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.

da:ns festival 2015: Fall In Love With Dance This October

da:ns festival 2015 celebrates its 10th anniversary with specially-curated lineup of local commissions and international co-productions.

DATE: 9 to 19 October 2015
PLACE: Various Locations in Esplanade
PROGAMMES: da:ns festival website

da:ns festival has come a long way since its inception in 2006. This year’s theme is ‘An Invitation To Move’. Pulling out all the stops for the 10th year milestone, da:ns festival presents a world of dance that inspires us to fall in love with dance all over again, with performances by dance legends; Sylvie Guillem (Life in Progress – Selling Fast), Akram Khan and Israel Galván (TOROBAKA – Selling Fast) in the fold.

da:ns festival 2015The annual dance festival also features local commissions – which I am really looking forward to watching – by Singapore veteran artists Kuik Swee Boon, Silvia Yong, Jeffrey Tan and Albert Tiong (Above 40 四十不惑 – SOLD OUT), and Choy Ka Fai (SoftMachine), and a host of free programmes such as mass dance sessions; What’s Your Move?

da:ns festival has brought many critically-acclaimed acts and performers to our shores through the years. Taking pride in its inclusiveness, the festival has given Singaporeans opportunities to engage and interact with the art form free, if not at a fraction of its original cost. Concession are also available for students, NSFs and the elderly too.

If I can be frank, dance is perhaps Singapore’s ‘least-loved’ in the performing arts category, the other two being theatre and music. So it’s quite a remarkable feat for the annual dance festival to not just survive, but flourish after a full decade.

This October, tell your friends, put on your dancing shoes and let’s dance. RW

My Top 5 Picks 

Photos and information from da:ns festival 2015. For more information, visit da:ns festival 2015 official webpage.

Life in Progress (Co-Production)

Esplanade Theatre

13 & 14 October, Tuesday & Wednesday, 8pm
Price: $40 – $120
Web Link: Life in Progress

Which ballet enthusiast doesn’t know Sylvie Guillem? No doubt one of the greatest dancers of all time, Guillem has had an unparalleled 35-year career as a ballerina and contemporary dancer.

Guillem’s illustrious career first began when she was promoted to Paris Opera Ballet’s youngest étoile (leading ballerina) at the age of 19. Since then, she has played it all; from Juliet, to Aurora, to Odette, and Giselle in ballets by legendary choreographers Kenneth MacMillan, Maurice Béjart, Frederick Ashton, William Forsythe and Mats Ek.

Life in Progress PHOTO: Bill Cooper

Life in Progress PHOTO: Bill Cooper

We are extremely privileged to have Guillem performing her swan song, Life In Progress in our shores. In the performance, Guillem will dance two new works including technê, a solo with live musicians on stage, choreographed by Sacred Monsters creator Akram Khan. The second will be a duet entitled Here & After with Italian dancer Emanuela Montanari and Russell Maliphant.

In the event that you fail to secure tickets to witness Guillem take her final bow in Life In Progress, make sure to get tickets to In Conversation with Sylvie Guillem. Guillem will be sharing her experiences on and off the dance stage. There is only one talk and the price is affordable.

SoftMachine (Festival Commission)

Esplanade Theatre Studio

Part A: Surjit Nongmeikapam (India) & Rianto (Indonesia)
17 October, Saturday, 3pm
18 October, Sunday, 8pm

Part B: Xiao Ke x Zi Han (China) & Yuya Tsukahara (Japan)
17 October, Saturday, 8pm
18 October, Sunday, 3pm

Price: $30
Web Link: SoftMachine

Driven by his personal desire to study the choreographic processes of Asian contemporary dance, SoftMachine is the end product of Choy Ka Fai’s decade-long research project. The project took him across Asia, with him 88 Asian dance-makers in that process.

PHOTO: Bernie Ng

PHOTO: Bernie Ng

SoftMachine is split into two parts. Part A is performed by Surjit Nongmeikapam (India) and Rianto (Indonesia). Breaking out of his conservative Manipuri roots, Nongmeikapam creates a dance for the consumption of European audiences while questioning the point of exoticism. Rianto explores the personal and societal tension of gender in dance-making through the traditional dance of Lengger.

In part B, Yuya Tsukahara (Japan) subjects Choy to a brutal contact improvised duet and interview while Xiao Ke and Zi han (China) reflect on the societal and political context of their environment through symbolism in dance. The result is a part-performance, part-interview spectacle that chronicled in a documentary-styled arrangement.

