CA: Can you describe the process of gaining status as a Canadian resident?
YN: Next started my journey of trying to stay in Canada. That journey was very challenging, very hard. I had to overcome not just the legal system, but a personal situation.
Toward the end of my fourth year, in my na´vetÚ, I got involved with a Canadian who was a bad, bad match. It was hard to get help; in those days, there were fewer services. I went to York Legal Aid and found a really amazing lawyer who was helping refugees at that time. I told her about my situation and she said I had “no hope in hell”. She said, first of all, I was not a refugee; Singapore was a developing country, not a war-torn country. But she said she would help me any way she could. I paid her $20 an hour – she used to help me write letters. I would do things like drive to Buffalo (since you're not allowed to apply from within the country), apply for status and come back into Canada. I had student status for as long as I was a student, but graduating from York accelerated my need to find a way to stay. At the same time, I was involved in this really bad personal situation.
It was ironic. I got involved with this man who was an alcoholic – he was physically abusive to me. I was always amazed by the things that came out of my mouth about my bruises just so I didn't have to tell anybody about what was happening at home. I was so afraid that I was going to get deported. There were good things and bad things happening to me. The bad thing was my home life. In hindsight, I think because I came from such a sheltered life, he held such an attraction, because he was not at all like anyone I'd ever met. Everything about him was attractive. I was so na´ve, without enough experience to realize I could actually leave. But I was young, scared to leave and uncertain of my rights.
The good thing was I started working for Danny [Grossman]. I'd met him at a York summer school. It was a crazy period – my parents would call and ask what was happening. They knew I had this person in my life, but I never said anything about the situation, because I couldn't. I also realized that since my parents were so far away, I really had to start taking care of myself in every way. Because I'd arrived as a teenager, I'd had to take care of a lot of things: immigration, banking, cooking, dealing with landlords. But relationships and lovers, it's a weird mix. You forgive things that are happening to you, even though they're bad. You look back and think, “How could I?” But I did. I would tell my parents about Danny, and Paula Thompson [artistic director of Northern Lights Dance Theatre] and all those work activities, but never tell them about my bad home life.
My lawyer knew what was happening. It got very bad one night. Part of what I thought that night was, “This is so ironic. I want to stay in the country, and now I'm threatened by a Canadian.” I'm a joker – I thought, “Can this be?” I called a friend and she said, “You know you have to get out.” I called my lawyer, and she actually said, “Can you stick it out?” So I said, “Sure.” By this point my papers were being processed, so she said I had to hang on.
CA: What did you do?
YN: I didn't leave that night. But there was a final straw, a scene where he was even more out of control. Time had passed by that point, a few weeks; the papers were in process. When I called the lawyer the second time and said I couldn't hold on any longer, she said, “You leave. I'll make sure you're covered.” I moved out, I actually managed to get out. Those were the most stressful hours of my life. Even so, the police had to be called in to intervene and get me out. He, of course, probably said, “Oh I'm sorry, I'll never do this again.” But he would have. He'd have used my precarious status to threaten me too – he knew where I was in the immigration process.
It was a hard place to be, and I could not really talk to a lot of people about it. My story as an immigrant is not as crazy as many immigrant stories I've heard – stories of trying to get here, the vulnerability, the na´vetÚ. In many ways my own passage took place from within the country.
Immigration didn't find out about my change of address, and my papers were processed. Once I left, I didn't know what he was going to do. Besides being traumatized, I was already working. I had to go to work and try to suck it up. It makes me think of other women in traumatic circumstances. I did come to realize that any one of us has the ability to survive. I didn't really want to go home to Singapore. All I could think was that I would disappoint my parents, who had worked so hard to ensure that my opportunities were wider than theirs.
I think all the learning I'd done as a dancer and performer, practicing improvisation and flexibility in ways of thinking, different ways of being, really helped me through this abusive situation. Adaptability becomes active in all aspects of your life.
CA: Can you speak about the beginning of your professional career? What was it like in Toronto in those years?
YN: There were a lot more choreographers focussing on just creating work back then. We did a lot of work. The granting system nurtured choreography – there was not so much emphasis on starting companies. I worked with many different people – I was interested in being an independent. I worked with Danny Grossman and Paula Thompson. I worked with Maxine [Heppner]. I met Bill James at York, and met him again through the INDE Festival. In fact, I was in two pieces in INDE while I was still in school. I was specializing in being a dancer, not a choreographer. The scene was different – people were determined to keep working on their craft. It suited my personality. Working with so many people, I would go from one rehearsal to another, and you had to become a different type of dancer for each choreographer, depending on what they wanted to focus on. It kept, not just your soul and spirit alive, it kept your brain flexible. It was a very enjoyable time.
To sum up my training to this point – after RAD ballet – I didn't study Graham; my body didn't suit it – I studied Cunningham, contemporary barre work, Limˇn with Paula Thompson, Juan Antonio, Louis Falco, and Horton with Susan Macpherson. In my last year, two classmates and I were approved for an independent study by Keith Urban, who was then chair at York, and we started a company, inspired by Dancemakers. We wanted to manage and fundraise for a company, to learn these skills. Keith was open to letting us create our own study, so he said yes. Because we were starting a company, and were in our last year, the professors pretty much let us do what we wanted.
Our company was called Dance Allegro. There were three of us – me, Lisa Hopkins and Kerry Weir. This was supposedly unheard of – but we applied for, and got, a grant from the Ontario Arts Council. It's great when you're young, because you're so ignorant! We phoned Susan Cohen [then OAC Dance Officer] – she said, “You should come to the Council and we should have a meeting.” So we went, unprepared as we'd never had a meeting with a dance officer before. I remember her grilling us, asking lots of questions. As a graduation show we were presenting work at the Winchester Street Theatre. The grant was about a thousand dollars, not a lot, but for us it was a lot, because being at York meant we got a lot of things free – studio space was free, and all our friends were contributing. Yes, we were fortunate. I don't know if that could ever happen now.
I really concentrated on the artistry of performance. Even when I started tiger princess dance projects, it was really mainly focussed on myself being a performer and commissioning others to create work on me. That was my desire, after being an independent for so many years; I wanted to continue working with certain people.
Sometimes, after an intense six months of working with a choreographer on a creative and performance process, the work and learning was pretty much over. But in that closeness, there is a lot of learning – not only about yourself as a performer, but about creative process. There is choreographic learning too – you learn how people make work and what decisions they make. When I started tiger princess it was to focus on me as a performer, with certain choreographers highlighted. I had no desire to choreograph; I really liked being able to be someone's muse. I liked being able to come into the room and be the psychic reader … intuiting, with the choreographer, where they wanted the work to go. I really enjoyed that sort of contribution.
CA: Can you describe your journey toward becoming a choreographer?
YN: Bill [James] opened the choreographic door. He had travelled in Southeast Asia a lot and was interested in the Asian arts. He really wanted us to bring ourselves into his process, to infuse steps, the shape of choreography, with our own colours. “Here's the improvisation score, this is the concept,” he would say, and ask what else we could bring to the work. I started choreographing, in a way, through him. He really wanted me to be myself. At the time I thought, “What do you mean, be myself?” Now I can answer that question, but then I didn't know what that might mean. He would talk about all the different Southeast Asian art forms. Of course I knew what he was talking about. I'd watched and listened, and it was all part of the culture I'd grown up with; it was sort of in the body, so I could almost mimic it. I'd also had a couple of bharatanatyam lessons. Bill really wanted me to try to merge those influences with the work. It was challenging; it felt right and wrong at the same time.
The wrong part was that I felt he was asking me to appropriate – and I didn't understand. Now I understand better. Then I couldn't see beyond myself, but he could; people can sometimes see things in you that you can't really see. We did all kinds of experimentation, and he opened up my eyes to different ways of seeing and experimenting. The possibilities were endless; it was limitless, how as a dancer you could draw from within your history, even on vocabulary that might not even belong to you – but you could absorb it. Then there were all the different questions you could ask, or be asked. That created a spark for me. I started moving in ways I never knew existed, and it was Bill who opened that door. It was a bit of a surprise to me.
Over the years, I've been thinking about how there was collision and tension within myself. Singaporeans are brought up to be very westernized – my parents made sure we were westernized so we could assimilate. That's part of the mindset of working hard for a better future. For instance, I went to school in English. Singapore is multilingual, so you can choose to send your children to school in different languages. English, Indian, Malay, Tamil or Chinese could be your first language in school, and a second language is compulsory. My parents chose English and Mandarin as a second; English is the “official” language of Singapore. And of course, we have our own dialect. I can speak Malay too, because of my cultural background.
Choosing English was so that I could assimilate. At one point they thought about sending me to Chinese school while my sister went to English school, and then at home we would exchange. But we're Catholics – so I went to my sister's school, which was a whole convent/nun scene.
It has taken time for me to realize that even though I come across as very westernized, there are a lot of Asian sensibilities at work in me. I think that's not apparent to many people – and there are choices. Even the way I speak is a conscious choice: to sound like you. I could speak Singlish. It's bastardized English mixed in with Chinese. The accents are different, and the grammar is all mixed up. And the form is much more like Chinese structure.