’ was what precipitated the crisis.

To dance in such times, we must recuperate the paradigm of illness,

reorienting some of the precepts that are often assumed of the

dancing body, as one that is able-bodied, productive and live. What

choreographies become accessible with the ill-bodied dancer, and can

this embodiment offer different strategies for navigating the crisis?

What remains live when our bodies are screened, and augmented by the

prosthetics of new media technologies? Amidst a contagion—a term

that etymologically denotes “together touching”— can we reimagine the

parameters of dancing together across social distancing, where other

forms of assembly are realised?

The restless ensemble of exhausted bodies is a symptom of the

precarious labour conditions that plague many arts and cultural workers.

It is time for us to take a break from the frenetic rhythms of production,

to slow down, and to deprogramme. By relinquishing our obsession

with the relentless metrics of productive output, we can rehabilitate



our working processes by recalibrating the conditions, protocols and

procedures to more sustainable modes that prioritise our creative practices

and wellbeing.

Inhabiting illness calls for a praxis of care that extends beyond

immunology. Immunological systems are predicated on the exclusion

of a threatening other—a foreign body. Instead of reinscribing the

xenophobic logic of immunitary nationalism, we aim to foster interdependent

networks of solidarity across borders. To reconcile this

immunological metaphor with the contaminations of community, we

will explore how dance can operate within the paradoxical framework

of co-immunity, to develop infrastructures of support and thicker relations

of care, building resistance and resilience across the different arts

ecologies in the region. Through a different kind of embodiment, we

might even feel the possibilities of a movement even as we remain still.

Shawn Chua is a researcher and artist

based in Singapore, where he is engaged

with embodied archives, uncanny personhoods,

and the participatory frameworks

of play. He has presented his research

at the Asian Dramaturg's Network, The

Substation, and Performance Studies international

(PSi), and his works have been

presented under Singapore International

Festival of Arts, Esplanade Presents: The

Studios, Amorph! Performance Art Festival,

and Panoply Performance Laboratory.

Shawn is a recipient of the National Arts

Council Scholarship and he holds an MA

in Performance Studies from Tisch School

of the Arts at New York University. He has

served on the Performance Studies international

(PSi) Future Advisory Board, and

currently teaches at LASALLE College of

the Art. Shawn is also a founding member

of Bras Basah Open School of Theory and

Philosophy and is part of the group that

runs soft/WALL/studs.


Photo of Jared Jonathan Luna with mask by Leeroy New.

Photo credit: Bunny Cadag

da:ns LAB

Keynote Address

Tang Fu Kuen

A few weeks before the LAB, participants were sent a recording of keynote speaker Tang

Fu Kuen’s address, which has been transcribed here by Chan Sze Wei. As he reflects on

the LAB’s theme, Fu Kuen offers a perspective that intersects between virology, biology,

and philosophy to consider the ambiguity of medical metaphors and the poor reputation

of viruses. Finally, he shares Jakob von Uexküll’s notion of the “Umwelt”—an indivisible

entity of organism and environment, in which organisms do not occupy their environment

but create it.

da:ns LAB 2020

Hello, everyone. I’m Tang Fu Kuen and I’m speaking to you today from

Taipei. I welcome all of you participants of da:ns lab, “Co-immunity: How

shall we dance when we are all ill.”

What a great title and a very difficult title. I should share that

this has been a big challenge to me. I was thinking, what is the real

function of making this keynote speech? Is it to provoke? And I then

took a back seat and thought about many questions. And of course,

these questions could only develop into even more questions to which I

have no answer. And I begin to think if seeking answers is what we are

tasked to do in this lab. I hope not. Rather, I hope that it is reflection,

sharing and a way of looking back to the past, in order to deal with

what we have now.

The kinds of hardships that we are struggling with right now,

and they are bound to increase in the coming months, I hope not

years or forever, but who knows? So answers is not what I can provide

to you. To be a provocateur is not something I’m very good at. So

neither the cheerleader nor the provocateur. I’m not so sure I could

fulfil those roles.

But rather today, I would like to share with you what I have been

reflecting on. I’ve been reading quite a lot in the past years on political

philosophy and it happens that a number of philosophers have written

from the perspective of immunology and pharmacology. Not just as

biology phenomenon but as socio-political theories on individuation

and community especially in the techno-sphere era. So amongst them,

for example, are Gilbert Simondon, Roberto Esposito, Peter Sloterdijk,

Bernard Stiegler, etc. I’m sure you can find plenty of these online

resources accessible to you, and it all really depends on your own

inclination towards the level of discourse and the kinds of language

you can engage in.

Today, I would rather choose to look at the trope of the contagious

malady which has been used through human history as a metaphor and

motif to represent describe and critique failures of the system by critics

of culture and politics. So the current COVID-19 pandemic is full of

examples that run the entire spectrum from profound to pathetic use

of these metaphors. And the fact that many metaphors are being used

have appropriated or borrowed them from the model and discipline

of evolutionary biology serves to underscore the difficulties that the

metaphoric mode of communication entails, as this has to move from a

figurative language to a scientifically-inscribed logos.

Okay, so now let’s get some facts straight from viruses. They are

basically quite misunderstood. They have been getting quite a lot of

bad press from everyone because we’ve been a bit ignorant perhaps

So basically, when you ask anyone about viruses all you can hear are



complaints. It’s disease this or disease that, infection this, infection that

and no one seems to have anything nice to say about viruses. Can

viruses be positive? So of course, to talk about viruses is easy, and it

would be a shame because we wouldn’t be discussing this right now

without them, right?

So, let’s get back to a bit of real sciences, what real science tells

us. Viruses. Viruses are the most ubiquitous life forms on planet Earth.

They are also the least understood. They live everywhere in nature

everywhere, both on you, and inside of you. Less than 1% are known

to be what they call “pathogenic.” But, many more are known to be

symbiotic or mutualistic or benign. So by “symbiotic” it means they

assist, these viruses assist the host. By “mutualistic” it means both host

and virus benefit from the association. And “benign” means we don’t

know what they do. In addition, viruses’ modus operandi of targeting

specific cell types and interrupting cells’ genetic functioning means that

they can be used to destroy certain cells, certain cell types selectively.

So for example, cancer or HIV. And as well, repair genetic damage in

others. So, next time someone asks you about viruses, you can tell him

or her the scientific facts and show a more proper acknowledgement of

how viruses actually work.

Now, these days, when people say something has gone viral,

“gone viral”, they almost always are using the term as a metaphor for

an event that touches a great number of people and news of which,

is passed from individual to individual especially via social media. As

metaphors go, it’s not so bad.

Of course there’s nothing particularly "virus-like” about microbial

infection. They’re quite different things. So yes, so a number of all these

horrible microbial infection-type diseases spread among individuals via

close proximity or physical contact. But, the term “virus” the etymology

actually comes closer to “vita”, Latin for “life force.” And so, it’s obviously

the better choice for representing any event, idea, or philosophy

that touches masses of people. So “vita”—virus coming from vitality.

More interesting, perhaps, is the somewhat neglected aspect of

viral disease metaphors cultural extrapolation. Now, viruses are not

designed to kill or damage their host. The point of a virus is actually life,

not death. Now, because viruses need living cells to reproduce overtime.

They have developed transmission strategies that make the finding of

living hosts quick and efficient. So ideally, a pathogenic virus will enter

a living system and have sufficient time to make many copies of itself

before it is eliminated by the host’s immunological defences. Now, the

virus survives and then the host survives, that’s the model. The problem

with pathogenic viruses especially those that hosts have not encountered

before is that the system’s effort to find and develop a means of


da:ns LAB 2020

Image from the Singapore glossary of What is the COVID Body.

Provided by Chan Sze Wei

neutralising the virus the state of the body is changed. And sometimes

beyond the point at which the body, especially weakened bodies, can

remain alive. Consequently, it is not the virus that kills. It is the body’s

reaction to the virus that kills.

At this point, I would like to go a bit sideways to talk about the

notion of “Umwelt.” So I’m moving a little bit from let’s say, how I’ve

explained the function of virus and how they work, which is a more,

let’s say, empiricist description into what is gradually a more subjective

description. Subjective because now we’re going into the perspective

of the virus.

So, “Umwelt”, it is developed by an Estonian biologist, Jakob

von Uexküll, a bit difficult to pronounce. Uexküll basically introduced

a new school in theoretical biology, which is called ethology. Now, in

contrast to the usual kind of what we call taxonomic approach of

classical theoretical biology, which we know, which consists in studying

living organisms according to their lineage and shared features, Uexküll

believes that one actually cannot know the organism without first observing

how it relates to its environment.

Now, a living organism is first and foremost defined by the specific

relationship it maintains with its environment, rather than by its specific



corporeal features. So instead of departing from a human point of view,

Uexküll tries to look through the eyes of the organisms themselves.

How do they see the world? What part of the world is meaningful to

them? What does this tell us about the organism itself? What counts, is

thus, less what organisms are, but more, where they are and how they

are. That is, how they interact with the environment in which they are

living in.

Now, according to Uexküll, organisms do not merely occupy

an environment, they create it. Their relation to the environment is

not a given but a constant development. Uexküll thus exchanges the

kind of static and passive view of taxonomic biology for one that is

much more dynamic and creative. This development does not occur

solely on account of the animal. It is not the case that the animal

is merely shaping its environment. But that the animal is likewise

shaped by its environment.

Right, so there’s something quite inter-subjective happening here.

Both animal and environment encounter each other in what we can

call a contrapuntal relationship of reciprocal determination. So in the

words of the French phenomenologist, Merleau-Ponty, the animal is

produced by the production of a milieu. A milieu, like the environment.

So the animal is thus a product, an effect of something it has produced

itself. Animal and environment make up an indivisible biological unity:

the “Umwelt” or loosely translated as milieu.

So what Uexküll has clearly offered us is not a mechanistic account

of nature but one that is intentional or expressive. Of course,

this appeal of the living organism towards the world can only happen

if the organism has the right physical features. So for instance, an

animal can only address the world in its liquid form, if it possesses

the physical capacity to extract oxygen from water. But thus, this does

not imply that the physical features of the organisms are the first and

only ground from which to explain “Umwelt.” So we can see that unlike

Darwin, Uexküll does not want to reduce the examination of the unity

of “Umwelt” to examination of the physical correspondences between

living organisms and its environment. So for example, animals with a

thick fur living in a cold environment. So instead, he wants to open it

up to an examination of how the living organism and its environment

relate through their ways of behaving and perceiving. That is to say,

their, let’s say, rhythmic postures, sounds or colours, in short, their

world of sensations and movement.

The COVID-19 virus is special but not for the reason that most people

think. Its infection of our bodies is nothing note-worthy as viruses normally

go. But what COVID-19 has spectacularly achieved is infecting our

machines of culture, economics, and politics, our everyday life on a global


da:ns LAB 2020

Photo credit: Raghav Handa

level, leaving none of us untouched. It’s a virus and it’s a meme, and in

order to reduce the inferred levels of mortality in at-risk individuals, our

societies have reacted in unprecedented ways. By mandating the shutdown

of economic and cultural activities, which then right, involves all of us in

the arts field, curtailing the individual by all means of mobility, regulations,

and policies. And increasingly, the legal rights of citizens, entering

thus, into discussions of the bio-politics. And by forcing both individuals

and family groups into physical isolation for an unspecified time interval.

Although, of course, every nation is anxiously opening right now as we

speak, albeit with caution.

So at this point, I don’t know how to really speak, what tenor I

should proceed. And I think I can only speak from a commonsensical,

if not, rather, boring, but nonetheless I hope, sensible way of reading

the situation since I cannot, in any way foretell the future. So, right

now, we’ll have to wait to see if these social reactions will sufficiently

mitigate the damage that the virus will inflict on human population.

In a moral sense, we have no choice but to endure, to endure them in

the hope that they will. But just as a body’s reaction to a pathogenic

virus can leave it in a weakened state, and so susceptible to other

infections that would not prove problematic had the virus not come

along, the economic, social, and cultural reactions that COVID-19 meme

has caused will leave our social bodies in a much weakened state. It will

take a long while, a substantial interval and sustained efforts for our

societies to recover from their reaction to this infection. Or maybe, we

never will. Who knows?

So in thinking about the legacy of COVID-19 especially in the

light of the past experience and knowledge that we’ve accumulated



from other pandemics, such as SARS and Ebola etc., that will likely also

happen again in the future. It will be important to remember that unlike

our bodies immune reactions, we are actually in control of our society’s

reaction to this and future infections. It is in our power to learn from

this infection, and so establish structures that will recognise the danger

and take steps to mitigate harmful social responses, both to future

pandemics and to other events of a holistically environmental nature

as they arrive.

Of course, this process is nothing more or less than an example of

cultural adaptation. As with all forms of adaptation, the key to success is

diversity. But, therein lies also the danger. The strategies that lead to successful

post-event diversification are unknown. Common sensibly, commonsensically

speaking, some lineages will remain more or less unchanged and continue

to pursue their old ways. Others will undergo rapid and profound alteration

to their approaches to life.

Now, success always belongs to whichever strategies work best for

whatever reason. Moreover, adaptations that offer an advantage, whatever

their origin and however slight, can eventually displace those that

don’t. Irrespective of the success the latter may have enjoyed previously.

So prior incumbency does not guarantee success in the aftermath of

a profound dislocation. As it is with nature, so it is with social factors

of economics, politics, and culture, humans, by their given capacity, can

do many things that are highly unusual, even unique. But by definition,

humans can never do anything that’s unnatural. Although, synthetic

biology has been proposing to radicalise that limitation. Hence, my own

personal interest in pursuing and reading up on the future according

to synthetic biology, but this is another matter, another day, we can talk

about this.

Now, due to the manner in which human cultures have responded

to COVID-19 infection, many of our very precious traditions, ways of life,

institutions, have, and to all intentions and purposes been suspended. It

is far too early to tell which will survive after the crisis has passed and

which will remain in whatever state. However, what one can say with

some degree of certainty is this, that aspects of tomorrow’s world may

be very different from yesterday’s world. And we already experience this

now, that the world has changed. So the challenges we’ll face in coping

with that world won’t end with our society’s survival. They’ll only have

just begun.

So on this note, rather, open and you know, how should I say… I

have no conviction about whether we, the world, the human race, will

collapse or continue in what ways, whatsoever I think we will just have

to find ways to keep surviving and then, to keep doing what we need

to do or think in what ways we can best contribute.


da:ns LAB 2020

So with this, I wish all of you in Taiwan, in India, the Philippines,

Hong Kong, Singapore, have I missed out any other—Australia! I wish

you all the best in this year’s lab and to take away some of these

reflections I’ve shared with you today into your own discussions. Thank

you, and all the best.

Tang Fu Kuen is Curator of Taipei Arts

Festival (TAF), a city-wide platform held

annually in summer (Aug to Sep) to

present contemporary local and international

productions. With SUPER@#%$?

as theme for its 22nd edition in 2020,

TAF is helmed by Taipei Performing Arts

Center (TPAC) which also runs the Taipei

Children's Festival and Taipei Fringe

Festival. Fu Kuen worked previously in

immaterial patrimoine in UNESCO (Paris)

and in SEAMEO-SPAFA (Bangkok). He was

sole curator of the Singapore pavilion at

53rd Venice Biennale, presenting artist

Ming Wong who was awarded Special

Jury Mention. As independent curator and

producer and dramaturg, he has worked

with multiple platforms across Asia

and Europe.



Viral Archives:

Study Notes

Loo Zihan

ELEMENT#6 Viral Archives took place from August to November 2020, and was facilitated

by artist/academic Loo Zihan. As a group, participants spent time considering the

performance of productivity in a pandemic and the building of a collective viral archive.

Here, Loo Zihan shares notes accumulated over the sessions.

ELEMENT#6 Viral Archives: Study Notes

From August to November 2020, I facilitated a small study group of

artists in a workshop titled Viral Archives. We convened six times over

a duration of the three months in-person and online with two main

intentions, the first was to share research methodologies in relation

to artistic practice, and the second to share a space where we could

unpack our experience of the lockdown due to COVID-19 earlier this

year. We started with a group of five participants and concluded with an

intimate session of three. Various participants joined and dropped out

and this was part of the evolving process—there was a sense of fatigue

from the onslaught of arts events internationally and locally that were

made available with remote online experiences, and we were appreciative

what time we could afford together in this study group.

The organizing philosophy of the group was modeled after Fred

Moten and Stefano Harney’s notion of black study that they proposed

in The Undercommons. They call for a kind of fugitive work that refuses

instrumentalisation, coming together in a space outside of the

university to consider ideas, philosophy, practice. When drafting up the

structure, I was also thinking a lot about the study of sociality. I wanted

to interrogate both the subject of ‘social studies’ in the Singaporean

education system and critique the relational turn of socially-engaged

practice in contemporary performance and art. Social studies was

often wielded in our education system as an instrumentalized form of

government propaganda in the 1990s. I wanted to investigate what

would a reconfiguration of social studies with an orientation towards

sociology bring about? Some of the provocations I posed in the first

session included: What does it mean to revisit the study of the social?

Who is counted in this sociality and how do we pay attention to what

is left aside? What is the relationship between the notion of study and

the gesture of practice?