Impulse (Festival Commission)

Esplanade Backstage

9 & 16 October, Friday, 7.30pm & 10.30pm
10 & 17 October, Saturday, 3pm & 9pm
11 & 18 October, Sunday, 3pm & 7pm

Price: $30
Web Link: Impulse

Some people take the ‘The world’s your stage’ quite literally. In Imuplse, T.H.E Dance Company resident and master choreographer Kim Jae Duk (South Korea) turns Esplanade’s backstage into the playground for dancers.

PHOTO: Bernie Ng

PHOTO: Bernie Ng

Known for his attention-grabbing and innovative works that are often thought-provoking and dynamic, Kim is a rising star in the dance world. In Impulse, no two performances are the same. The dancers engage and react with the natural condition of Esplanade’s backstage spaces, creating an experience that is unique to every performance.

Expect fast-paced choreography and one-of-a-kind dance performance as Impulse takes you on a ride through Esplanade’s hidden spaces.

Do note that there will not be any latecomer’s entry for this performance. Travel light and put on comfortable footwear as you will be standing throughout the entire performance.

Here’s Clocker, one of my favourite performance by Kim Jae Duk:

TOROBAKA (Co-Production)

Esplanade Theatre

16 & 17 October, Friday & Saturday, 8pm
Price: $20 – $100

Torobaka means duet in Latin. Collaborating together for the first time, Kathak dancer Akram Khan (UK) and Flamenco dancer Israel Galván (Spain) – both celebrated dancers in their own universe – will perform in this epic duet-of-a-performance which defies genre and culture.

TOROBAKA PHOTO: Jean-Louis Fernandez

TOROBAKA PHOTO: Jean-Louis Fernandez

Accentuated by the rhythms from Khan’s ankle bells and bare feet and Galván’s flamenco shoes, the dance masters are accompanied on stage by Spanish and Indian musicians who provide stunning live vocals and music.

Who could have taught that Indian classical dance can share the same stage as Spanish dance Flamenco? Guess we will have to wait and see. It’s gonna be one epic duet. Tickets are limited, be quick.

What’s Your Move? (Mass Dance)

Stage@Powerhouse (Esplanade Waterfront)

Dates and timings listed below
Price: Free
Web Link: What’s Your Move

Fancy dancing under the moonlight with hundred others by the Esplanade Waterfront? Join one of the What’s Your Move? mass dance sessions this October. What’s Your Move? is da:ns festival’s staple and most popular dance programme year after year.

PHOTO: Jeff Low

PHOTO: Jeff Low

Always wanted to try out Waltz? Or are you a Hip Hop fan? Maybe a little Lindy Hop? How about some Bollywood? With three themed nights over two weekends, there’s a dance (or two) for you and your companion to enjoy. These easy-to-learn dance routines will be taught and conducted by professional dance instructors.

Friday I’m in Love

What better way to stoke the flames of love than with some tantalising Tango and groovy Jazz? Embrace the moment as you and your partner dip and float through an elegant Waltz.

9 Oct, Fri
Waltz by The DanceSport Academy, 8pm – 9pm
Tango + Milonga *new!* by Tango Del Sur, 9.30pm – 11.30pm

16 Oct, Fri
Lindy Hop by Jazz Inc, 8pm – 9pm
Charleston by Jazz Inc, 9.30pm – 10.30pm

Saturday Night Fever

Burn up the dance floor with some sizzling Salsa and Bachata moves on the first weekend. Turn it up a notch with some pumping music and high-energy dance styles like Hip Hop and K-Pop on the following weekend.

10 Oct, Sat
Salsa by ACTFA, 8pm – 9pm
Bachata by ACTFA, 9.30pm – 10.30pm

17 Oct, Sat
Hip Hop by Danz People, 8pm – 9pm
K-Pop by Caius Coalition, 9.30pm – 10.30pm

Sunday Funday

Cut loose and kick off your shoes! You don’t need to be in your Sunday best to enjoy our groovy party. With fun dances like Jive, Flamenco, Lindy Hop and Bollywood, these sessions are perfect for people of all ages.

11 Oct, Sun
Jive by The DanceSport Academy, 8pm – 9pm
Flamenco by Flamenco Sin Fronteras, 9.30pm – 10.30pm

18 Oct, Sun
Street Dance by Jazz Inc, 8pm – 9pm
Bollywood by Bollybeatz, 9.30pm – 10.30pm

da:ns festival 2015

Opens 9 to 18 October 2015

Celebrating the spirit of movement since 2006, da:ns festival2015 presents a world of dance that inspires and makes you fall in love with dance all over again. da:ns festival invites you to release and to discover, through movement, your true self.

Ticket Pricing: Varies according to Production

Web Link: