So it was a choice … probably more than ten years ago when I started to switch linguistically – it's in the accents. I hear it in my friends, who have gone to other countries – England, for instance, and they start speaking with a weird English accent. I think Singaporeans do that – it's part of the education we had. It's a very interesting country, unique in its ways.
In the late 1990s, I decided that I wanted to go to China to research my roots. I didn't realize that Singapore is really my motherland. China is a very different country, because it has a different history, but every Chinese thinks they have to go back to China to find roots.
In order to safeguard our identity, in order to be safe, be solid, be grounded, as immigrants, we carry cultural systems and ways of being, and we hold them really tight. It's the only thing that we have that can't be changed. Chinese in Singapore, like other immigrants, are the ones who retain a lot of the customs. Historically, too, the Chinese in China went through the Revolution and became communist, and they lost sight of Buddhism – only now Buddhism is coming back. Whereas the Asians who left China four or five generations ago, who include my ancestors, basically took everything. So we celebrate everything – we're Daoists, we're Buddhists, we carry superstition – we practice that. I'm superstitious.
I went to China to study minority dance forms. Bill opened up that door for me – being interested in where I was from, not where I was going. I was here and wanted to learn how to become a Canadian – I'll always be learning that. But I wanted to really acknowledge my own heritage … I think when you first arrive you're worried about not being accepted. This does not sound so positive about Singaporeans … but Singaporeans are chameleons; they can change and switch – I think it's because of the way the country has formed itself. It's a multicultural Asian society, so I grew up living beside Indians, Malays, Eurasians. We're very used to being with a diverse group – it's not all Chinese; it's all-encompassing. We're open to hybrids of styles and culture. I think it makes the country really rich. That's another reason I love Canada – it's rich because of diversity. In Singapore, people speak Singlish because all the cultures are mixed up, speaking one another's languages, but English is the one that binds the whole country together – which is why it was chosen, so it wouldn't privilege any one group.
I started investigating choreography when I began looking back into my own background, into my own being. I started to home in on how I was feeling, too. This began with being obsessed with trying to get rid of the dandelions in my patio. Something emerged out of that. I realized the beauty in their toughness – how nature has a way of surviving, and things have a way of continuing to emerge – trying to suppress it doesn't mean it's gone away.
That translated itself to a concept that I've always found fascinating – the concept of restriction and limitations. I think it also has to do with the way that I am. I am small. I have restrictions and limitations to what I can and cannot do – even down to doing an adagio. It doesn't take me four counts to do a developpé, because I don't have that much length in my leg – but I can fake it to get there in four counts, if wanted. You learn how to adapt. I think it goes back to other things I've said – where there's a will there's a way. And when there's a way, sometimes what comes out of it is more fascinating. I started investigating that. The first thing I officially made was a solo on Susan Lee. At first, I was not very serious about choreography, and I wasn't all that focussed on it. It was more about following the spark of idea, for the exploration. So – I made a dance on Susan. She was standing up. When it was finished, I said, “Now, okay, you're going to lie on your side, and pretend that the floor is below your feet. The axis is going to be flipped.” Well, she was nauseous, she couldn't do it, she couldn't remember it – it was really fascinating. We struggled through that for a couple of rehearsals, and then I asked her to throw on a big long skirt, way past her feet, and I asked her to deal with that as well. What came out of it was more interesting than if I had stuck to the original choreography, and it showed me different ways of being innovative with my own vocabulary. That was the start of it. Bill planted the seed – Susan was a great resource, since she's interested in Asian culture – and Peter [Chin] as well – I worked with him and he's spent a lot of time visiting Asia. The three of them are like scouts – they planted the seeds. With Bill, it was a lot about his ways of inventing vocabulary. In one of his pieces, called Senses, we went into a swimming pool, blindfolded, wearing earplugs. He gave us an improvisational score, and said, “Go”. I think those kinds of experiences gave me the idea to say, “Well, here's the concept, now what about it?” The solo for Susan Lee was called Blue Jade – this is a translation of my Chinese name. (Oh, and by the way, Yvonne is my “real” name, my Christian name – my family is Catholic.)