With a desire to break out of habitual modes of engagement, I

invited the group to bond over food and to bring something they consumed

as support through the lockdown period to our first meeting. I

made small jars of achar (pickled vegetables and fruit) for everyone—

something I learnt how to make during the Circuit Breaker period. The

act of assembling achar became a monthly family activity that anchored

us and marked passing time. The sharing of these jars of achar with

my extended family and friends also became a way to demonstrate

affection despite the inability to meet in person. Achar was like a collage—each

batch will be different according to the flavour profiles of

the ingredients added. I have attached the recipe as an appendix to

this document, I would encourage you to try making some yourself.

Others in the group spoke of taking the opportunity during lockdown

to change their dietary habits. A participant brought flourless chocolate



cake that she learnt to make when switching to a keto diet. Another

brought nougats with sesame seeds that she relied on as comfort food

from an Indian mama shop.

Ining, whose family runs a metal workshop in Sembawang,

recounted how Circuit Breaker forced the migrant workers from

Bangladesh and China to bond as they were not permitted to leave

their dormitories and had to share cooking and grocery duties, and

also acclimatise to each others’ dietary preferences. It started a general

conversation about her metal workshop and fabrication which

eventually led to us deciding to visit her studio as part of the final

session in November.

Over the subsequent months, the interest of the group shifted

to research methodologies as we discussed strategies of approach

practice-based research. I was working on an oral history project of

cruising areas in Singapore and shared some difficulties I faced while

conducting these interviews. The second half of the session evolved

into looking at works that negotiate with documenting history, veracity

of accounts, and the ethical positioning of the artist in relation to their

subject. We visited NTU CCA’s penultimate exhibition and discussed

Naeem Mohaiemen Two Meetings and a Funeral video work where

he attempted to reconstruct a history of the Non-Aligned Movement

(NAM) via interviews.

We encountered a mix of theory, audio materials and other

mixed-media as collective points of reference to anchor the conversation

throughout the three months to talk about the promiscuity

of the archive, exposure, and opacity. We read essays penned by

Vijay Prasah regarding the Global Left and the Third World. We

examined S. Rajaratnam’s appearance in the 1973 NAM meeting as

a representative Singapore and the role he performed in shaping

an imaginary Singapore as a global city. We listened to the New

York Times podcast titled Caliphate about the American invasion

of Mosul and reclaiming it from ISIS featuring journalist Rukmini

Callimachi and the peripheral reports that accused her of relying

on unverified sources and challenging the ethical limitations of her

profession. We also took the opportunity to share works-in-progress

to provide necessary critique for each other’s practice, we shared

ways we manage information through online note-taking and time

management apps like Notion.

By way of concluding this short report, I return to a fragment

from a speech in 1979 by S. Rajaratnam that we discovered in the

archives. He titled this speech Old Maps in a New Age and it was made

at the University of Malaya in 1979 on the subject of speaking truth

to power.


ELEMENT#6 Viral Archives: Study Notes

"In Apocalyptic times, there can be no set rules to govern our

thoughts. We must therefore take the risk of saying things that are open

to dispute provided that vital problems are thereby raised." Rajaratnam

goes on to reiterate: “It is not that the material for new ideas, the

new maps are not already available. They are all around us in great

abundance. But we cannot see them because of our unwillingness to

empty our heads of old ideas to make way for the new.”

We hope this study group renewed our capacity to find different

methods to read old maps in order to pave the way for new ideas.

Appendix—Vegan Achar Recipe

Makes approximately 1kg of Achar (5 or 6 jars)

There are three main components to making Achar:

1. The frying of the rempah mix

2. The vegetables to be pickled

3. The garnish that is added at the end when everything

is assembled

The rempah (spice paste)

• 3 cloves of garlic

• 3 red shallots

• 1 chunk of blue ginger

• 1 stick of lemongrass

• 2 dried candlenuts

• 2 red chilli padi

• 3 red regular chilli

• ½ teaspoon turmeric powder

Peel the garlic and shallots and chop them into small chunks. Peel and

slice the blue ginger. Remove the center stem of lemongrass and chop

them into very fine bits. Remove the seeds from the chilli and chop them

up (unless you prefer your Achar extra spicy—then leave some seeds in).

Put everything except for the turmeric powder into a food processor and

blend it. Then transfer it to a mortar and pestle and pound the mixture till

it becomes a paste and the flavours are integrated with each other.

Heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil on a frying pan, add the paste

when the oil is sizzling, add the turmeric powder at this stage as you fry

the rempah. Fry the paste till it turns slightly golden brown and put it aside

to cool down.



The vegetables to be pickled

• ½ head of cauliflower

• 200g of long beans

• ½ a yellow capsicum

• 1 small turnip

• 1 large carrot

• 3 Japanese cucumbers

• 1 honey pineapple

• 1 red shallot

Chop the long beans, cauliflower, turnip and capsicum into 2cm chunks.

Boil 3 cups of water and blanche these vegetables to cook them till they

are slightly soft before draining them and putting them aside. Chop the

Japanese cucumbers into 2cm long strips. Soak them in salted brine

for about ½ hour before rinsing the brine off them. This is to ensure

they remain slightly crispy when pickled. You may choose to use regular

cucumber instead, but remember to remove the seeds before pickling

if so, Japanese cucumbers tend to be a little bit more crisp. Peel the

carrot and cut them into 3cm long strips. Cut the pineapple into little

chunks—the sweetness of the pineapples really affects the flavour of

the achar, ensure that you are using ripe pineapples and if possible

honey pineapples from Malaysia. Finely chop the shallots.

Assembling and garnishing

• ½ cup of toasted white sesame seeds

• 1 cup of toasted grated peanuts (not powder)

• ½ cup of white rice vinegar

• ½ cup of apple cider vinegar

• 1 tablespoon of gula melaka / brown sugar

• ¾ cup of tamarind assam juice (you can make this by adding

hot water to a golf ball size tamarind paste and sieving it to

filter the seeds out)

Add all the vegetables to a big tub, and stir the rempah paste in while

adding the rest of the ingredients listed above. If you toast your peanuts

and sesame seeds slightly it helps to bring out their flavour before

adding them to the achar. Your gula melaka portion might vary depending

on the sweetness of the pineapples. The apple cider vinegar helps

to reduce the astringency of the achar, but if you prefer your achar tart,

you can add a whole cup of rice vinegar instead. I tend to add these

portions sparingly and taste the mix as I go along to ensure the flavours

are integrated. Do take note that the flavour profile will continue to

mature the longer you leave the achar to marinate. Leave it for an hour


ELEMENT#6 Viral Archives: Study Notes

or two chilled before portioning them into the jars to ensure the flavour

is even across the entire batch. After portioning them into jars, the achar

needs time to settle and is usually ready to be consumed the day after.

Do ensure that there is enough pickled brine for each jar of achar.

The achar should be consumed within two weeks, keep checking

the pineapples to ensure the batch is fresh, if they start to turn

brown this is an indication that the batch is about to turn bad. Always

use a clean non-metal spoon to dish out portions to avoid contaminating

the rest of the achar, and having smaller jars ensures easier storage

and portioning. Keep your achar chilled till the point of serving.

Loo Zihan is an artist and academic from

Singapore working at the intersections of

critical theory, performance, and the moving-image.

He received his Masters of Fine

Arts in Studio Practice from the School of

the Art Institute of Chicago and a Masters

in Performance Studies from New York

University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is

pursuing his PhD in Performance Studies

at the University of California, Berkeley.

His work emphasises the malleability of

memory through various representational

strategies that include performance

re-enactments and essay films. He was

awarded the Young Artist Award (2015)

and an Arts Postgraduate Scholarship

(2017) by the National Arts Council

of Singapore.




Chan Hsin Yee

ELEMENT#7 Report

Introduction from Dossier

The Clean Room project has been a major series of work that Juan

Dominguez has created for about 10 years. Structured like a mini TV

series, the work transfers the format of the mini-series into the context

of theatre to propose a different sense of temporality. In Clean Room,

the public is committed to attend each and every one of its episodes,

and is thus led to appreciate the continuity of its proposal, as well as

the production and reception of a theatrical event. Since no new spectators

could be added to the group, participants develop a sense of

complicity and a deep relationship with one another over the duration

of the project.

Following on, the Dirty Room workshop is based on the concept

of seriality derived from the Clean Room project. Using the same

structure and methodology, Dirty Room proposes an experimentation

with time sharing, ways of generating experiences and an idea

of contamination among different agents. The workshop plays with

fragmented temporality and how it might require the renunciation of

traditional narratological elements.

Dirty Room will consist of a chain of situations that activates

individual and collective listening among the participants, raising the

awareness of the here and now, and the idea of complicity. The situations

will prompt reflections on how to be together, where the different

collective gestures performed in the artistic contexts, as well as ‘real’

places and time have the potential to transform individual perceptions.

As we have to make tricky decisions in these situations together, a key

question arises: how the fuck are we going to do all this? (just kidding).

Through this online workshop at Dance Nucleus, we will invent a

lot of things.



Day 1

We began the workshop by doing nothing for 30 minutes together. A

kind of togetherness and non-activity that feels quite familiar during

these times when lockdowns and quarantines are now shared experiences.

We kept ourselves unmuted and visible on screen, catching

soundbites of one another’s worlds, observing the changes in lighting

of Juan’s Spanish morning and our Singaporean late afternoon.

At the end of it, Juan proposed an idea that if everyone gathered

to do nothing together, we could literally stop the world. With his proposal,

the gathering to do nothing took on a political hue as it became

a deliberate choice to resist, to refuse productivity of any kind.

After rounds of introductions, Juan explained the Clean Room

project. This workshop included activities extracted from episodes

of different Clean Room seasons. For this first day of workshop, Juan

facilitated two activities, the first being a bombardment of “questions

that have a twist” from season 1, episode 3.

Some examples:

1. Are you curious?

2. Are you ready?

3. What cinematographic style would you use to film your

life story?

4. Of all the sounds you can hear now, which ones don’t

you recognise?

5. What is the smell of your room?

6. What is the minimum you have to do to make a change?

7. What would you like to be a beginner in?

8. If you were a killer, what kind of killer would you be?

9. Who would you kill?

10. Who else?

11. And what about literature?

12. If you were a sentence, what sentence would you be?

13. Where were you written?

14. Who wrote you?

In the original episode, these questions were broadcasted while participants

were organised in rows snaking around a room, facing one another

in pairs. While we couldn’t go through the entire list of questions, the

list would have gradually invited participants to silently imagine and

speculate about the person—whom they’ve never met—sitting opposite

them. What were they like as a child? Are they a compulsive liar?

What colour underwear are they wearing?


ELEMENT#7 Report

It is another kind of being together, and another kind of listening.

No conversation involved, just listening-observing to a person’s body,

their appearance, and to your own imagination’s responses to that body.

The questions would guide you deeper under their skin, as they become

a character you build in your head. You, dear participant, are thus an

important person in each Clean Room episode, because you construct

the actual stories and characters that occur and appear in them.

The second and final activity of the day would have been more

exciting if we had all been physically in the studio together. Juan gave

us a hypothetical amount of $2000 dollars (if only it were real…), and

posed the question “what will you all do with this money together,

that you cannot do alone?” This activity was also from another Clean

Room episode.

We never managed to come to an agreement—time was short.

But the discussion revealed to us where all our headspaces were

during this time—all our proposals centered on sending this money

to vulnerable, less-privileged communities. Like the “questions with

a twist”, our headspace, collective imagination and conversation

build the narrative of this activity/episode within the work. But rather

than speaking about intimate connections growing between discrete

characters, about participants being characters for one another, this

activity’s narrative saw them approaching some semblance of community,

characters interacting with one another, working with one another

towards a real-fictional goal.

Screenshot of ELEMENT#7 participants with Juan Dominguez

in a gathering for nothing. Provided by Chan Hsin Yee



Day 2

While Juan was sleeping, we went off to Funan Mall in the morning to

read a compilation of short stories he had emailed overnight (some

copies are still in the studio, if you are curious). We could not communicate

with one another or acknowledge each other’s presence

under any circumstance—we had to come alone, read alone, and leave

alone, together.

This was the first activity that introduced the idea of complicity to

the narrative of the workshop, in which participants are secondary or

primary accomplices to a secret task or objective unknown by the rest

of the world.

We gathered back online in the afternoon with Juan. This time, we

gathered for nothing for 30 minutes:

“Today 13th of October from 1600h till 1630h We will gather, via

zoom, for nothing. Not for political reasons, not for leisure, not for

socialising. No label, no purpose other than finding out together

what gathering for nothing is. Very different from gathering to do

nothing, what we did yesterday. to do nothing has a purpose. to

gather for nothing doesn't have any purpose.”

We collectively noticed that with no obligation to do nothing, day 2’s

gathering for nothing seemed to pass by faster than day 1’s gathering

to do nothing. There also seemed to be the potential for something

to happen, unplanned and spontaneous, in that gathering for nothing.

Anything could happen when we gather for nothing. With that

playfulness of a gathering for nothing, we also reflected how it was an

activity more familiar to children than adults, which spoke to Juan the

“conceptual clown”, whose practice also includes elements of absurdity

and playfulness.

The last activity for the day was Juan taking us through his process

of creating questions that he used for different Clean Room episodes,

like the ones in the activity we did in Day 1. Perhaps Juan was gradually

inducting us into his band of primary accomplices of this workshop.

The steps:

1. Think of a topic you care about.

2. Write a question about that topic.

3. Add a layer of fiction.

4. Now add a political layer.


ELEMENT#7 Report

It was a challenge, needless to say. But through workshopping and formulating

our own questions we found ourselves falling into a rabbithole

of imagination and speculation. It began when we first attempted to apply

that fictional layer to a perfectly ordinary question, and the political layer

took us another step further in. And the descent began when we started

to discuss among ourselves about how we could refine and improve our

provocations. The imaginative, creative process became a collaborative

exercise. It was a co-creation even before it was given into the hands of

a Clean Room participant.

Day 3

Screenshot of ELEMENT#7 participants with Juan Dominguez.

Provided by Chan Hsin Yee

What better way to end the workshop than with the most jam-packed

day of all three days. We began “bright” and early too—the first activity

of the day was to watch the sunrise at Kallang Stadium, in beautiful

evening dress. Again, no communication, no acknowledgements. The

accomplices were to be total strangers to one another.

Again, another opportunity for us to write our own narratives—the

activity could not be enjoyable otherwise. A few of us wrote ourselves

as characters who, after late-night partying, decided they might as well

stay up a little while longer to watch night turn to day. Mysterious men

and women, insomniacs, Breakfast at Tiffany’s wannabes… anything

was possible. The particular context of this activity, with the early



morning darkness and quiet, also made it easier for us to conjure some

dreamy, fictional world. But then seemed to dissolve and blur into a real

world as the sun came up and we saw dogs on their walks, athletes on

their runs, cars on the expressway.

The next activity for the afternoon was the Invisible Gathering. The

accomplices had to gather first at Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple,

then Bras Basah Complex to observe the space and the people in it,

never losing sight of one another as they moved from one location

to another. And, before leaving Bras Basah Complex, the accomplices

had to bend down and tie their shoelaces. All of this to be done alone,

together, without communication and coordination.

The experience of complicity, of sharing a secret that is unknown

to the rest of the world, was particularly intense in this activity. Being in

public spaces, people noticed our presence as a group. Some strangers

paused and joined in the looking around, wondering what we were

waiting for, or lingered in the space anticipating something—we roped

them into our fiction as characters who were “not one of us”.

The accomplices finally managed to meet at their “headquarters”

in the studio for a lunch. There was a table laid out, and food and

questions written on cards were successively placed on it according

to a detailed score provided by Juan to me. I had my own fictional

role to play—the maitre’d, the hostess who disappeared behind the

black curtains and always appeared with more food, more cards. It

was my turn to derive pleasure from being the only one “in on it”, as

the rest of my accomplices were not knowledgeable of my secret with

Juan. Here, storytelling became a shared responsibility or role—each

question prompting memories, experiences, and thoughts. As a group,

we created stories within that story of a lunch. It was a short story, but

rich with laughter and connection.

Back on Zoom, we had these instructions:

“today on 14th Oct at 16h, do not go to the Dance Nucleus studio.

do not be there for half an hour. Our action will happen, inasmuch

as none of us is there. Make sure you know where it is and how

to (not) go. Wear red for this occasion. Stay connected to our

non gathering for the whole time it is not happening. Can you? A

webcam will be streaming our not being there.”

For our final activity, Juan proposed a toast. We all proposed a toast.

Around ten toasts each, actually—60 altogether. This is from another

episode in Clean Room. It is long and drawn-out, a chaotic jumble of sincere

and nonsensical toasts to anything and anyone, real and imagined.


ELEMENT#7 Report

We all turned off our cameras and heard one another take turns to read

our toasts. This list of toasts could have gone on forever.

It was a quiet end to the workshop, that was also somewhat poignant

as I recalled how this ELEMENT was meant to be in person, and I

wondered how it might have felt if everyone was in the studio together

with Juan, each of us with a glass in hand. And the ending of our story

would not have been so abrupt as clicking “Leave Meeting”.

So perhaps one more toast: A toast to someday, when we might

do this all over again.



