SoftMachine: Rethinking Asian Contemporary Dance In The 21st Century

Singapore artist Choy Ka Fai presents 4 intimate portraits from contemporary dancers in Asia.

What is Asian Contemporary Dance? That question intrigued Choy Ka Fai and set him on a long and arduous expedition to discover just that. SoftMachine is the result of Choy’s 3-year dance project which also brought him to 13 cities in 5 countries across Asia.

Part-documentary, part-dance, SoftMachine investigates the contemporary status of dance using the documentary form and mixed media.

Interestingly, Berlin-based Choy was inspired to pursue SoftMachine while out of Asia. “In Sadlers Wells in London in 2011, there was a series ‘Out of Asia. The future of contemporary dance’. They made a 5 minutes long promotional video for that program and when I saw it I was disturbed and intrigued at the same time. Out of like 10 artists only 2 artists were actually from Asia.. I became anxious. I wanted to find out what is actually inside Asia, not what came ‘out of ‘ Asia. The Western perception of what is Asian, does not interest me so much.” (tanzconnexions, 2014)

Dancers from China, India, Indonesia and Japan were featured in the Singapore leg of the performance and were presented in 2 parts.

Xiao Ke and Zi Han (China)

PHOTO: Choy Ka Fai

PHOTO: Choy Ka Fai

“Occupation?”, the narrator asks. “Artist, also unemployed” replies Xiao Xe. A video documentary expounds the grim future of contemporary artists in China. The artist explains that they do not actively seek to create a politically-charged performance but everything pertaining to daily life in China goes back to the country’s political situation.

The relationship between China’s brutal censorship and artists is explored using a huge red fabric. The red fabric was set properly on the floor only to be curled up by the artist. The artists tear away at the fabric, an act of defiance and rebellion against the motherland’s control. Even then, the artist was bonded by the strips of fabric. Xiao Ke and Zi Han’s performance represents a relationship between two opposing forces which is being constantly renegotiated till this day.

Using dance to explore underlying socio-political issues is not usually under the premise of dance, which makes Xiao Ke and Zi Han’s honest performance an intriguing and painful eye opener into their lives from their perspective.

I wonder what lies in their fate as they ready themselves for their first homecoming performance in Shanghai next month.

Yuya Tsukahara (Japan)



Yuya Tsukahara’s Contact Gonzo is one mind-boggling art form. In Contact Gonzo, two or more performers engaged in an improvised form of physical contact by pushing and punching the other. The art form is usually performed in the streets, parks, the woods, or anywhere. Coined the “philosophy of pain”, the performers’ reaction from the blows is the performance itself.

It is difficult for me to call Contact Gonzo a ‘dance’ form. As Choy and Tsukahara engage in the performance, there is this sense of irony in the audiences’ reactions. We exclaimed, we sucked in our chest, we laugh, with each successive blow.

While I was exhilarated by Tsukahara’s performance, I found my own reaction rather disturbing at the same time. We reciprocated pain with laughter. In this day and age where sex and violence plague our television screens, is it right for us to laugh and get excited by Contact Gonzo, which could easily be mistaken for a street fight?

But aside from dance technicalities, Contact Gonzo reminded me to simply see the body as a spectacle of sorts. The body is the canvas and how we create art should be unrestricted and liberal. I do hope however that Tsukahara and Choy will further explore pain and it’s resultant expressions away from humour.

Surjit Nongmeikapam (India)

PHOTO: Choy Ka Fai

PHOTO: Choy Ka Fai

Surjit Nongmeikapam questions the labeling of exoticism through the differing techniques of Indian dance forms. Choy engages Surjit Nongmeikapam in a manner that was different from the others. Their exchange was often humourous. “Can you show us the traditional Manipuri dance?” “I think it’s better if you show more expression in your fingers and your face.” “I like this.” Nongmeikapam and Choy subtly brings up the topic of ”packaged culture’ in the face of Western imperialism, perhaps?

Towards the end of his segment, Nongmeikapam combines Manipuri traditional, Indian contemporary, Western contemporary and Bollywood dance into one long solo which became almost indistinguishable. This leaves us with this question, “Do we see what we want to see? Do we only enjoy what we can comprehend?”

Being Choy’s staple in SoftMachine, I do hope that the artists develop the depth and narrative of the performance beyond playful banter. However, by doing so, do I go back to my question, “Do I see what I want to see?”

Rianto (Indonesia)

PHOTO: Choy Ka Fai

PHOTO: Choy Ka Fai

Rianto is no doubt one of the top Javanese traditional dancers. Opening with a Topeng (mask) performance of Princess Kirana, I was spellbound by his gentle and painful portrayal of the princess pinning for her lover. But Rianto explains that he can also do “Masculine”. Taking away the makeup and shimmering jewellery, Rianto transforms into Prince Panji whose every movement was forceful and purposeful, a 180-degree shift from the demure and gracious princess he was a moment ago.

Rianto’s life is as colourful as his dancing career. Married to a Japanese lady, Rianto relocated to Tokyo in 2003 where he explored contemporary dance, departing from his traditional discipline. Rianto is essentially a walking paradox. He embodies the tension of dance in the traditional and the contemporary, the feminine and the masculine, the village and the city.

Striped to his skin in the final moments of the performance, Rianto breaks out of the mold and performs freely, leaving us to form our own narrative.

Overall, I love the general feel of the 2-part performance. da:ns festival clearly made a good call commissioning this item. I can only hope that we show more love to contemporary dance pieces which may be slightly difficult to comprehend, but often more profound and empowering.

Many thanks to Esplanade for the invite.

da:ns festival 2015

Opens 9 to 18 October 2015

Celebrating the spirit of movement since 2006, da:ns festival 2015 presents a world of dance that inspires and makes you fall in love with dance all over again. With world-renowned dance icons such as Sylvie Guillem, Akram Khan and Israel Galván, specially commissioned original works by Singapore artists Kuik Swee Boon and Choy Ka Fai, and a host of free programmes including our What’s Your Move? mass dance sessions and Rasas, a platform showcasing our rich Asian dance heritage, you are sure to find something that will take your breath away.

This year, da:ns festival invites you to release and to discover, through movement, your true self.

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