I didn't really start thinking about choreography too much more until a few years later when I started to make solos for myself. One of the things I was coming up against was communication. Because I didn't really investigate composition and choreography while a student at York, I was not very – and not that I am now – fluent and capable of communicating as a choreographer. So I thought I'd just make dances on myself, since I don't have to talk to myself so much to communicate my ideas. I started investigating making a whole series of solos for myself, investigating the same areas – here's the movement, now what if I play with placing restrictions, and what else could I find – there's got to be another way out of this. I think it really refers back to the experience of “passage” as an immigrant, and though it's not really conscious, I think that dandelion planted many different types of seeds. You see that in our lives a lot – and in my work. Another compositional technique I like working with is what I call multi-layering. I think audiences find that hard to perceive. It's okay if they don't perceive it – but when I make something it tends to have many layers of content, and it's really very abstract. It has a really non-linear structure and can be challenging. Do I care? Actually yes, and no.
My practice has evolved around that. Even the people I gravitate toward as teachers and mentors. It has to do with communication – I gravitate toward heady. Bill is heady. Stephanie Skura is very heady. Studying with her terrifies me – I can't articulate what I'm feeling, nor process and understand it; and yet I've done that more than once now with different people. It's curious.
CA: Can you speak about, from your perspective, how things have changed over time in the dance community …
YN: When I graduated from York, I was fortunate to be in an environment where there were many working choreographers. Their main focus really was on making work. It seemed easy for them to make work and put it out there, without having to get formal, to start companies and so on. The way we practice has also really changed and has gone through cycles. It seems to me there are less people interested in practicing technique than there were when I graduated. In the last couple of years, even less so.
Everyone feels they're following their own voice. I have followed my own path, which went from practicing a lot of dance technique to not so much – in a way it has paralleled my career, going to China, or studying voice – discovering other ways of being a dancer, then paring it down to what works for me now. I have moved toward defining what I need for myself, to trusting and not worrying that I'm not doing what everybody else is doing – which has gone from practicing improvisation in performance, to working with different experts in our field. After starting to work with Stephanie Skura, and studying Open Source Forms, I became an Open Source Forms teacher with her. I continue to study voice (it's the Asian in me – we all want to be Celine Dion!) I'm lucky; I study with Katherine Duncanson. I have kept the same teachers and gained new ones through the years. I first studied yoga with Keith Urban at York, then with Dianne Bruni at Downward Dog in the 1990s, and then Pilates. I studied Conditioning with Imagery [with Donna Krasnow] because I was interested in what Donna was doing with imagery, how it might play out with Skinner Releasing/Open Source Forms, which also work with imagery. They are worlds apart. I also studied with Irene Dowd – before she stopped coming to Toronto – I loved studying with her. There's a part of my brain that loves dance science. That's what I mean – I tend to gravitate toward things I can't communicate – while I love dance science, I could never articulate it – I still function from a very instinctual place.
I find there are fewer opportunities now, especially for performance. For the first ten years of my career, I had fairly regular work as a dancer. Independent choreographers were being presented at venues like Laura Taler's “dances for a small stage”. There wasn't a huge focus on starting a formal company and all the details that go along with it. Choreographers just made work and were presented, so dancers had work. Perhaps today, since there are so many choreographers working, there's a different focus, a focus on being out in the world and having to validate yourself by touring.
Also, I am aware that I am seeing things from the perspective of where I am now in my career. For example, it seems to me there has been a huge push on support for youth and emerging artists. But once the youth hit thirty, are all the young artists going to come into the same room with the rest of us? There's no more space in mid-career – no more room. So unless we start nurturing mid-career artists so they/we know how to be senior artists – who is the next generation of senior artists? Do I know any more than I did ten years ago? Of course I do, but I am still in that place of unnerving struggle and un-knowing. And it's not like you don't struggle as a senior artist, but it's a different concept.
I have been fortunate. Certainly I've had my struggles, but I've been able to get my work out.
Perhaps I'm old-fashioned – I also believe in longevity. I think the one-time showing is a waste of money. I believe in remounting work. While touring is not the be-all and end-all, more and more you hear that if people have seen a work once, they won't go to see it again.
I'm still practicing, learning and trying to improve. I'm not very trendy. I come from a country that's hung up on being trendy. I can't do that – I think that's part of why I don't live there.