Top: Juan Dominguez. Photo credit: Bea Borgers

Bottom: Hero Image for Clean Room. Photo courtesy of Juan Dominguez



Emma Fishwick

Emma Fishwick (Perth) participated in SCOPE#8 as a regional guest artist, which was

convened by Shawn Chua and Jee Chan. Due to the postponement of ELEMENT#6,

which she had originally been invited to attend, Emma’s week in Singapore was converted

into a residency prior to SCOPE#8. In this essay, Emma uses the movement of

walking to begin speaking about her artistic process and interests, her two projects

that she spent developing and thinking through in the studio, and her reflections on

time alone in the space.




SLOW (art)

Duration Repetition Re-frame




I visited the national gallery the other day and found myself lost in

the space for two and a half hours. The grandeur of the walls, tall

and stark in history, winding up back stair passages and landing in

open spaces, myself alone with the art. There was a work by a Thai

called Two Planets and it sits in the corner of gallery 15. Turning

the corner, I had to consciously walk around to meet it face on,

here I stand shifting my weight from left to right and right to left, a

lingering metronome. A collective of Thai villages sit, staring at an

artificially placed painting, Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass”. So,

I stand watching people, sitting, watching a painting. Seemingly a

static scene, yet as I linger, a conversation stirs through the villages,

who remark on the female figure, the character’s financial status,

their intentions and so on. They were collectively walking through

this painting together.

Walking we all do it, in some way shape or form, a repeatable action

that overall is a simple process of being and continuing. This process

encourages a cardiac rhythm, a breath, a line of sight, a smell, a memory

or a discovery. Each step, roll or shuffle offers another chance to begin

again or to continue to continue. It is malleable yet easily controlled with

physical, spatial or temporal parameters. These parameters, whether

pre-determined or not, generally define walking as a linear activity.

It has a point A and a point B.

A but not B,

B but not A,

A and B,

Not A and not B.

Illustrations by Emma Fishwick



For author Rebecca Solnit, walking is “a bodily labour that produces

nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals… the mind, the body and

the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in

conversation together, three notes suddenly making a cord” (Solnit,

2002, p. 5). It offers a form of embodied movement that responds,

connects and shifts ways of thinking, making, seeing and moving and

approaches physical landscapes as “sensory environments… constructed

and understood through kinaesthetic motion” (Rogers, 2012, p. 63).

Doris Humphrey did it as a procession (1928)

Bruce Nauman did it in an Exaggerated Manner (1967)

Richard Long did it backwards (1967)

Trisha Brown did it up and down walls (1971),

Anna Halprin did it in mandalic circles (1987)

James Cunningham does it slow, isolated and performatively (2010–)

Amanda Heng did it so every step counted (2019–2020)

Walking is choreographic, it is rhythm, it offers multiplicity in thinking

processes, it is simple and has the ability to take the body and press it

up against, submerge in and on top of the place in which it finds itself

in. Walking is historical, its durational, repetitious, idle, spatial, temporal,

political and cultural. It is primal, yet not quite universal. For those that

cannot walk, can it still be universal if it is not bound to the body alone?

Can walking be evident without the body? Can process be a long walk?

I visited the national gallery the other day, Sunday 1st March and

found myself wandering throughout the gallery space for two and a

half hours. The grandeur of the walls, tall and stark in history lead

me up winding up back stair passages. So quiet and empty I felt I

was intruding until I’d land in the open spaces, alone with the art.

About one and a half hours in, I came across a video work by a Thai

artist Araya Rasdjarmrearsnook called Two Planets (2008) and it

sits in Gallery 15. Turning left into the gallery I noticed it placed

in the far-right hand corner of the room, I had to consciously walk

around three or four other artworks to meet it face on. Here I stand

shifting my weight from left to right and right to left, a lingering

metronome in front of two TV screens. On one of these screens, is

a collective of Thai villages, who sit, staring at an artificially placed

painting mounted on an easel in a clearing amongst the bamboo.

It was Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass (1863). It’s the notorious

one, that features two men in their gentlemanly attire, one lady off



in the distance collecting flowers and another in the foreground,

sitting completely naked, staring over her shoulder at us. I could

read that this work runs for fifteen minutes and so, I stand watching

people, sitting, watching a painting, that in many ways was

watching us back. At first this was a seemingly a static scene, yet

as I linger, a conversation stirs through the villages, who remark

on the painting pointing out details and asking questions like; why

is she naked? They must be rich if they are picnicking during the

day? As I watched this work unfold, I realised that these people

were collectively walking through this painting together. Through

their joint sitting, joint idleness, joint wandering of eye and mind,

they were on a collective walk. I too was now part of this walk,

where our could eyes return, our bodies could shift and our minds

question, reframe and discover.

Walking as both an embodied action and as a construct that frames the

way I talk about creative process has been an underlining my artistic

practice for a while now. Increasingly, it has been coming to the forefront

of my residencies, particularly during solo practice. During this

residency, more so than before. During the two-week period, I became

increasingly aware of being alone in the room alone and I noticed my

body becoming both the observer and observed, seer and seen. A

sensation not too dissimilar to the experience of walking, where one’s

“relations with the visible world intertwine in a double movement of

separating and joining” (Wylie, 2007, p. 152). Whether in the studio

moving my body or arranging objects or deciphering text or drawing


Emma Fishwick’s presentation at SCOPE#8.

Photo credit: Dapheny Chen


lines, or out on the street putting foot to pavement, heel to toe, there is

a continual repetitious act of separating and joining.

For this residency, I was in many was walking in the space between

two projects. One concerned with landscape being a relational tool for

re-framing ideas and the other was looking at Slow Art making as means

for re-education of imagery. How do I keep these two projects alive in

the context of solo studio practice? I took the projects’ key concepts,

added the associated objects and materials, mixed them together, and

filtered them through the body. What emerged was the conceptual through

lines between the two projects and the present body. Ideas of duration,

repetition and re-framing to re-educate, arguably all present within the act

of walking. Yet where does this situate the drawn outcomes and arranged

objects within this studio investigation? Where is the walk in that?

The drawing, kept in control through simple parameters of

drawing triangles and going from one end of the scroll the other in

the space of two weeks. The improvised hand that draws or arranges

objects is indeed structured in the same way I would approach improvised

dancing; as an “overlap of associations, distractions, statements,

retractions, repetitions… beginnings, energetic states, regrets, assertions,

full stops, hesitations” (Pollitt, 2017, p. 207), as well as, spaces,

dots, marks, textures and plains. Every response is both a means to

generate knowledge and a means to reflect during action and after

action. The solo studio time inevitably always feels slow, laborious and

at times pointless, yet the time left alone with thoughts, objects and

movements gave way to a cyclic process of reflection. Where, for example,

the object placement is a reflection on the dancing, the drawing a



reflection on the objects and the dancing a reflection—on the drawing.

With the body being the common denominator between art forms and

responses, working as an associative and relational filter for the physical

and imagined happenings that emerge through the studio sessions,

extending “thinking in the tests and moves” (Schön, 1983, p. 280).

In this way process of any kind can be a long walk.




1. Brown, T (1971). Walking on the wall.

2. Cunningham, J (2010). Cunningham Walks, sourced from http://cunningham


3. Halprin, A (1987). Planetary Dance

4. Hand, A (2019–2020). Every Step Counts. Singapore Biennale 2019. Esplanade,

Theatres on the Bay, Singapore.

5. Hart, D. (2002), John Olsen. St Leonards, NSW: Craftsman House.

6. Humphrey, D. (1928). Air for the G string.

7. Long, R (1967). A line made by walking.

8. Nauman, B (1967). Walking in an exaggerated manner around the perimeter of

a square.

9. Pollitt, J. (2017). She writes like she dances: Response and radical impermanence

in writing as dancing. Choreographic Practices, 8(2), 199–218. Perth, Australia.


10. Richman-Abdou, K. (2018), The Significance of Manet’s Large-Scale Masterpiece

‘The Luncheon on The Grass’. Retrieved from https://mymodernmet.com/


11. Rogers, A. (2012). Geographies of the Performing Arts: Landscapes, Places and

Cities. Geography Compass, 6(2), 60–75. doi:10.1111/j.1749-8198.2011.00471

12. Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action

New York, NY. Basic Books.

13. Solnit, R. (2002). Wanderlust: a history of walking. London, United Kingdom. Verso.

14. Wylie, J. (2007). Landscape. Hoboken, NJ. Routledge.

Emma Fishwick is an Australian (Perth)

artist working across dance, art, design and

scholarship. Creatively, Emma is increasingly

questioning whether dance can achieve

the often-complex connections between

the human and non-human, challenging

her understanding of the form through

incorporating multiple art practices. Emma

is currently lecturing at Western Australian

Academy of Performing Arts, an associate

artist with Co:3 Australia, a STRUT Dance

board member and an active choreographer,

photographer, editor in Perth.



Top, Bottom: Studio installation by Emma Fishwick during her residency.

Photo credit: Emma Fishwick


Emma Fishwick’s presentation at SCOPE#8.

Photo credit: Dapheny Chen



Rebecca Wong

Rebecca Wong (Hong Kong) was another regional guest presenters at SCOPE#8. Like

Emma Fishwick, Rebecca spent a week in residency in Singapore before her presentation,

which was spent in reflection and observing female gender and sexuality—Wong’s focus

of artistic interest and study—within the local context of Singapore. She shares some of

her reflections and notes here.

Post-Residency Reflections

202032 – 9


Bird-watching / (2018) by Rebecca Wong.

All photos by William Muirhead



Dance Nucleus Residency (2 – 9 Feb 2020) reflections

Residencies offer space for art to develop, and time for the artist

to grow.

Developing art:

My recent performance led to me to view the artist-audience relationship

with suspicion. The performance space conventionally offers

protective boundaries; clear lines that divide the performer and the

audience such that one does not intrude upon the other. The performance

becomes an invisible wrestling of energies, without any real

risk of harm or offence.

My works probe into constraints of Asian women with regards

to gender and sexual desire, and I am primarily motivated by cultures

of patriarchism and female objectification. In my recent performance,

I blurred the boundaries of the performance space, and encountered

audience members from cultures that objectified women who almost

plastered their faces on my naked body. I was able to continue the

performance that day, but the emotions and thoughts of that performance

have continued to stick with me.

When I blur the divisive lines within the performance space, place

the work within the audience, and present my naked body to a group

of people who motivate me to create, do I put myself in danger? As a

creator and performer, how do I sensitively build a relationship with the

audience based on trust and equality? How do I navigate between the

light and darkness of humanity; to embody and affirm shared values, or

perhaps to challenge the audience without losing their trust?


Post-Residency Reflections

Bird-watching / (2018) by Rebecca Wong.

All photos by William Muirhead

In most residencies, there is space available for free exploration.

I chose to spend the majority of this residency in that space, walking

around the city, experiencing daily life, whilst reminding myself to fully

explore and immerse into things that pique my interest. I found that

just sitting and having a coffee alone made me curious about how

women in this city lived. I would be taking off my clothes at the hotel,

and realising how this might be breaking the law would change the way

I saw this city. On my evening walks, I would try to strike conversations

with a local, but to no success. It could be my luck, but I think it might

be due to cultural differences? I was not in a rush to find conclusions to

my observations and daydreams, and I found that they became a kind

of nourishment for me, and exercises in which my physical senses and

awareness were sharpened. My past curiosity about myself resulted in

understanding, and so in this unfamiliar space, I was still able to carve

my own path in the residency in much the same way as improvisation.




This path allowed me to leave my comfort zones, cut away distractions,

and focus on thinking about my work in new ways as senses that had

been dulled by life were being sharpened again. This is what growth

means to me; the outcomes are not just ends in themselves, but embody

contexts and struggles behind them, and most importantly that they

reflect who I am back to me.

Chance allowed me to get to know a female artist who uses

traditional dance to question the identity and positions of women in

society. When I went to watch a show with her, I noticed a contrast

between her personality interacting with her seniors and friends and

the one reflected in the description of her works I read online. Women

meet their culture’s expectations to varying degrees, yet because the

ethos of the times emphasises the will and opinions of the individual,

they are in a challenging position. Each female artist engages with and

articulates this challenge differently, and this act is considered an act of

courage. With regards to my recent performance, “courage” was a word

I always heard because of my decision to perform naked. But in this

female artist, I saw a different kind of courage which was not a one-off

demonstration in an artistic performance, but manifested in daily acts

of exploration, change, and communication. It is a quiet but steady

strength which is just as hard to come by.

I did not expect a week-long residency in a foreign plane to

bring me so much inspiration. But with Hong Kong in a turbulent and

unstable state since June 2019 to now, being able to leave that space

and breathe a different kind of air released the desire to create that had

been suppressed for so long, allowing it to run freely, unbridled.

Rebecca Wong is a graduate of the Hong

Kong Academy for Performing Arts. Her

choreography and performances question

stereotypes from a female perspective.

At times provocative, her works evoke a

revaluation of attitudes by and towards

women, body, and desires—especially sex.

As a dance artist, Wong seeks to enrich her

choreography through the contemplation

of social issues. She anticipates creating

more works from the perspective of women

who question traditional Asian mindsets.

Her major works included When Time

Limps, Woman.Body, 19841012 and Nook,

and she has performed in many countries,

including Iceland, Japan, Korea, Malaysia,

Singapore and China.


Bird-watching / (2018) by Rebecca Wong.

All photos by William Muirhead

@ whereismysapo

Ashley Ho

Ashley Ho was one of 8 presenters in SCOPE#9 that took place on 12–13 September.

SCOPE#9 was conducted on Zoom, and convened by Shawn Chua. Using her attempt

to document the slow disappearance of her soap on Instagram as an entry point, Ashley

shared her artistic interest-obsession with document(ation)/ing and how it may construct

and constitute experience. This article is a document of Ashley’s thoughts and

reflections post-presentation.


@whereismysapo (24052020 – 04082020)

Screenshots from @whereismysapo Instagram account.

All photos by Ashley Ho

how have you been since we exited the

meeting? we parted quickly and did not find

each other again. thank you for being there

with me. i felt quite vulnerable scrolling

through my calendar, to-do lists, scores,

indecision charts. it was a bit too much,

wasn’t it?



you witnessed—shakily, pixelated, lagging—the last image of this bar of

soap being uploaded on instagram, more than a month overdue. overdue

by whose expectations, since no one was awaiting its arrival? for whom

am i documenting—who am i documenting? which parts of me, which of

you, of us together?

is it strange that clicking «post» in your (online, zoom-rectangular) presence

implicated you into the gesture’s/the soap/the ig-account’s memory?

Illustrations by Ashley Ho












this is one of the ways in which i documented the hour. how did you?



perhaps you were perturbed by

the obsessiveness with which

my documents attempt to capture

living. don’t worry, i think. do

not pity me for marking the passing

and holding of time.

i am paying tribute to the things

we do within the frame of chronometric

time—call family, emails!!!,

market, look for sara. the colour

blocks on my calendar are so

present because inscription

attributes and recognises value

in the things some may find unworthy

of documenting. when i

record an occasion in retrospect,

i am honouring that time dedicated

to the doing of a single thing.

do not worry! i only do the things

i truly desire spending time with.

to look at something and give it a

name is to say i want to place you

in the family of things. you have existed

i have witnessed you i have

lived with, within, and through you;

thank you for your time.












will you spend some time with me?



shortlist of a long list of what the document could be

i currently (!) understand document-ing as the (dis/)ordering of

collected material—non-exhaustively: corporeal movement, verbal

language, image, sound…—and placing it within a context it may be


[the document as then

[the document as now

[the document as you want to remember it to be

[the document as journalism & mis-journalism

[the document as mediation

[the document as intervention/everyday resistance

[the document as accountability/transparency/disclosure ≠ vulnerability

[the doxument as apparatus of capture (Deleuze & Guattari 424–473)

[the document as pact

[the document as typo

[the document as love letter

[the document as performance

[the document as performative afterlife

[the document as score

[the document as research presentation

[the document as context(ualisation)

[the document as mine

[the document as rework

[the document as {the space between u & me}

[the document as {the space we share}

[the document as veil

[the document as scenography

[the document as publicity/funding application material

[the document as merchandise

[the document as legitimacy/justification/phantom professionalisation/

academic aspiration/chop

[the document as body, as living-breathing thing

[the document as literally a month-old receipt can you just throw your shit

away already and don’t leave it lying around

[the document as (auto)biography

[the document as multi-plicity/-dimensionality/-plication of presence

[the document as speculative fiction

[the document as virtual background

[the document as education system

[the document as linguistic corpus

[the document as information

[the document as heritage #unesco

[the document as eulogy

[the document as cadaver

[the document as becoming—______(Deleuze & Guattari 237)

[the document as exhibitionist manifestation

[the document-ing as ritual

[the document as altar

[the document as grass patch through which we chart our desire paths



“What, do you imagine that I would take so much trouble and so much pleasure in writing, do you think that I would keep so

persistently to my task, if I were not preparing—with a rather shaky hand—a labyrinth into which I can venture, in which I can

move my discourse, opening up underground passages, forcing it to go far from itself, finding overhangs that reduce and

deform its itinerary, in which I can lose myself and appear at last to eyes that I will never have to meet again. I am no doubt not

the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our

bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.” (Foucault 17)

i’ve been thinking more about the interactions




within and through the document. in caring about the

relationship between performance and the people

who experience it, i am curious about the relationship

between legibility and intimacy in the movement

of document-ing. i write “movement” because

document-ing seems to be comprised of gestures

that perform its desire (how, to what extent, and by

whom) to be read. this places into frame performed

and perceived legibility, as well as various modes of

experiencing distance.

Image by Ashley Ho



in the coming months, i will be tracing the movement of the document

through two paths of inquiry, within two bodies of work:

i. b-sides of smudging series

, which explores the

processes of translation

between document-ing as (a)

inscribing creative process

and (b) performance. i will be

creating “b-sides“ of a series

of performances through

reverse-engineering, based

on the documents generated

through their initial creative

processes. these documents

embody scores through

which the performances

recreate themselves.

i am curious about the

translation processes

between the human

performers on both sides,

and between various

mediums of document-ing

and performing documents.

how can different modes

of document-ing be

read? how is corporeality

experienced? how does

performative afterliving play

with the delineations between


ii. collaborative work with Domenik


, a perspective that focuses on the dual

object-subjectification of document-ing

within a collective world(s)-building


// the document is object through our

intentionality of employing it to inscribe

process and to communicate within

collaborative processes. where is

the document’s place in collaborative

intimacy? how do we relate to privacy

in the assemblage of life-documents

as practice? how (much) are we

documenting to each other? how do

we navigate authorship within co-documenting?

// in our work, the document is subjectified

as a performing being through

which experiences/material are

archived (i.e. as libretto, as scenography).

how does a performing document

shape the experience of intimacy

amongst performing and spectating

agents? does disclosure of these

documents help you read us better? do

they make you feel closer to us?

what is the document’s position within

production? what is its relationship with

the sustainability of artmaking processes

and conceptions of “value”, “waste”,

and legitimacy?



Screenshot provided by Ashley Ho

i hope this is not excessive. i’d love to

hear from you, because it’d felt so silent

then, the zoom-muteness. leaving the

meeting into empty-room sound, i felt

quite hollow and mad! at myself for

rambling on, and not having created the

conditions for a porous-enough space.

i wonder how this document converses

with the rest of this publication.


Deleuze, Gilles, Félix Guattari, and Brian Massumi. A Thousan

Plateaus. Athlone, 1992. Print.

Foucault, Michel. “Introduction.” The Archaeology of Knowledge

and The Discourse on Language. Vintage, 2010. Print.

Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The

Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.

Ashley Ho (b. 1999) is a Singaporean

artist who works from the perspective of

movement. Her work spans performance,

making, and writing, and is presently

preoccupied with archival, martial arts,

and technologies of caring. A recipient

of the National Arts Council Scholarship

2018, she is a Dancer/Maker undergraduate

at ArtEZ University of the Arts in the

Netherlands. She hopes to make the kind

of work she wants to experience.




Seven Fragments

From April till June 2020 Dance Nucleus convened a reading group that met once a fortnight

over the Zoom platform to discuss a selection of readings related to contemporary

performance and dance. The readings were selected and co-facilitated by Daniel Kok

for the months of April and May, with assistance from Pat Toh. Loo Zihan selected and

co-facilitated the final two sessions in June, also with assistance from Pat.

Choreography Theory—Seven Fragments


We averaged ten to fifteen participants for each session who joined us

from Singapore and Australia. In the final two sessions, we also started

to write collaboratively on Google Docs in response to the readings

we have encountered throughout the three months. Here are seven

fragments from the document that might help to provide an idea of

how we were engaging with performance theory in the midst of social

isolation and the pandemic.

Note: Unless specifically credited, all the text that follows is collectively


Zoom screenshot of reading group participants—25 July, 2020.

Screenshot provided by Loo Zihan



Fragment 1: On Participation

Participation (in performance) is a multi-layered/multi-meaning type of

engagement in the creation of an artwork.

Participation involves (generally) effort or labour on the part of the audience

that is essential to the realisation of the artwork.

Participatory works exist in the gap between artist as creator and audience,

decentralising the artistic process, and allowing the audience

various degrees of agency to intervene in the outcome of the work.

Participation can be equal or unequal, physical or mental. It involves a

level of engagement, without which the artwork would not truly exist.

Participation also requires an examination of the intention and ethics

of the artistic offering—is the participation invited or forced, is it an

opening or a direction.

Participation is less emancipatory than it is turning out to be a new form

of (self)exploitation.

Participation has become the predominant mode of engagement and

consumption. Everyone is participating / has to participate all the time

now. (Note: FOMO—Fear of Missing Out)

Participation as free labour, generating data and content for the organiser

or owner of the infrastructure to capitalise upon.

Participation also often becomes like an end in itself— that there is

participation is often assumed to be meaningful engagement, democratisation

of power, evidence of mobilisation.

Slavoj Žižek refers to Bartleby: “I would prefer not to”… as a mode

of resistance.

Fragment 2: On Collaboration

Collaborator as the Enemy (consensus & dissensus)—this definition

was highlighted by an article I was reading recently about the two

definitions of a collaborator. Collaboration in art has always referred

to a consensus, a collaborative process that is positive, but


Choreography Theory—Seven Fragments

‘collaborator’ in political discourse can also mean an individual that

is colluding with the enemy—“he is a collaborator, a traitor”. I found

this duplicity very fascinating.

Successful collaboration involves negotiation, conflict, and also

a letting go of the ego, or the idea of the artist as the “solo genius”.

Collaboration requires those that are involved to contribute their interests

and skills to the artwork that they are creating (hopefully with the

goal of creating something beyond what each of your individual efforts

could have achieved).

Collaboration should not be about finding the “lowest common

denominator”. However, collaboration is very much dependent on the

level of trust, relationship, belief, and ability of the artists to meet

differences of opinion with an open mind.

Collaboration is not always equal collaboration— people can

collaborate within specific roles or frameworks in the service of an

artwork, or it can be more of a 50/50 split, where there is much more

openness about who has the agency in creative decisions.

Fragment 3: On Participatory Performance, Online Events

and Post-Covid Art 1

What then, when the majority of work is now online, and the distance

grows even greater? What does participation look like now? Shannon

Jackson points to some of these ideas in her keynote Essential Service

and the Proximity of Labour (2020). In one way, the reliance on the

network plays into the hands of both neoliberal technocrats (we participate

endlessly in a series of digital pastiches, and exploit both our

own efforts and those of the artists who are usually doing this for

free) and relational aesthetics, where we are in a state of re-producing

sociality and re-negotiating the relationship of the elements through

Zoom-performances where everyone is “present” and “participating”

(because they are visible—a backdrop to the performance). And yet,

we are sitting behind a literal 4th wall of the computer screen. We are

lacking the desire to question, experiment, and engage as a means of

experiencing performance (Ranciere, 2008) because we are experiencing

Jackson’s spatial emptiness. In this instance, the distance between

the spectator and the artwork almost feels too great. We both lack

boundaries as an audience and have the most “hard-to-breach”

boundary of all. In an “experience economy” (Kunst, 2015) how do

we make this digital “experience” count for anything more meaningful

than scrolling through Instagram. How can we harness what Jackson

calls the “energetic power” of distance to bring the audience back



into the work, without mindlessly exploiting their “efforts” (Kunst). Is

it possible to bring a little of the relational back in? To bring the “joy”

back, when there is no energetic connection of a shared physical/

spatial/temporal experience?

Fragment 4: On Singularities and Counter-actualisation

Riffs on “Singularity”

• Event Horizon: The 'event horizon' is the boundary defining the

region of space around a black hole from which nothing (not

even light) can escape. In other words, the escape velocity for

an object within the event horizon exceeds the speed of light.

(Serena: read "brief history of time")

• In astrophysics, an event horizon is a boundary beyond which

events cannot affect an observer.

• The graphical notion of singularity. (In mathematics, a

singularity is a point at which a given mathematical object is

not defined, or a point where the mathematical object ceases

to be well-behaved in some particular way, such as the lack of

differentiability or analyticity.)

Singularity (Deleuze)

Singularities are the actualization of a

difference that matters difference

in the world:

“Singularities are turning points and

points of inflection: bottlenecks, knots,

foyers, and centers; points of fusion,

condensation, and boiling; points of tears

and joy, sickness and health, hope and

anxiety, ‘sensitive points’

Counter-actualise (Deleuze)

Why is every event a kind of plague,

war, wound, or death? With every event,

there is indeed the present moment of its

actualization, the moment in which the

event is embodied in a state of affairs,

an individual or a person… Sidestepping

each present, being free of limitation…

it has no other present than that of the

mobile instant, forming what must be

called the counter-actualisation.

Singularity (Lepecki)

There and then, between beatings, we

breath and take a break, we find vacuoles

and gaps, we cut grooves where we

run, dance, write, study, make love, live,

and permeate back to infiltrate and

undo their conditioning. For a moment,

life unconditioned. Or rather: life

deconditioned from all that had turned life

into a choreography of conformity. For a

moment, singularity.

Counter-actualise (Lepecki)

To seize the event and to transform

it through this seizing; to plan and

then to restart the plan into endless,

unforeseeable yet-to-comes—in the

dancer’s activation of freedom within

the choreographic plan of composition,

the political comes into the world as an

enduring movement of obstinate joy.²


Choreography Theory—Seven Fragments

Fragment 5: On Precarity 3

I think it is important in recognising that precarity is a shared condition

(as Judith Butler says), and should not be individualised. Sometimes, in

the art world, we tend to prioritise and valorise the ideal of the artist,

of certain bodies (in dance), skills, capacities, and aesthetics. Of course

craft is always important, but we have to be careful not to end up playing

into precarity as an identity.

How do we resist ascribing to individualised self-development (eg.

securing a position as a recognised dance artist to survive in neoliberal

capitalism) to make ourselves less precarious? How does precarity shift

from individual identity(-making) at the expense of others to become

something relational with space to shift? In our processes of performance

training and making, how can we work towards establishing “bonds that

sustain us, a conception of ethical obligation that is grounded in precarity,

our common non-foundation” (Judith Butler)? And to still be clear that

“[w]e are different in our common precariousness. Not every precarious

body is the same, but it is always relational to others because it is

precarious, vulnerable, and mortal” (Isabell Lorey), not a flattening out.

Perhaps we might look towards emerging movements of protests

and mutual aid networks as one potential method of collective resistance

and refusal. Are these movements sustainable in the long term

though, and how?

Fragment 6: On Joyful Resistance 4

For this exercise I was more interested in reflecting on the notions

and forms of resistances that the readings point to. Resistance is

often framed as a heavy, weighty thing… in a neoliberal world where

performance and productivity is prized, resistance looks like drawing

boundaries and saying very seriously 'no' or 'enough is enough':

it may sometimes be ethically and politically necessary for a

dancer to refuse to give him- or herself to view. (Lepecki, p. 11)

[Fred] Moten defined “nonperformance” as being not really about

a mere refusal to perform, but a qualified, highly strategic, and

highly political refusal to perform under the normative (ir)rationalities

that condition and impose their own(i)logics as the only

possible/permissible/acceptable ones under which performances

can take place, are allowed to take place, and in taking place, are

validated as being (the only) valid performances. (Lepecki, p. 14)



And maybe this is just my own hang-up, but I find myself constantly

circling back to this question—why does resistance need to be serious

and solemn?

I think of how André Lepecki ends his introduction with that

cheeky note about epigraphs, and I am reminded of how, in resisting

and finding ways to resist, it’s important to me to balance between

weight and lightness (would highly recommend Italo Calvino’s 6

Memos if people haven’t encountered that yet!), and playing with ‘fun’/

joyful/energising ways of resistances*. How do we expand notions of

resistance and what 'showing up' can look like? What are my ways

of ‘showing up’ as a person and as a practitioner, but also how do I

support other people to ‘show up 5 ’ in their own unique ways? How do

we grow thriving networks of resistances?

*Aug 2020 addendum: I have since started reading Pleasure Activism:

The Politics of Feeling Good by Adrienne Maree Brown, and am finding

it an exciting read in relation to these threads!

Fragment 7: On the Politicality of Knowledge 6

To consider: What is the politicality of a reading group? Is this part of

our praxis?

• Representational—the choice of content

• what we read, tying to specific politics, neoliberalism,

precarity, social reproduction, self-exploitation, relational /


• Citational practices—who is being cited?

• Are they inserting themselves into the discipline?—

A said this and B said this, and this is what A and B

said together.

• Upending disciplinary conversation?—A said this but

B said this, and B counters A and I think A and B are

both wrong because of Y.

• Denaturalizing knowledge production?—interrogating

how knowledge / language / grammar is being pieced

together, revolution against knowledge and legitimacy

(analogy, thinking in a different language)


Choreography Theory—Seven Fragments

• Medium of the text? Materiality of text and discursive dispositifs

(institutional, physical, and administrative mechanisms and

knowledge structures which enhance and maintain the exercise

of power within the social body)

• Who are we reading this alongside?

• Who do we pick to counter or support this argument?

• How does it fit into the larger conversation around the

artform, discipline etc?

• Theory as a dispositif—how is it disciplining us into

the language of art? Where are these knowledge centers


• How we conduct this reading group:

• Hierarchy of relations. How are these sessions facilitated?

• How does the infrastructure of Zoom foreclose or expand

certain possibilities? How can we challenge the infrastructure

of Zoom and what are the limitations?

• What are the power imbalances that exist within this group

itself? How can we actively be conscious of this imbalance

and find ways to counter the tendency to lapse into default

patterns of learning/ doing?

• Durational endurance—returning and revision—beyond an

event, reading as a practice.

How to avoid a linear-causal relationship to the above points? Is there a

way of thinking about it as entangled and inter-relational? One nested

and imbricated by another? How can we collectively think about restructuring

this reading group—and in this restructuring perform the praxis

that we are interrogating in the texts we engage with? How do we shift

the weight of our words?


1. This fragment is an excerpt from a reflection penned by Serena Chalker who was

joining us from Perth, Australia.

2. This conceptual breakdown was compiled by Tay Ining.

3. This fragment is excerpted from a reflection penned by Sonia Kwek.

4. This fragment is excerpted from a reflection penned by Chong Gua Khee.

5. Gua Khee added a link to this site: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/how-tobe-an-activist-when-youre-unable-to-attend-protests

6. This fragment is excerpted from a reflection penned by Loo Zihan.


On Kitsch

Sheryll Goh and Rachael Cheong

AWKWARD PARTY (Sheryll Goh and Rachael Cheong) was one of 16 artists / projects

that participated in our Micro-Residencies, where each project was given resources

to develop ongoing artistic research and creation from April to June 2020. In 'On

Kitsch', Sheryll and Rachael share critical reflections and findings gathered from their

Micro-Residency, which was spent dissecting case studies of kitsch to distill a criteria

of what makes a successful piece of kitsch. These research findings will be featured

at CIRCUIT in January 2021, an exhibition of material accumulated from each artist /

project in the Micro-Residencies, and will culminate in the presentation of AWKWARD

PARTY’s third iteration Reunion Dinner.

On Kitsch

We love to hate kitsch

1. 2.

We also hate that we love kitsch,



But why? This simple question piqued a curiosity,

which blossomed into a fascination and before long, an obsession.

Chapter 1: Pretty Ugly?

Kitsch. It looks and feels cheap, almost as if it was

churned out without much thought to ride on the

coattails of a dying fad. Eagar to please, it is always

agreeable and unashamed of leeching onto sentimentality

for that instant connection with the onlooker.


It may be tempting to write off kitsch as having

superficial appeal: a clumsy caricature of the motifs

that move us. But every passing remark, chuckle

and (dare we say) double-take inspired by the

kitsch around us says otherwise.


• Trying really hard to imitate an iconic motif (the luxury of tulips hark back to

Tulipmania of the 17th century, water droplets to indicate freshness and the

luxury of being able to have it imported whilst fresh earnest

• Attempt(s) to be alluring or to appeal to sentiment coy

• In fact, trying so hard to appeal to us that it seems as if it’s trying to

fool us cunning

The earnest, coy and cunning nature of kitsch that draws us in are the same qualities we

desire in art.



Chapter 2: Memento Mori

Relic Ruin.

The average adult Singaporean of today

is familiar with kitsch. From birthday

cake toppers that bastardise yesterday’s

cartoons to mother’s latest craft obsession

and festive public displays designed

as photo opportunities, we have been

bombarded by kitsch throughout our

formative years. Naturally, kitsch informs

our earliest palates and preferences.

While most of us have moved on in

terms of taste, the impact kitsch has

on us remains. When encountering a

piece of contemporary kitsch, we may

be overwhelmed by the instinctive abhorrence

that washes over us. But on

closer inspection, we may find that on the

brazen cashmere coat of loathing lies a

stray hair—a sliver of nostalgia that harks

back to our childhood. This may be the

root of our ironic appreciation of kitsch.

But with kitsch permeating so many aspects

of our daily lives, how often do we

observe our reactions to it or the influence

it has on us?

1. The transition from anime to collectible

figurine is a good quality one, because

the nerds are actually particular about

the details and how accurate it looks

from the anime. From an adult point of

view, we want the fantasy to be as on

point as possible.

2. When the anime transitions into mass

commercial doll for kids, it's a totally

different endeavour. Proportions are

whack, the hair is styled badly and the

face looks kind of deformed. It's about

bringing half the fantasy for children,

as they're not as particular about details,

but rather are more concerned

about the symbolism of the doll.

Owning what is marketed to them as

"sailor moon" makes the deformed doll

a desirable item. The other half of the

fantasy can easily be completed with a

child's imagination.


On Kitsch

Chapter 3: Adulteration

In 2020, AWKWARD PARTY took up a research residency with Dance Nucleus

to reverse engineer and distil the characteristics that make an object kitsch.

Using their findings, they have reimagined commonplace objects to evoke the pure

love-hate response that quality kitsch has on us.


Children stickers

Restaurant signboards


Moving image wall art.

Visit CIRCUIT#1 website for the full experience.

Tying their research back to where their fascination first began, AWKWARD PARTY will

also be creating an experiential installation inspired by the family communal dining

experience in Singapore.



The third iteration Reunion Dinner unpacks what happens at the scene of the dining

table, when people can (hopefully) come together to celebrate new beginnings. Reunion

Dinner is an observation and kitschification of the tangible objects that make up the

traditional Singaporean communal dining experience that we hold dear. We imagine

audiences entering an exhibition space that appears to have been taken over by a

quintessential hawker stall. With an iconic tze-char dining table taking the spotlight,

the stage is set for a reunion dinner to begin. However, a double-take will reveal

that in place of familiar cutlery and crockery are tongue-in cheek versions created by

AWKWARD PARTY, each object embodying functionality with a twist.









For updates on Reunion Dinner and other awkwardness, visit awkwardparty.club.


On Kitsch


1. Mini Mansions—Monk Album cover art, 2011

2. Untitled. (n.d.). Singing in American Accent, from https://singinginamerican


3. Starry Eyed Anime GIF. (n.d.). Tenor. From https://tenor.com/search/


4. Special For You Cake Box. Google. Source unknown

5. Meat Girl, visual identity sample by AWKWARD PARTY, 2020

6. Waterfall, visual identity sample by AWKWARD PARTY, 2020

7. When Dad first met Mom’s family, Chin Chin restaurant, 1987. Photo courtesy

of Sheryll Goh

8. Back home after 4 years, CNY family reunion lunch, 2017. Photo courtesy of

Sheryll Goh

9. Golden Dragon Fish , by Chef Li Hui from www.instagram.com/p/


10. Jin Pai Tze Char menu, Bukit Merah, Alexandra Village Food Centre. From https://


11. Quintessential Tze Char stall order counter. Source unknown

12. Visual identity sample by AWKWARD PARTY, 2020

Proudly presented by Fashion Designer

Rachael Cheong and Visual Artist Sheryll

Goh, AWKWARD PARTY is a social gathering

for the awkward / an instigation of

all things awkward / the world as seen

through awkwardly shaped glasses.

The Party is caught between its fascination

with bad taste and a desire to put

forth quality work validated by social

norms. It investigates notions of awkwardness

through parodies of cultural kitsch

that is evocative of nostalgic family gatherings

and festive celebrations. The Party

embraces discomfort and never takes itself

too seriously. Always evolving, at times it

is a hybrid object, a research essay, a

reluctant group of people, or a sentimental




Paper Dolls, and


Jereh Leung

Jereh Leung was one of 16 projects that participated in our Micro-Residencies, a programme

that Dance Nucleus launched as a quick-response COVID-19 Initiative. Here,

Jereh reflects on his childhood memories connected with the project he developed

during the Micro-Residency. Materials he accumulated during the programme will be

part of a virtual exhibition featuring documentation from all Micro-Residency projects,

which is slated to happen in January 2021.

Projections, Paper Dolls, and Effigies

When I was young, one of the activities I did was to match clothes to

paper dolls. A bit like putting on clothes for Barbie but instead of a 3D

doll, it was 2D and perhaps less incriminating for a young boy to play

with. It was also more fun because I had to cut out the figures precisely,

following dotted lines; making, instead of merely playing, fashion.

I find multiple artistic interests of mine embodied in this childhood

memory of paper dolls. I am interested in de-objectifying the body,

teasing out collective consciousness, poking at the subconscious,

inventing strategies to subvert patriarchy, and personally confronting

what it means to understand the feminine and all that it entails.

My time in the Micro-Residency programme was spent developing

a video work and bespoke book of paper dolls based on Maggie

Cheung’s character in Wong Kar Wai’s film In the Mood for Love (2000).

It is both a confession and autobiography (at least of the first few

chapters of my life). I thought being honest is the best way to honour

oneself as well as respecting the people who are involved in my work.

There is something about projecting one’s desires, sense and

imagination onto a paper doll. While a paper doll is essentially an

object it could, with time, acquire “body” and cease to be an object

but a subject that one interacts with and responds to. Reflecting on

my own works as paper dolls, how do I enable people to come into

my world? In what ways can my works cease being sheer product and

entail ephemerality and connection?

Perhaps the most important question to consider is what are the

kinds of tools needed to build a person’s investment in the performance.

I propose an analogy of making a paper doll for us to think this through:

1. Someone has to draw the doll.

2. Design the hairstyles, accessories and pets

3. Draw out the dotted outlines

4. Design efficient layout so that one can cut the figures properly

5. Choose the right type of paper that is hard enough for the

doll not to be flimsy and yet not that hard that it’s tedious

to use a scissors

After these steps are completed, we now observe the steps in making

a paper doll

A. Choose the doll to cut

B. Choose the relevant hairstyles and accessories.

C. Cut out properly the different pieces

D. Assemble the pieces together.

E. Invent stories to envision and make the doll come alive



Step E is closest to the idea of projection that I am interested in. I

cannot remember clearly whether I thought I was the doll or sophisticated

enough to clearly identify instances of role play, but it is clear

that I was superimposing my own aesthetics and experience onto the

doll. The doll becomes part me part doll, allowing me to perform, and

engage in fantasies of, a different gender. I wonder when I stopped

playing with paper dolls. It was irrevocably related to social expectations

of gender performance. And hence linking to my interest in

the subversion of patriarchal systems. Thus the de-objectifying of

the body.

As a child, I also participated in my mother’s rituals and practices,

watching her burn effigies (eerily looking like gingerbread men) or go

to mediums to smack effigies with clogs. These effigies too were a kind

of paper doll on which someone projected hopes, desires, anger.

The whole process was theatrical, involving a whole suit of analogue

gizmos and gadgets. The effigies were made of thin pieces of

rice paper, brightly coloured. There was the chanting by the medium

that rhymed and able to match the best Shakespearean thespian.

Smoke and incense triggered and overloaded the senses. And to top it

all, the final moment when fire comes into play: we’d flick the effigy into

the fire and watch it burn and dissolve into tinder ashes.

In my project, my body is the “paper doll”. So what are my accessories,

what do I dress in? Here, I have been working on invoking

emotions from past experiences or absorbing emotions from actresses

in movies I watch. I am still in the process of deciphering the methods

but it essentially involves forgetting oneself and letting the other

image seep into the body, very much like the temple mediums who

are possessed by spirits that they have called upon. The images of

actresses and my observations of their behaviour serve as a textbook

for me. The fun part is when there is not enough information for me

to totally copy from or my memory fails. The me will slip into the role

of the actress and merge with it, creating a whole new entity that is

neither me nor the actress.

However, my body still belongs to the male gender. How long will

it take for audience to forget my body and drift into believing the essence

that is projected upon it? When will they think I am performing,

when I am being myself, or even being a new me when allowed to do

so? Would people be able to project their own stories upon me? How

many times have they burnt up their own personalities so as to put on

characters that have been prescribed by others and society?

And now, with my eyes closed, I can see myself looking at the bin

of fire, flickering in the wind as I throw the paper dolls and see them

crumble into ashes. What’s left is a smoldering pit glowing. I stand


Projections, Paper Dolls, and Effigies

there silently awaiting the phoenix to appear, and then hearing the

Weather girls sing “It’s raining men”. Hallelujah!

Jereh Leung’s work constantly evaluates

and redefines subverting patriarchal views.

By merging different mediums (body, sculpture

and sound), he creates landscapes that

require a dedication of time and seeks to

place viscerality as the central “vehicle of

meaning”. Combining strategies of tapping

into iconic filmic tropes and surrealism, he

looks into the politics of negotiating the

authenticity of personal memories, interpretation

and social construct. Trained in

SEAD (Salzburg) and NAFA (Singapore), he

has worked with Singaporean artists Bani

Haykal, Choy Ka Fai, Daniel Kok, Eng Kai

Er, Loo Zihan, Looi Wan Ping, Tang Ling

Nah, Ah Hock and Peng Yu, DramaBox,

Frontier Danceland, TheatreWorks and

The Necessary Stage; internationally with

Isabelle Schad (DE), Xavier Le Roy (FR/DE),

Alexandra Pirici (ROU), Oleg Soulimenko

(AT/RUS), Matej Kejzar (BE/SI), Noa Zuk

(IL), Ole Khamchanla (FR) and Wallie

Wolfgruber (USA).


Paper Doll cutouts by Jereh Leung

Paper Doll cutouts by Jereh Leung

Paper Doll cutouts by Jereh Leung

Finding Soultari’s

Lenggang: Walking


Soultari Amin Farid

This article by Soultari Amin Farid is part of a compendium that accompanied his work,

Pok!, that was presented in dans festival 2020’s Failing the Dance: A Double Bill of

Lecture-Performances. In Pok!, Amin attempts to find his own lenggang, a stylistic

walk-like movement with strict gendered codes of performance in Malay dance. In the

process, he confronts the term ‘bapok’—used both as derogatory word and a term

of endearment for an effeminate Malay man. This article consists of Amin’s critical reflections

and notes accumulated from his collaborative research and creation process

with Nirmala Seshadri. It is accompanied by a shorter write-up about Malay music/

dance genres, Quirky Facts about Malay Dance in Singapore.

Finding Soultari’s Lenggang: Walking Otherwise

“There are only a few reasons for your mediocre performance, Amin!

It is either you are wrong, you forgot or you don’t know. Which one

was it?”

Those were the words I received from a dance senior about my performance

of the Serampang Dua Belas that afternoon of 2012. 1 I pondered

upon his words and reflected on my performance after a video recording

of it was made accessible to me. I admit I made a mistake or two. One

obvious mistake was when I was supposed to complement my dance

partner in a movement phrase that involved a series of crossing steps

and manoeuvring in a square floor pattern. In that slight moment of

forgetting, a sudden looking back to “check” my partner and an abrupt

change of movements, was an jarring mis-step. In the recording itself, I

could hear a an audible “boo!” to suggest that I was not merely dancing

in the presence of a lay audience but quite an informed one.

Serampang Dua Belas is ultimately a partnered dance between

a male and female dancer. Structured as twelve segments arranged

progressively to denote a couple getting to know each other and

eventually to consummate their marriage, the dance’s strict gendered

roles thus served an important purpose for narrating the courtship

between a man and a woman. 2

With this in mind, any misdemeanour in the enactment of gender,

could be regarded as a transgression of the dance’s true intent.

Another mistake that was pointed out to me regarding my performance

that day was how my hips were moving too much. Unlike the

female dancer, whose hip movements are most prized and expected,

the male dancer’s role is akin to that of a warrior, hence any motion

of the hips is rendered unacceptable—even perceived as if the male

dancer is embodying the female character.

Throughout my artistic journey, my struggle with gendered performance

continues to shape my practice. It became a preoccupation

because of the “middle ground” that I believe I stand on: my natural

embodied affinity to the “female” movements and the pedantic learning

of the “male” movement in my formal training of Malay dance. In

addition due to the close-knit community of Malay dance practitioners,

the knowing of the who’s who in the circle and the genealogical baggage

that comes from years of kindred practice of the form, have

fostered quite a rigid understanding about the do’s and don’ts of

gender in performance. Thus a mistake in a public performance where

practitioners are present, is inevitably regarded as faux pas to the

community—especially when it is expected for an experienced dancer

such as myself to have had the repertoire embedded within my limbs

and joints.



The Lenggang as the Gendered Walk of

the Malay Archipelago 3

The Malay archipelago, or addressed at times as the Malay World or the

Nusantara, refers to the Malay communities living in various parts of

maritime Southeast Asia which today are the modern nation states of

Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam, Southern Thailand

and Southern Philippines. 4 Other than sharing similar linguistic conventions

and connected historically, these communities share kindred

traditions, beliefs and practices which include music and dance heritages.

Practitioners of “Malay” dance in these communities would attest

to the kindred affinity of some of the music/dance folk genres, sharing

similar repertoires and structures. However, in the same vein, they would

emphasize how different their practice of these forms are. Some of the

similar folk music/dance genres are the Asli, Inang, Joget and Zapin. 5

This is very much reflected in the Lenggang which is a typical

movement phrase within the folk music/dance genres. There is no

direct translation for the Lenggang and to term it as merely a “walk”

does it little justice. I see it as a compound movement of various body

parts and the execution of a particular technique is dependent on

a dancer’s gender. Hence, I have chosen to define it as a walk-like

contralateral motion which involves the swinging of the arms, lifting

of the feet and the regulated swaying of the hips. 6 For easy reference,

one may consider it as a walk but done in a stylistic manner, i.e. with

aesthetics that are characteristic of what is regarded as “Malay” which

I will attempt to unpack.

Peribahasa or the Malay proverb provides an encompassing idea

to this concept of performing the walk. The beginning stance of the

Lenggang which requires one to bend his/her knees, could be regarded

as an embodiment of a ripened paddy which symbolises humility.

The proverb, “follow the example of the paddy, as it ripens it bends.

Never be the lalang which flutters from one side to the other, following

the direction of the wind” provides us with a cautionary tale that compares

one element to another. The paddy is of course most valuable

to village folks for rice is a staple food in the most communities in the

region. Thus it is held at high regard and featured as an important

imagery of humility translated through the body with bended knees

(as opposed to straighten knees) and the upper torso slightly inclined

forward, condong ke depan. 7

Another peribahasa, “the ground one treads on, there the skies

one must lift”, is the Malay equivalent for the classic saying “in Rome,

do what the Romans do”, which is a reminder to respect the practice

and traditions of the place one has chosen to live in. 8 The peribahasa’s


Finding Soultari’s Lenggang: Walking Otherwise

focus on the bumi (ground/earth) and the langit (skies) acknowledges

the importance of land and environment in Malay culture. Thus the

stepping motion of the Lenggang pays homage to the land by treading

gently on it rather than to hit one’s foot onto the ground In fact any

sounds of stomping would get a reaction of disapproval from teachers

and the oft-heard, “macam gajah” (like an elephant).Hence an engagement

of one’s core is important so that there is control and awareness

of how the feet engage with the earth.

As a dance anthropologist, I have had the opportunity to travel

to different Malay communities and I have observed that depending on

the land one lives in, people walk differently. The Nusantara although

at times regarded as a monolith, is richly diverse. My curiosity for

how the Lenggang is performed has brought me to different parts

of Sumatra, Indonesia, in which pockets of Malay communities live in

different provinces such as North Sumatra, Riau (Inland), Riau Islands

and Palembang, wherein differing circumstances would provide varying

context to how the Lenggang differs provincially. In addition, my

time in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, also provided me with the insight of

how there is more of an attempt to homogenise the Lenggang.

In these locales, I participated in the training and observed how

the male and female Lenggang are executed. Using my embodied

training as a Malay dancer in Singapore as reference, I was able to

discern how the national/regional Lenggang are different.

In Medan, North Sumatra, for example, the male Lenggang is

executed like a marching warrior, with hands clenched and rather

than swinging, the arms are moving up and down. In addition, the

torso is upright to look dignified. In Malaysia, one of the codified male

Lenggang is called the serang (attack) and tepis (fend) which involve

palms facing downwards with extended fingers that when it is swinging

forward gives the impression of attacking and backwards as if

fending. It is clear that the image of the male dancer as warrior and

defender is embodied in both the styles.

The female Lenggang in the Nusantara is equally perceptive. Most

Sumatran communities would have their female Lenggang executed

with arms to the side moving up and down, with fingers articulated.

This is to give an impression of a demure woman that is delicate and

soft. If there is a difference, informants in Riau have shared that the

Lenggang there has a subtle buoyant quality to appear as if floating

which involves the body moving up and down. They have attributed

this to how the Malays there live near the sea thus imitating the motion

of the sea. One version of the female Malaysian Lenggang is called the

lambung angin (heaving winds). This would involve the articulating of

the wrists, rotated inwards to give the impression of winds in motion.


Pok! video stills by Charmaine Poh


For this version the curvilinear trajectory of the movement coupled by

the moving of hips provide a distinct style that is not seen in other

“nationalistic” styles.

In Singapore, the homogenisation of the Lenggang is partly due

to the close-knit circle of practitioners, most of whom with a genealogy

that can be traced back to the founding of persatuan-persatuan

or arts organisations established in the 1950s namely Sriwana and

Perkumpulan Seni, which are two artistic entities that are still actively

promoting Malay dance today. 9 Early dance practitioners of these groups

would have had intersecting experiences in artistic collaborations and

also as pioneering members of the national dance troupes such as the

People’s Association Cultural Troupe (est. 1965) and the National Dance

Company (est. 1970).

As a practitioner who began dancing with Perkumpulan Seni in

2000, a cursory standardised Lenggang was already in place. The

Singapore Lenggang is usually executed with arms swinging forward,

initiated from the wrists. The difference between the Lenggang of both

genders could be seen in the manner in how it is executed. The male

Lenggang usually swung forward higher to the level of the shoulder, feet

lifted higher and fingers less articulated. The female Lenggang would

have more limits imposed as compared to her male counterpart: the

swinging less forceful and not high to a point where her armpits are

exposed and the feet not lifted high to a point her calves are revealed.

As explained earlier in this paper, the motion of her hips are expected. 10

When I first started learning the Lenggang, I recalled my Guru

correcting my stances and my techniques a lot when I was performing

the Lenggang. He explained that as a male dancer, I should not have

my feet too close to each other and also for my elbows to be turned

outward so that my arms can swing wider. He taught me that the male

dancer is a man who looks at his female partner as if mesmerised by her

sheer beauty thus he cannot be as bashful as her but forward about his

advances. He must be able to attract her with his manliness and skill for

the martial arts. In other words, the male dancer is and can never be the

female because each as a role to play in this story of love.

He advised me firmly one day, whilst I was teaching my female

counterparts on how to perform their Lenggang, that I should not be

instructing them to do what comes natural to them as women. He added

that for someone like me who is effeminate, it will be a great disservice,

especially since I should be more concerned about performing the male

technique properly.

It is expected that I must embody my rightful demeanour as man, a

warrior, a charmer and one half of a blissful union.


Finding Soultari’s Lenggang: Walking Otherwise

Faux Pas, Corrections, Disappointments:

Recipe for Failing the Dance

The necessity to find Soultari’s Lenggang is not a desire for a

well-crafted “walk” that is distinct and identifiable. In fact, the answer

here is very much in the finding which implies that it will never be

a finished venture but continues to be something that could and

should never be defined, always in a state of flu. Hence one must

have comfort in such a state of uncertainty—a positionality that I

have ironically found a gradual sense of equilibrium despite being

on shaky ground.

Through the process of finding, I realise the capacity of my

body to take on several roles, techniques and capabilities. Feminist

theorist, Elizabeth Grosz, understood this fluidity of our corporeality

when she affirms “bodies are not inert; they function interactively

and productively. They act and react. They generate what is new,

surprising, unpredictable”(xi). My body’s inability to conform has

rendered it a site of contestation for my community to label, argue

and debate; to be subjected to corporeal corrections; to be a source

of disappointment to those who expect better of me; and most importantly,

a triggering point for transgressing social norms. These

I take on board, at first with much duress, now with a sense of an

empowerment that I am able to walk otherwise. The ability to walk

otherwise hence also implies a sense of choice, the recognition that I

may choose as and when I want to walk with the “rest” or differently.

I walk otherwise with due diligence and respect for history,

archipelagic affinity and deep relation to the ecology that have facilitated

the construction of my persona without me realising it in the

first place. The new, surprising and unpredictable as Grosz exclaims

are in the acknowledgement that the body traverses different active

modes of performativity and accumulates embodied capital. Thus,

the body should always be in the pursuit of unexpected circumstances

rather than confined to certain predictable moulds.

The implication that I have failed the dance could now be understood

as I am failing the dance. The former sets me up as someone

who has not met the standards of the dance and the latter proposes

the idea that to concur about our corporeality’s inherent state of

flux, one must indeed give dance the “fail” grade. This is to say that

due to the dance’s rigid structures i.e. the Malay dance, there is

no room for alternative and divergent states of performance, thus

in imposing a “fail”, the non-conforming may realise and maximise

their potentialities.




1. I write this article as a reflection of my work entitled, “Pok!” which I have been

working as an associate member of Dance Nucleus for the past 2 years. The

article is also part of the compendium for “Failing the Dance: Double-Bill of

Lecture-Performances” commissioned by Esplanade Theatres on the Bay’s

annual programme, da:nsfest, premiered online on 21 October 2020.

2. I have written extensively about this repertoire as part of my Masters research.

Read Mohd Farid, “Serampang Dua Belas”.

3. I have written elsewhere of my curiosity about Lenggang as an entry point into

cross-gender performance. Some of the criticisms about that article were the

implications that I was endorsing an unorthodox practice, lobbying lifestyles

which were not in adherence to my Islamic faith etc. I would contend here that

my argument in the main intent of that article was to acknowledge the already

present practices of cross-gender performance in the Malay world and most

importantly to also realise the versatility of our bodies. I believe that it was a

necessary action on my part as a practitioner-scholar to offer varied perspectives

in the hope that practitioners may incite critical and mature discussions

about alternative practices of gendered performance in “traditional” arts.

4. These are terminologies that continue to be contested as it is in conflict with

rising nationalism in different modern nation states. Nationalism’s penchant for

manufacturing an intra-local sense of belonging, sees translocal affinity as an

antithesis to their purpose. Practitioners have been very creative to use the discourse

of internationalism to continue this commemorating of a kindred affinity

as more governmental support is given to internationalisation efforts rather than

to support an affiliation to supra-ethnic identity.

5. Refer to the short write-up about Malay music/dance genres in the


6. Written a week after the performance-lecture recording in September, I have

decided to incorporate “regulated swaying of the hips” because through the

process and countless times of executing the Lenggang, I have observed that

the hips played an important part in the execution of the movement technique.

7. Ikutlah resmi padi, semakin berisi semakin menunduk. Jangan jadi seperti lalang

yang melentuk ke sana ke sini apabila ditiup angin.

8. Di mana bumi dipijak, di situ langit dijunjung.

9. For an overview about formal training and presentation about Malay

dance in Singapore, see Mohd Farid, “Commemorating the ‘Singapore-

Medan’ Connection”.

10. In brief, the subsequent decades also saw the establishment of other national

events which provided opportunities for some individuals to embark on their

own artistic journeys. This generated a new lineage of arts groups which would

share similar practices and repertoires. Some notable names would include,

Nongchik Ghani, Naim Pani, Som Said, Salleh Buang, Idris Abdullah, Ali Sungip,

Hamim Hassan, Khusaini Hashim, to name a few. For a list of key events on

Malay dance development, please read Mohd Farid, “Flashback: Seven Decades

of Malay Dance in Singapore”.


Finding Soultari’s Lenggang: Walking Otherwise


Farid, Soultari Amin. “The Lenggang as Entry into Cross-Gender Performance Research

and Practice.” Fuse #2, Dance Nucleus, 2018, pp. 52–68, https://www.yumpu.com/en/


Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Indiana University

Press, 1994.

Mohd Farid, Muhd Noramin. “Serampang Dua Belas: Discourses of Identity in the

Contemporary Practice of a Malay Courtship Dance in Sumatra.” Master Thesis,

Roehampton University, 2016.

Mohd Farid, Muhd Noramin. “Flashback: Seven Decades of Malay Dance in

Singapore” Esplanade Offstage, 4 Jan. 2019, https://www.esplanade.com/offstage/arts/


Mohd Farid, Muhd Noramin. “Commemorating the ‘Singapore-Medan’ Connection:

Contradictions in Appropriating ‘Indonesian’ Repertories into The Singapore Malay

Dance Canon.” Proceedings of the 5th Symposium: The ICTM Study Group on Performing

Arts of Southeast Asia, Sabah Museum, 2019, pp.142–146.

Mohd Farid, Muhd Noramin. “Imagining Tarian Melayu in Singapore: Curating Bodies of

Malay Dance” PhD Thesis, Royal Holloway, University of London, Forthcoming.


Pok! video stills by Charmaine Poh


Quirky Facts about Malay Dance in Singapore

The 5 Malay music/dance genres that practitioners in Singapore practise

are Asli, Inang, Masri, Joget and Zapin which are pan-Malay folk

forms shared amongst communities of practitioners of the Malay world.

Instead of merely providing basic information about Malay dance, I write

4 quirky facts about Malay dance. Why quirky? Because these facts are

“unexpected” and not insights that are easily packaged and available for

the consumption of non-practising readers!

1. Much Ado About Taxonomies

The term “tari” which is the Malay equivalent for dance is in fact a

term that was popularised during the colonial period to fit rigid artistic

categories from the West. The Malay world is replete with indigenous

taxonomies that also describe dancing or moving specific body parts

such as tandak, igal and liok. 1

In Singapore the argument between “traditionalists'' and “innovators”

have pushed for the creation of various umbrella genres,

in particular what constitutes as tradisional (traditional); kreasi (new

creation); and kontemporari (contemporary). Tradisional is relatively

regarded as a repertoire that continues to be practised actively today

since its creation many years ago and its form “unchanged”. Kreasi

refers to the creative re-creations of the traditional form yet maintaining

elements of traditional Malay dance without crossing into the

boundaries of the “contemporary”.

The kontemporari has received much attention in the past decade

and as an active practitioner today, there have been debates on whether

kontemporari Malay dance has lost its Malay essence. Thus the need

to make it kontemporari melayu as a reminder that even in the pursuit

of contemporaneity, practitioners must always ensure that the Malay

essence remains intact. Interestingly this “essence” also includes religious

(Islamic) obligations as most Malays are Malay-Muslims.

The preoccupation with the definition of these genres has been

hotly debated throughout different generations and continue to be a

topic amongst practitioners today.

2. Collective Identities

Malay dance continues to be a practice that is dependent on a

guru-siswah (master-disciple) relationship. Students at most times are


Finding Soultari’s Lenggang: Walking Otherwise

obligated to stay and learn from one Guru for many years and the

move from one group to another is highly frowned upon. Thus, group

identities are usually associated with a particular master teacher and

in cases when the group has existed for many years, it is associated

with a prominent dance personality.

Due to the close-knit relationship of the community, it is no

wonder when a Malay dancer describes his/her activism in Malay

dance, he/she will refer first to its group identity and then the associated

master/personality. This specific group solidarity is most obvious

when the Malay dance community at large is involved in “collaborations”.

Collaboration for the community means being involved in one

full production with each group presenting their own work and they

are all strung together by a related theme. Although they are connected,

each will try to present a work which is representative of a group’s


Groups that are actively participating and contributing to the

scene today include, Sriwana, Perkumpulan Seni, Sri Warisan Som

Said Performing Arts Ltd, Era Dance Theatre, Atrika Dance Company,

Ayunda Lestari, Azpirasi Dance Group, Attrians, Kirana Seni, Artiste

Seni Budaya, Dian Dancers, Variasi Performing Arts, Artistari Gentari

and Mak Mak Menari. Also there are more recent collectives founded

by artists with Malay dance background but have chosen to work on

multi-, cross-, inter-disciplinary and cultural works such as Kaizen M.D.,

P7I:SMA and Bhumi Collective. However, there are also independent

artists whose backgrounds are from these groups but have chosen to

do independent work on their own.

3. Malay Cultural Affinity

There are Malay communities living in different modern nation-states

such as Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam, southern

parts of Thailand and Philippines. This reality has allowed for the advent

of festivals and competitions that continue to commemorate and endorse

the pan-ethnic affinity but masks this agenda within the language

of modern nationalism which calls for the internationalisation of their

local (national) arts.

Some of these festivals and competitions, which have occurred

annually for about a decade or two, are now quite a brand in the region.

These events will feature groups from these countries and would usually

present works which conform to either one of the recognised Malay

music/dance genres. One such example is Singapore’s Muara Dance

Festival and Indonesia’s Dangkong Festival held in the Riau Islands. An



example of a prominent annual competition is the Serampang Dua Belas

competition to determine the male and female champions of this popular

dance. Dancers from the Malay world would flock to be assessed

in this competition and has become a rites of passage amongst the

Indonesian Malay community.

But not all is well in the recognition of a kindred cultural affinity.

There are “culture wars” between Malaysia and Indonesia which are

disputes by either nation state to nationally claim aspects of shared

culture such as local songs and artefacts. One recent dispute being

about claiming the Tor Tor folk dance of the Mandailing ethnic group, a

people situated mostly in Northern Sumatra and a growing community

in Malaysia, as a national heritage of Malaysia.

4. Non-Malay Contributors to Malay Dance

Although there is a tendency to associate Malay dance only as a practice

of one ethnic community, the form has had contributors and practitioners

who are non-Malay as well. In the late 1950s, the political climate in

the region and specifically in Singapore was gradually transitioning into

postcolonial circumstances that allowed for more indigenous voices

to be heard and an inter-Asian solidarity towards independence from

colonial governance.

One personality that continues to be remembered for her contributions

to the scene is Indonesian of Chinese descent, Mdm Liu

Chun Wai who is affectionately known as Ah Choon. She was firstly

invited by students of Nantah University (private Chinese Language

University—now defunct) to teach Malay dance repertoires. Her popularity

with the Chinese students and the public caught the attention

of Malay dance practitioners, most notably Nongchik Ghani who is the

founder of Sriwana.

Through him, she became a resident choreographer with Sriwana

for two years and introduced many dance repertoires which are still

practised in Sriwana and other groups sharing similar genealogies.

During her short residency in Singapore from 1959 to the early 60s,

Mdm Liu continues to be revered for some of her works that have

become iconic pieces of Malay dance such as Tari Tudung Saji and

Zapin Asyik.

Another non-Malay contributor to Malay dance is Francis Yeoh

who was the founding director of the now defunct National Dance

Company (NDC) from 1970–78. Francis Yeoh, although trained extensively

as a Ballerino, was very attuned to Malay folk dances growing

up in Johore just across the causeway. His role as artistic director of


Finding Soultari’s Lenggang: Walking Otherwise

the company from 1970–1978 was integral for Malay dancers who

were selected to be part of the company. To create the multi-ethnic

dance suites which will become the hallmark of the company’s repertory,

Yeoh had to synchronise the techniques of the dancers who came

from various traditional/ethnic dance communities. He did this through

introducing certain balletic techniques and presentational skills for the

stage. In addition, he also ensured the company’s dancers learnt from

each other by embodying specific traditional dance techniques. Yeoh

also choreographed Malay dance repertoires for the company. One of

his notable “Malay dance” works is the “Harvest Festival Dance” which

was a blend of balletic techniques and movements from folk dance.


1. Colonial historian, Mubin Sheppard, has identified four different descriptions

of movement in the Malay world. Sheppard describes, “Tandak emphasizes

the dancers’ steps, Igal means posturing or dancing with emphasis on body

movements, Liok is applied to low bending and swaying of the body, and Tari

describes dancing in which the graceful” (82).

Soultari Amin Farid is a choreographer,

arts educator and researcher from

Singapore. He is currently based in

London where he is a PhD candidate in

Theatre, Drama and Dance studies in Royal

Holloway, University of London, UK. He was

awarded the Singapore Youth Award (SYA)

in 2017. His recent choreographic credits

in Europe include: bhumi (Edinburgh

Fringe Festival, UK); What If…: The Mother

in Tagore’s Poems (Commissioned by Mora

Ferenc Muzeum, Hungary) and Unity in

Diversity (University of Szeged, Hungary).

Some of his works as Artistic Director in

Singapore include: Mak-Mak Menari (M1

Singapore Fringe 2020), yesterday it rained

salt (M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2019),

Sau (dara) (The Vault, Centre 42), and

Padi Kuning [Yellow Paddy] (Supported by

National Arts Council's Cross-Polytechnic

Arts Initiative (CPAI)).


The Problematic


Nirmala Seshadri

Nirmala Seshadri’s work, The Problematic Danseuse, was presented with Pok! by

Soultari Amin Farid in Failing the Dance: A Double Bill of Lecture-Performances. In

The Problematic Danseuse, Nirmala revisits embodied memories of marginalisation and

censorship, plagued by hegemonic and patriarchal issues, which have accumulated over

nearly 50 years of training in and performing bharatanatyam. Like Amin’s article, this

piece accompanied Nirmala’s presentation, which contains reflections and thoughts collected

during their collaborative research process under their Associate Membership

with Dance Nucleus.

The Problematic Danseuse

Seshadri, Nirmala. ‘The Problematic Danseuse: Reclaiming Space to Dance the Lived

Feminine’. Diotima’s: A Journal of New Readings, Kozhikode, Kerala: Providence

Women’s College, (2017): 54–79. Print.

The Problematic Danseuse: Reclaiming Space to Dance

the Lived Feminine

Nirmala Seshadri

It is understood that the Danseuse (nartaki) should be very lovely,

young, with full round breasts, self-confident, charming, agreeable,

dexterous in handling the critical passages… with wide-open eyes…

adorned with costly jewels, with a charming lotus-face, neither very

stout nor very thin, nor very tall nor very short” (Nandikesvara 1917:


The Abhinaya Darpana (13 th century CE) and Bharata’s Natyasastra

(200 BCE–300 CE), serve as key texts in a Bharatanatyam dancer’s

training. The messaging of the above verse from the Abhinaya Darpana

is loud and clear—the female dancer is the object of the societal and,

more specifically, the male gaze. How does the modern-day ‘danseuse’

re-present her performance body to shift it from the male or externally-defined


In the years that I have lived in Singapore and India, I have experienced

classical dance training and its performance as a jettisoning of

the dancer’s real life experience rather than its inclusion. Highlighting

the separation between the lived and performance bodies of the

female classical dancer, dance scholar Urmimala Sarkar Munsi states,

“the reality of her everyday life is put aside, as she reclaims her tradition

through her body and performance—entering into an imaginary

realm of a world that begins and ends with the performance itself,

and does not have anything to do with the everyday reality of the

body” (2014: 307). Rather than move in autonomy and authenticity,

the dancer’s body is disciplined into presenting itself within the prescribed

boundaries. According to Sarkar Munsi, “locating the female

body within the historically derived public domain of the patriarchal

society has silenced any bodily activities or at least muted them in and

through classical dance” (2014: 308). Various societal forces collude

to discipline the female dancer into conformity. Against this backdrop,

I call the female Bharatanatyam dancer who defies societal yardsticks

of acceptability, resisting disciplinarity to present her lived feminine—

The Problematic Danseuse.



In this practice-led research paper I examine, through the lenses

of history, performance aesthetics and presentation, the approaches

towards and challenges of representing the lived feminine through

Bharatanatyam. I view the Bharatanatyam dancer’s portrayal of the

lived feminine through three broad modes: 1. the display of the erotic,

2. the challenging of gender norms and other social structures, and

3. the representation of the authentic experience of modern realities,

drawing primarily upon my choreographic works 1 —Outcaste Eternal

(1999), Eighteen Minutes (2002), Crossroads (2003) and Radha Now

(2006). As a Bharatanatyam practitioner, native Singaporean and a

non-resident Indian dancer who thirsted for knowledge and acceptance

both in Singapore and Chennai, I place myself as an embodied

subject in this phenomenological analysis of my body and its expression.

I could view myself as a participant observer in the field but given

that I have remained on the margins both by virtue of not being truly at

home in either location, as well as the fact that I gradually became the

Problematic Danseuse myself, I would call myself the insider/outsider

in the arena of Bharatanatyam, thus aiming to bring into this paper

my ethnographic and auto-ethnographic perspectives that arise from

this position.

Even as continued transgression may result in the marginalization

and eventual erasure of the Problematic Danseuse, I argue that in

her treatment and resistance lie the basis for some form of solidarity

with other women who have expressed their lived feminine emphatically,

in time past and present, that might support her persistence

in critiquing status quo and searching for alternate paradigms both

within Bharatanatyam and in its wider sociocultural context.

Expressing the Lived Feminine

The “lived feminine” is a concept adopted by feminist scholars to facilitate

the emergence for women, of meaningful and empowering

alternatives to male-instituted models. While supporting the notion

of sexual differentiation, feminist scholar Rosi Braidotti states: “being

a woman is always there as an ontological precondition for a female

subject’s existential becoming (1994: 102). Elizabeth Grosz insists on

“the irreducible specificity of women's bodies, the bodies of all women,

independent of class, race and history” (1994: 207). In a world that privileges

the male voice and perspective, it becomes important for women

to convey their “lived feminine” and I quote Luce Irigaray, who says, “the

‘masculine’ is not prepared to share the initiative of discourse. It prefers

to experiment with speaking, writing, enjoying ‘woman’ rather than


The Problematic Danseuse

leaving to that other any right to intervene, to ‘act’ in her own interests”

(1985: 157). The opening verse from the Abhinaya Darpana comes to

mind. Expressing the lived feminine carries multi-pronged potential—

empowerment in women arising from the agency and authenticity of

expression, the gradual development of awareness and possible transformation

in society. Dance, with its emphasis and connection to the

corporeal, its negotiation with physical space and tools for non-verbal

communication can serve as a powerful and effective medium for lending

tangibility to the female dancer’s reality. Indeed, these expressions

offer a fresh perspective, “the point of view of the feminine subject”

(Lehtinen 2014: 85).

I examine issues surrounding the expression of the Bharatanatyam

dancer’s lived feminine through three approaches, namely: portrayal of

eroticism, critiquing of gender norms, and expression of her personal

lived experience. I discuss the creation and presentation of my artistic

work, reactions evoked within the socio-cultural context (including

audiences), my interactions and observations in the field as well as

challenges posed to such expression in the context of the globalized 2

dance form—Bharatanatyam.

1. Her Dance is TOO Erotic

After all, I was depicting Radha 3 and Krishna 4 in a post-coital moment.

I felt the strong need to include my own experience as a woman and

to allow for the expressions to be less stylized, to depict an everyday

reality. Instead of restricting my abhinaya to focus on the face

and hand gestures alone, I extended it to include the rest of my body.

Radha in this verse has been referred to as the Swadhinapatika nayika

[heroine], one who is in command of her lover. I therefore introduced

body positions and movements that I felt would convey this stance in a

sexual connotation. Since Radha was seeking to prolong the moment

and have Krishna indulge her in various ways, I interpreted the verse to

be the interim between two sexual climaxes and this was represented

through bodily abhinaya 5 (Seshadri 2011: 6; 2018: 118 – 9).

In the experimental Bharatanatyam duet Crossroads (2003) that was

primarily an exploration of gender through the recontextualization

of the conventional Bharatanatyam margam (repertoire), I chose to

perform as my solo piece the ashtapadi 6 Kuru Yadunandana from

Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda 7 . While earlier versions were performed in

the prescribed and acceptable manner, it was when preparing for

the 2006 staging in Chennai at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha 8 that I was


The Problematic Danseuse by Nirmala.

Photo by Mervin Wong Seshadri


inspired to push the boundaries of my expression to reflect my personal

interpretation of the poem as well as my authentic experience

as a woman.

As the piece progressed in its intensity, the final pose saw me in

a supine position and with both my legs raised to depict heightened

sexual enjoyment, laced with suggestions of autoeroticism. To my surprise,

my lighting designer dimmed the lights prematurely leaving me

to complete the piece in darkness, contradicting what was originally

planned. Later he told me that he had made the decision to shield me

from the audience gaze, given what he had understood of the general

mindset, thus censoring me based on his own cultural viewpoint. An

audience member told me that a group of young girls looked visibly

uncomfortable and stood up to leave the auditorium. Appearing curious

at the same time, they waited at the door, until the end. Later one

of my key musicians commented that my rendition of the ashtapadi

was “too erotic”. These reactions suggest to me that I had crossed a

line in terms of the expression of sringara (erotic love).

After the 2008 Singapore staging of the same performance,

the contemporary artists and some general audience members were

openly appreciative of my solo piece, but the Bharatanatyam community

offered me little feedback. It is plausible to read their lack

of feedback as a negative response, given the usual sharing that

takes place among them on social media after any performance. This

reading gains even more credibility when seen against the fact that

these same students were not entirely silent about the performance

as a whole—they expressed approval of my male collaborator's dance,

while remaining silent about mine. Underscoring my reading of the silence

as critique was a note I received from a Singapore-based female

dancer and scholar who referred to my piece as “a big bold step

which requires tremendous courage on your part…”. Her comment

about courage was mirrored—albeit in a less laudatory manner—in a

question posed to me in 2015 by a male interviewer from an established

Indian arts organization in Singapore (Institution 1): “People say

your dance is too erotic?” In general, the reactions emphasized that

the mainstream Bharatanatyam community does not welcome these

explorations in sensual expression. Even for the female dancer and

scholar who was open to the work, there was a recognition that it

demanded “tremendous courage”.

Another production that evoked such recognition was the 2008

staging of my dance theatre work Outcaste Eternal (1999) in Chennai

that highlighted the true story of a lone woman’s battle against a misogynistic

society. In their post-show communications with me, two

leading dancers in the field had also used the words “brave” and


The Problematic Danseuse

“courageous attempt”. Both dancers seemed to acknowledge that

works that test boundaries and challenge the status quo are up against

hegemonic forces. Censorship of the Chennai performance began with

the requirement from the authorities that we amend the script in parts.

Then came the instruction from representatives of the government-run

Museum Theatre (our performance venue) who had attended the stage

rehearsal, to cut out the final pose of one sequence. This seduction

scene had two characters, male and female, lying horizontal together

on stage, the female protagonist (myself) suggestively placing her

lower leg over his before the lights are dimmed, to suggest triumph.

Dance critic Rupa Srikanth’s review that appeared in the leading

mainstream newspaper The Hindu emphasizes the expectations of

“dignity” that are placed on a Bharatanatyam dancer. Srikanth writes:

Strong words work well in theatre, but the stylization in dance

presupposes a certain measure of restraint… The graphic detailing of

the sexual encounters left nothing to imagination; such scenes actually

bring down art to its lowest denominator… It must be mentioned here

that the square stance that Nirmala adopted in her soliloquy, Odissi

chauka 9 -style, also did not do her dignified dance any credit (2008).

Irigaray’s emphasis—on altering the feminine style “as an excess

that exceeds common sense”, rather than reproducing or limiting its

expression within the parameters of masculine discourse (Lehtinen

2014: 78), becomes pertinent here. It lends tangibility to the existence

of strict boundaries in Bharatanatyam, evident through the praise I received

for my “courage” as well in Srikanth’s writing which reflects the

imposition of self-control, the denial of freedom for sexual expression

and ultimately the demand that the Bharatanatyam dancer reflect a

level of purity that invokes caste-based stratifications 10 .

The existence of Bharatanatyam rests, after all, on the expunging

of the hereditary Devadasi11 dancer as a result of “a female sexuality

that was exercised outside the acceptable borders of middle class

and upper caste womanhood” 12 (Hubel 2005: 133). Sociologist Amrit

Srinivasan’s seminal paper The Hindu Temple-Dancer: Prostitute or

Nun? describes the Devadasi as a “good and holy creature”, now “corrupted”

and to be replaced. The revivalists (E. Krishna Iyer, Rukmini

Devi Arundale), whose role it was to return the art form to its “pristine

glory”, operated within notions of “past purity” and “present sin”, in

weeding out the “profane” aspects of the “sacred” dance form (1983:

90, 95–96). Various aspects of the Devadasi’s dance form Sadir are

said to have been discarded in its purification/sanitization. Songs or

parts of songs that were considered overtly erotic were erased from the

repertoire (Allen 1997: 225). Rati-mudras (sexual hand gestures) denoting

various postures in sexual union that are described in medieval



Sanskrit treatises on erotics including the Kamasastra, have been

removed, terms such as “samarati (man on top), uparati (woman on

top, also viparitarati), and nagabandhamu (bodies coiled in the serpent

position) [having been] common parlance among the women” (Soneji

2004: 43). These gestures and postures emphasize the existence of

eroticism in Bharatanatyam’s past, and do not exist in the form today.

There has been some resistance from certain quarters against

this de-eroticisation 13 but the process continued unabated 14 . There

was no place for eroticism in the newly invented Bharatanatyam. In

this scenario where religiosity (bhakti) overshadowed sensuality, it

was reverence and submission that was expected of the dancer. The

Bharatanatyam dancer’s body came to be disciplined into imbibing

and projecting ‘sacredness’. Sarkar Munsi highlights that the training

in classical Indian dance imbues the dancer with “rules of rightness,

social correctness…” and a cognizance of “socially acceptable viewership”.

“The bodily values of right and wrong are so deeply embedded

in the minds and the bodies of these dancers, that the comfort zone of

expressivity remains structured by these value systems all their lives”

(2014: 307).

Literary scholar Teresa Hubel recalls the total lack of eroticism

at Rukmini Devi’s Kalakshetra 15 during her time there as a student,

realizing later that “the existence of Kalakshetra—with its bhakti-minus-sringara-oriented

dance—was predicated on the absence of the

Devadasis … draw[ing] inspiration from ancient Sanskrit texts such as

the Natya Sastra and Abhinaya Darpanam” (2005: 135). This ethos

percolated into Singapore where three of the oldest Indian performing

arts institutions, which I shall call Institution 1, 2 and 3, demonstrate

reliance on Kalakshetra. Institution 1 with its Kalakshetra-trained teachers

who are brought to Singapore to teach has existed for decades

alongside Institution 2 whose founder was a graduate of Kalakshetra.

In more recent years, even Institution 3, whose founder was trained

in the Thanjavur style of Bharatanatyam 16 , also imports Kalakshetra

graduates to teach Bharatanatyam. The slant of these established

institutions demonstrates the extent of influence of Kalakshetra on

the Bharatanatyam community in Singapore, directly or indirectly.

Dance scholar Avanthi Meduri underscores the role of Rukmini Devi in

the globalization of Bharatanatyam through Devi’s strong connection

with the Theosophical Society (2004: 16). New and complex issues

surround the form in a diverse global location such as Singapore—of

ethnic identity, belonging, nostalgia, exoticism, multiculturalism, as

well as Indian nationalism that is increasingly mobile. These issues

collude to freeze the form in what is considered its ‘authentic’ state or

‘sanitized’ versions that are close to it.


The Problematic Danseuse

Hence while the Bharatanatyam scene in Chennai witnessed a

return to sringara starting in the 1970s with the return of Kalanidhi

Narayanan, a Brahmin woman who had been trained by Devadasi

teachers, it was only 30 years later (in 2012) that Narayanan’s style

of abhinaya was taught and performed in Singapore by her senior

students through brief workshops and performances organized by

Institution 2. This 30-year gap, in my opinion, demonstrates the freezing

of the sanitized form in the Singapore setting. While Narayanan’s

presence did heighten the emphasis on sringara, it was arguably

imparted and presented in an ‘acceptable’ manner. Pioneering contemporary

Indian dance choreographer Chandralekha’s return to sringara

in the 1980s, on the other hand, was marked by a total rejection of

traditional male-focused sringara as well as bhakti, but through an

emphasis on the corporeal. Both in Singapore and later in Chennai,

I do not recall hearing about Chandralekha’s work in mainstream

Bharatanatyam circles. I became aware of the confident portrayal of

female strength and sexuality when I witnessed her work—Sloka in

Bangalore in 1999 and Sharira in Chennai in 2004, at her own intimate

theatre space. According to the program notes Sharira “celebrates

the living body in which sexuality, sensuality and spirituality co-exist”

(Katrak 2011: 47). The stark costumes, slow and stretched movements,

evocative music, powerful lighting and the meeting and intertwining of

two bodies—male and female, left me both shocked and spellbound,

inspiring further my own feminist choreographic approach. Indeed,

the productions of present-day choreographers such as Anita Ratnam,

Hari Krishnan and others in the field reverberate with the influence

of Chandralekha (Katrak 2011: 53), the lone choreographer in the

1980s who dared to question patriarchal aspects of Bharatanatyam

and sought to provide an empowering alternative to the “bejewelled

semi-divine nayika” (Chatterjea 2004: 48) who constantly pined for

and praised an absent lover/god—invariably a man.

Chandralekha’s work drew some discomfort and skepticism

from the dominant forces of Bharatanatyam, including the traditional

dance gurus and connoisseurs as well as sections of the

mainstream media. Art historian Ashish Khokar explains how the

audience in Mumbai exited the auditorium half way through the performance

of Sharira (2007). He scathingly writes that Chandralekha’s

works produced after 1995 were “either soft-porn or a celebration

of erotica” (ibid). As for the textually erotic Kshetrayya 17 padams

(expressive pieces) and Jayadeva ashtapadis that are taught and

performed, while the male poet has been granted the license to express

the erotic sans boundaries, the female dancer is placed within

rigid confines.



I have come to understand that the danseuse who questions and

challenges the normative representations, particularly with regards to

sexuality, is a source of great discomfort and experiences some degree

of marginalization. The silencing and erasure of the Problematic

Danseuse, is after all, tied into the history of Bharatanatyam.

2. Visually Unexciting

I am wearing a skirt and a blouse. As the music begins, I stand on the

dimly lit raised platform (that was used to denote male space at the very

opening of the work) and begin to remove the skirt that I am wearing to

reveal a pair of short trousers. At the same time, ten bare-chested men

enter and are seen wrapping skirts around their dhotis 18. We begin to

perform the Ras Leela19; I at the center as they dance around me. At

various points in the piece, I dance separately with each of the ten men.

As I wait, can I pass my time, playing their game?

In Radha Now (2006), the Radha-Krishna myth was interlaced with my

own personal, socio-cultural and artistic history, memory and questions.

In conceptualizing the work, my artistic collaborator Vasanthi

Sankaranarayanan, also a film historian and translator, and I examined

the asymmetrical gender dynamic and patriarchal underpinnings in

the religious, practical and representational aspects of Bharatanatyam

and its wider societal framework. Role reversal and female centrality

were explored as possible alternatives to the existing patriarchal

paradigm. The work was devised as a performance by one female

Bharatanatyam dancer (myself) with ten male Bharatanatyam dancers

(Seshadri 2011: 8).

Radha Now involved questioning the validity of an old and

cherished myth that has placed the woman in a subordinate position.

Women’s studies scholar Elizabeth Grosz stresses on the importance

of “critique and construct” in the feminist approach, for it to rise above

“anti-sexist theory” (1990: 59). Both Grosz and postcolonial theorist

Gayatri Spivak emphasize the double-pronged nature of the feminist

process. The first stage is the reaction and critique of the existing

status quo and the next stage is the proposition of alternatives (Grosz

1990; Spivak 1981). Radha Now attempted to re-envision the myth to

elevate the status and representation of the woman.

I found tremendous support and sensitivity from the Chennai cast

of male dancers, all of whom had or were still training at Kalakshetra.

Radha Now was first presented in Dublin, the three-level discotheque

at the ITC Park Sheraton Hotel in Chennai. Given the exploratory and


The Problematic Danseuse

subversive nature of the work, Sankaranarayan and I chose to present

it first at an intimate and informal setting. Dublin seemed most suitable

given that the hotel was willing to lend us unquestioning support

and that it was a space we felt was free from the hegemonic glare

of the conventional performance spaces in Chennai. Also, the layout

of the space offered scope for conveying our concept. The venue,

according to our male dancers, unsettled members of the higher

management at Kalakshetra, who in my view represent a significant

section of the establishment in the Bharatanatyam scene. The male

dancers were admonished by the then director of Kalakshetra for performing

Bharatanatyam at a bar (that served alcohol). Interestingly,

the dancers told us they had, in the past, represented Kalakshetra

at performances in hotels in the city, where alcohol was served while

they danced, which was not the case here. In the case of Radha Now,

the decision of location was an integral part of the work, and from this

angle too, the work may have been viewed as subversive.

Post-performance audience remarks both after the 2005 Chennai

and 2011 Singapore performances revealed a palpable discomfort

with the feminist interception of the form. Also, for the general audiences

of Bharatanatyam, there appears to be a culturally essentialist

expectation of how the female dancer ought to be presented. In a

milieu where audiences have been accustomed to titillation through

fast-paced and energetic jathis (rhythmic sequences), a woman in her

late 40s who is dressed in everyday attire, articulating her critique,

questions and aspirations is perhaps not easy on the eye nor comfortable

for the mind!

The transfer of focus from sringara to bhakti and the entry of

Nataraja 20 as a symbol in the revival period created a shift to privileging

speed, religiosity and the male dancer in what was a female centric

form. According to scholar Mathew Allen, “The ananda tandava, ‘blissful

vigorous dance’, of Nataraja, described and sometimes even mimed

by the new generation of dancers was in a manner totally foreign to

the lasya, graceful and feminine, Devadasi dance practice” (1997: 80).

Did the female Bharatanatyam dancer necessarily want to dance

in this fast-paced and strenuous way? This was one strand of questioning

in Radha Now that opened with a fast trikaala 21 jathi, progressing

through a series of questions to close with a slow-paced alarippu 22

that carries traces of that first jathi. The final scene is performed in

water to facilitate this slowing down as well as to symbolically heal

the female dancer from a lifetime of rigid prescriptions, disciplinarity

and the burden of cultural custodianship. No more music, rhythm,

narrative, abhinaya, sringara or bhakti. Only healing, rejuvenation

and peace.


The Problematic Danseuse by Nirmala.

Photo by Mervin Wong Seshadri


Read against the backdrop of my prior experiences I perceived a

sense of unease in the hesitant smiles, awkward silences and an absence

of any discussion both in Chennai and in Singapore. This we had

expected, especially given the general resistance of the establishment

to new work. While this resistance, in my experience, plays its part

in inspiring experimentation, it can also prevent meaningful dialogue

and constructive criticism that can be extremely valuable in artistic

development. In such a climate, I have to take refuge in Chandralekha

and draw inspiration from her when she says, “My work is small. It

reaches out to a few people to whom it makes a crucial difference and

with them one has the possibility of a creative dialogue” (quoted in

Bharucha 1995: 187). Chandralekha made these remarks in connection

with negative criticism that she received in the press after one of

her productions was staged (Bharucha 1995: 186).

While I believe that criticism is an important aspect of the artistic

process, I have learnt that the establishment is a powerfully resistive

force that attempts to clamp down on The Problematic Danseuse in

various ways. I have also come to understand that works such as

Radha Now that are rooted in Bharatanatyam and yet question and

challenge gender norms, seeking to reverse the male centricity both in

dance and society might need to be recognized by the creators themselves

as alternative and presented in non-mainstream and intimate

settings and to selected audiences, as a means of gradually building

viewership and a critical mass that seeks engagement, challenge and

societal transformation.

3. Let’s Snuff Her Out

In 2002, I [created] my full-length work Moments in Time. It was a

presentation of the traditional repertoire in the first two segments—

The Homecoming and Loving Man and God in Movement… However,

in the final segment Eighteen Minutes, I stepped out of these aspects

of the traditional framework to present my choreography that addressed

a personal question, “if I had only eighteen minutes, where

would I be, what would I do?” The eighteen-minute piece introduced

the concepts of impermanence, unconditional love and detachment

(Seshadri 2011: 5).

The first two segments had me in the typical and elaborate Bharatanatyam

garb, dancing pieces from the Bharatanatyam repertoire portraying

love, yearning, separation, sensuality, sexual encounters and also infidelity.

Surprisingly, it was Eighteen Minutes that evoked objection.


The Problematic Danseuse

Narayanan, from whom I was receiving specialized training in

abhinaya at the time, attended my Chennai performance. She was gracious,

supportive and even came back stage before the performance

to bless me. A few days later in class, she asked me, “You are so good

at your classical, why do you need to present your modern work on

the same stage?” (Personal communication) I had chosen to express

my personal aspirations and to embrace the transience—choosing to

spend my limited time on an imaginary beach, walking on the sand,

reveling in my body, mind and spirit, spending precious moments

with an illusory lover, bonding with a girl child and finally departing

with grace and gratitude. At this point, I return to Irigaray who says: “I

consider it a mistake to divide my work into parts that are foreign to

one another. Its becoming is more continuous and the way it develops

is close to that of a living being” (2002: 200). Narayanan’s response

revealed to me that my attempt towards an integrated representation

of my various facets as a dancer and as a woman was not favored.

Irigaray’s concept of a “spiritual-embodied unity” is what I seek to

move towards which, “in phenomenology of the body, is considered

as structurally similar to the lived body” (Lehtinen 2014: 17).

A few months later I was invited to perform at the NRI 23 Festival

organized in Hyderabad by the Andhra Pradesh Tourism Department.

I decided to present Moments In Time and sent the organizers all the

required preliminary material, including a synopsis of the work and

publicity images. They had raised no concerns at the time regarding

the work. I had completed the first two segments following which I

changed into my purple sleeveless top and black trousers and began

the final piece. Twelve minutes into Eighteen Minutes, the organizers

turned off my lights and sound as they felt I was performing ballet

movements and my costume was indecent. The scene I was performing

was one in which I was in a supine position on stage to depict

the bonding between mother and child. The theme was expressed

through abhinaya and not ballet, a form in which I have not trained.

I had thought (somewhat naively) that as an NRI dancer, the value I

would bring was the reflection of my authentic experience of living in

a diasporic environment, along with my simultaneous connection to

India. It was then that I understood the expected role of a non-resident

Indian—to perpetuate status quo as opposed to adopting an

individualistic approach.

Bharatanatyam is positioned as the cultural touchstone of the

diaspora for whom India represents an imagined homeland. The

purity, acceptability, sacredness and link that had been drawn by the

revivalists to India’s ancient history were associations that encouraged

parents in diasporic locations such as Singapore to enroll their



daughters in the dance classes. For many of us, there was no choice in

the matter. By the age of 6, we began our journeys as carriers of this

culture. The dance form has suitably satisfied the “diasporic demand

for cultural symbols” (O’Shea 2007: 55) and continues to do so even

today. Anthropologist Sitara Thobani highlights: “It is in the transnational

context that essentialized constructions of India are further

cemented, leading to the strengthening of ideas regarding coherence,

uniformity and impermeability of Indian culture” (2017: 105). In more

recent years, with neo-liberalism and the rising presence of the transnational

elites in Singapore, who come here with a much stronger

connection to India, India’s presence is felt more strongly. With the

shifting political landscape, there appears to be a growing partnership

between India and the diaspora in heightening the projection of

Indianness and Hinduness globally.


Despite its advent as an ‘invented tradition’ 24 , Bharatanatyam appears

now to be locked into a continuing nationalist project. I agree

with choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh who says, “It is one thing

to say that it has roots that go back two thousand years and quite

another to say it hasn’t changed over that period of time” (1993: 7).

Scholar Kapila Vatsyayan acknowledges that Bharatanatyam deals

with modernity as well as with “fragments of antiquity” (1992: 8).

Understanding Bharatanatyam as an invented tradition should offer

hope of its potential for reinvention. However my observations and

experiences in the field, as I have discussed, foreground hegemonic

structures in Bharatanatyam that restrict its scope to nationalist,

colonialist and various other agendas specific to each space in which

it exists.

I introduce the notion of the Problematic Danseuse, who rejects

the prescriptive framework of Bharatanatyam that is governed by

rules of purity and appropriateness, choosing instead to explore autonomy

and authenticity through the portrayal of her lived feminine. I

suggest that the danseuse who contradicts the status quo, especially

with regard to the portrayal of eroticism, is treated with contempt

and tends to be frozen out. However I also highlight that this act

of erasing the Problematic Danseuse who does not fit conveniently

into the mainstream agenda is after all, embedded in the history and

emergence of the transfigured Bharatanatyam. I propose that creators

of alternative works in Bharatanatyam acknowledge that they

occupy a different space, thus presenting their work in settings that


The Problematic Danseuse

facilitate the gradual nurturing of an audience base that is willing to

engage them critically. I highlight the various hegemonic forces—

Indian nationalism that is highly mobile, cultural essentialism, overt

emphasis on religiosity and privileging of the male dancer—that

conspire to suppress the Problematic Danseuse in various ways.

For the stray dissenters, it can be a lonely battle if not for the

solidarity and strength drawn from other “courageous” women in the

field—from the past and the present. As Hubel points out vis-à-vis

the Devadasi: “At this moment in India, when Hindu fundamentalism

works to essentialize women once again, it seems especially crucial

to celebrate those who don’t or didn’t fit comfortably into Hindu patriarchy’s

coercive narrative” (2005: 138). For the many women born

and led into rigid patriarchal structures (in my case Brahminism and

Bharatanatyam), it can be a lifelong battle on multiple fronts to resist

the silencing and to speak authentically.

The author wishes to thank Dr. Shobha Avadhani and Dr. Suparna

Banerjee for their critical inputs.


1. These works have been described in my essay “Challenging Patriarchy Through

Dance” (2011) in In Time Together [online], edited by Linda Caldwell, Denton:

Texas Woman’s University.

2. Dance scholars including Avanthi Meduri (2004) and Janet O’Shea (2007) have

written extensively on the globalization of Bharatanatyam.

3. A milkmaid and the favorite consort of the god Krishna, Radha is also believed

to be an incarnation of goddess Lakshmi.

4. A male Hindu deity worshipped as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and symbolizing

romantic and divine love as well as protection.

5. An expressive aspect of the dance that conveys a theme through hand gestures,

facial expressions, body postures and mime.

6. A poem depicts the erotic love between Krishna and his lover Radha.

7. This anthology was composed by the 12th century poet Jayadeva. It is divided

into twelve chapters that are further divided into twenty-four songs of eight

lines each called an ashtapadi.

8. A Sanskrit term for performance venue.

9. A characteristic position in Odissi (classical dance form that originated in the

Indian state of Odisha), Chauka is a symmetrical, deep and low, with legs bent

and turned out wide from the hips.

10. See Coorlawala (2004) and Meduri (2005), where the issue of Bharatanatyam

and Sanskritization has been extensively discussed.

11. This term is translated as ‘servant of god’ and refers to female temple dancers

who were ceremoniously wedded to the male deity.

12. The era (end of the 19th century until the mid-20th century) that witnessed

the anti-nautch movement, abolition of Devadasi practices and the revival of



the dance was also that of colonialism leading to post-independence. There

is a great amount of writing on this era by scholars including Amrit Srinivasan

(1985), Anne Marie Gaston (1996), Avanthi Meduri (1996), Uttara Coorlawala

(2004), Janet O’Shea (2007) and Teresa Hubel (2005).

13. See for example Amrit Srinivasan: The Tamil Bhakti tradition of which the

Devadasi was an integral part, rejected Puritanism as a valid religious ethic for

its female votaries” (1876), Balasaraswati: “There is nothing in Bharatanatyam

which can be purified afresh” (1978: 110), Ram Gopal: “Rukmini…has bleached

Bharata Natyam…we worship the linga [male sex organ] and the yoni [female sex

organ]… How can we deny sex between a man and woman? How can you not

feel that erotic drive? It is a charge between human beings.” (In Gaston 1996:

94), Chandralekha: “The basic aramandi [half sitting] posture, legs spread eagled

with the yoni [vagina] as the centre of the universe, is so elemental, sexual. How

can dance be sanitized?” (Mehra 1998).

14. The reform and revival of Bharatanatyam were very much situated in the wider

nationalist discourse of reform and revival of the position of women in society.

While reformists were aligned with the forces of colonialism and the “European

ideals of equality”, the revivalists emphasized the importance of “orthodox Indian

Hindu culture” (O’Shea 2007: 105). Out of these opposing forces emerged the

notion the “new respectable lady” (ibid) who would straddle both tradition and

modernity. This new image of Indian womanhood percolated into the reconfigured


15. It is a noted arts and cultural institution in Chennai founded in 1926 by Rukmini

Devi Arundale.

16. The style of dance that was practiced in the royal court of Thanjavur and known

to be fluid and abhinaya-focused with a special emphasis on sringara.

17. A 17th century Telugu poet and Carnatic music composer whose compositions

are performed by Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancers.

18. It is a traditional Indian male garment, an unstitched piece of cloth that is tied

around the waist and legs.

19. A dance that involves striking small sticks and is linked to the traditional story

of Krishna in which he dances with the gopis (cowherdesses). The dance is performed

in a circle to signify the eternal dance of life.

20. An aspect of the male Hindu deity Shiva who is worshipped as the lord of dance.

21. Jathi (a rhythmic metrical sequence) that is performed in three speeds.

22. A rhythmic piece that is generally the opening piece in a Bharatanatyam recital.

23. It refers to Non-Resident Indians.

24. A term coined by historian Eric Hobsbawm to describe: “a set of practices,

normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic

nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by

repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past. In fact, where

possible, they normally attempt to establish continuity with a suitable historic

past” (1995: 1).


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(1997): 63–100. Print.

Balasaraswati. “On Bharata Natyam”, Dance Chronicle, 2. 2. (1978): 106–116. Print.


The Problematic Danseuse

Bharucha, Rustom. Chandralekha: woman, dance, resistance. New Delhi: Indus,

1995. Print.

Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary

Feminist Theory, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. Print.

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Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Chandralekha. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University

Press, 2004. Print.

Coorlawala,w Uttara Asha. “The sanskritized body”, Dance Research Journal, 36. 2.

(2004): 50–63.

Gaston, Anne-Marie. Bharata Natyam: From Temple to Theatre, New Delhi: Manohar,

1996. Print.

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Sneja, ed. Feminist Knowledge: Critique and Construct, New York: Routledge, (1990):

59–120. Print.

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The Problematic Danseuse

Vatsyayan, Kapila. Indian Classical Dance, New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of

Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India, 1992. Print.

The Problematic Danseuse video still by Mervin Wong

Nirmala Seshadri is a dancer and researcher

who seeks to recontextualise her

classical dance form, bharatanatyam. Her

social justice perspective leads her to use

the body and performance space to interrogate

existing inequalities, problematising

boundaries of time, place, gender, and caste,

among other social constructs. Her quest

for autonomy and sensorial perception led

her to butoh. With her present practice and

research focus lying at the intersection of

bharatanatyam, butoh, breathwork and

yoga, she draws from these elements in creating

her movement approach—Antarika.

She graduated with a Masters degree in

Dance Anthropology from the University of

Roehampton, London.


About Dance Nucleus

Dance Nucleus is a space for Artistic Research,

Creation and Production for the development of

Dance and Contemporary Performance.

Dance Nucleus fosters a culture of critical

discourse, self-education, artistic exchange

and practical support. Our programmes are

designed to respond to the needs of our

members in a comprehensive way. We build

partnerships in Singapore, Southeast Asia,

Asia & Australia, and internationally.

Dance Nucleus is an initiative of the National

Arts Council of Singapore.

The Team

Artistic Director

General Manager

Programmes Coordinator

Programmes Coordinator

FUSE Editor

FUSE Designer

Daniel Kok

Dapheny Chen

Chan Hsin Yee

Deanna Dzulkifli

Chan Hsin Yee



90 Goodman Road, Goodman Arts Centre

Block M, #02–53

Singapore 439053



1 2





8 9 10


Cover Image Credits

1. Photo of Jared Jonathan Luna with mask by

Leeroy New. Photo credit: Bunny Cadag.

2. Meat Girl, visual identity sample by


3. Screenshots from @whereismysapo

Instagram account. All photos by Ashley Ho.

4. Bird-watching / (2018) by Rebecca

Wong. All photos by William Muirhead.

5. Juan Dominguez. Photo credit: Bea Borgers.

6. Screenshot of ELEMENT#7 participants with

Juan Dominguez in a gathering for nothing.

Provided by Chan Hsin Yee.

7. Screenshot of da:ns LAB participants doing

head massages. Provided by Chan Sze Wei.

8. The Problematic Danseuse by Nirmala

Seshadri. Photo by Mervin Wong.

9. Emma Fishwick’s presentation at SCOPE#8.

Photo credit: Dapheny Chen.

10. Image from On Kitsch by Awkward Party.





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